Developing Jedi-Like Concentration
You probably remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is learning to use the Force on board the Millennium Falcon.
"Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him," Obi-Wan instructs him, as the training droid shoots Skywalker on the leg.
"Ha ha!" mocks Han Solo. "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."
"You don't believe in the Force, do you?" Luke asks him.
"There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny," Solo snorts. "It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."
"I suggest you try it again, Luke." Obi-Wan puts a helmet on Luke's head, blocking his vision.
Concentrating, this time Luke blocks the lasers, relying entirely on his instincts. (Solo never apologizes.)
Whether you are more like Obi-Wan or Han Solo when it comes to believing in the Force, you certainly know the power of concentration. A moment's reflection will probably show you that your best work, strongest ideas, and deepest insights come from moments of concentration, when your mind is calm, clear, and focused. You may even long for these moments, and wish that you had more time for them.
In the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Luke goes off to train with Yoda, developing incredible powers of concentration. Now he is able to stand on one hand upside down, while balancing Yoda and levitating rocks. Han Solo and his blaster, meanwhile, get frozen in carbonite.
This chapter is your Jedi training.
Reclaiming and Retraining
The great psychologist William James once said that the skill of "voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence."39 In the following pages, I will lay out that education, par excellence (which is French for "very good at golf").
It may help to think of your attention in two ways. First, you have what is called "voluntary" or "top down" attention, which is where you choose to direct your mind.40 Right now, it is focused on these words. We don't have a good vocabulary for attention, so the best analogy I can give you is the proton pack from Ghostbusters: the concentrated energy guns they use to capture ghosts. That "stream" of positively-charged energy is like your voluntary attention: you can point it at this, and this, and this. (Just please, don't cross the streams.)
You also have a "reflexive" or "bottom up" attention, which is when something "catches" your attention. Though sometimes this is exceedingly useful, such as when we hear someone call our name in the middle of a noisy public square, it is also what we might call "being distracted by shiny objects." METALLIC SQUIRREL!
The great challenge of our time is to strengthen our "top down" attention (our ability to concentrate), while weakening our "reflexive" attention (our tendency to become distracted). Therefore,developing your powers of concentration involves two components: reclaiming attention through reducing distractions,and retraining your mind through concentration exercises.
Reclaiming attention involves taking an inventory of all the avoidable distractions that surround you, then reducing or eliminating them. These are lifestyle changes, usually small and incremental, that add up to a huge difference over time because they help keep you focused on a daily basis.
Retraining your concentration involves a specific set of Mind Games that will help you not only calm the mind, but also harness its power. Your success with mind hacking will depend largely on how seriously you take these games, and how deeply you integrate them into your lifestyle. Everything else builds on these games: they're your mental fundamentals.
These are not just one-time lessons, but core life skills that will make you better at everything you do. If you're an entrepreneur or businessperson, these concentration games will give you an edge, a competitive advantage. If you're involved in a relationship or a parent of young children, they will bring you greater calm and mental clarity. They will bring you focus, poise, and confidence, and create a mental environment where you can train your mind to accomplish incredible achievements.
The exercises in this chapter are meant to become habits. If you're learning how to live a healthy lifestyle, you don't just do a month of ab crunches and then call it quits: you integrate exercise and movement into your everyday life. Similarly, the more you can work these skills into your daily routine, the more powerful you will become at mind hacking.
You may not learn how to levitate objects with your mind like Luke Skywalker, but you could very well develop a levitation technology, then license out the patent. Anything is possible!
The sixteen people gathered at the Dart Neuroscience Convention Center in San Diego have the best memory on the planet.
These "memory athletes," as they are known, are here to compete in head-to-head "memory battles." They stare at computer screens that rapidly flash names, numbers, or words. The athletes memorize these random lists with amazing speed, then recall them with pinpoint accuracy. The annual Extreme Memory Tournament, or XMT (also a great name for a memory drug), offers $60,000 in prize money to the winners.
My favorite competitor is Ola Kare Risa of Norway, who wears not only sound-canceling headphones that you might see on a flight runway, but a cap with a long visor and sideflaps. His sideflaps are hilarious, ensuring that no distractions enter his peripheral vision as he stares at the computer screen. He looks like a horse that's wearing blinders while landing a plane.
But there's science behind this approach. As Henry L. Roediger III, one of the psychologists studying these memory athletes, tells the New York Times, "We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us, is in a cognitive ability that's not a direct measure of memory at all, but of attention."41
The fundamental skill these memory athletes have developed is known as "attentional control," or the ability to choose what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. We might also call this your ability to concentrate.
Sometimes you'll say, "My attention was wandering," which is an excellent phrase that shows that you have something called an "attention," which is sometimes under your control, but sometimes goes for a brief walk. This "attention," this focused point of consciousness, is under continual assault, much of it by the environment you create for yourself.
Some distractions cannot be avoided. If you work in an office, for example, your co-workers may be motorized disturbance makers. Unenlightened bosses may expect you to be available via chat 24 hours a day. Parents, especially new parents, may find it especially challenging to focus, since young children are interruption machines. (My wife gave a name to her bewildered, sleep-deprived mental state when our kids were small: "Mom brain.")
What we're targeting is the unnecessary distractions, the interruptions that we allow into our lives either out of habit, ignorance, or laziness. "We are easy to distract, and very bad at doing two or more things at the same time," says Columbia professor Tim Wu. "Yet our computers, supposedly our servants, constantly distract us and ask us to process multiple streams of information at the same time. It can make you wonder, Just who is in charge here?"42
Getting rid of these distractions will make you happier, since your mind sees digital distractions as unfinished tasks. Productivity guru David Allen, the bestselling author of Getting Things Done, warns of the "mental clutter" of unfinished tasks, and there's research to back up his claim. In the 1960's, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik showed that starting any kind of task gives your mind a mild psychic anxiety, until that task is complete.43 Unfinished tasks nag at you.
Unwanted digital distractions add to that "mental clutter": each one reminds you there's another task needing your attention. Part of our Pavlovian response to jump at those notifications is the need to close that open task loop, to consider the project "complete," no matter how trivial ("Well, now I have to get my social media profile to 100%!"). Get rid of the notifications, and you'll reduce your mental clutter, and your anxiety. More important, you'll be able to focus on what's more important.
Instant messaging. If you're in the habit of messaging frequently throughout the day, stop. Uninstall IM apps, or set them to "Away" by default. The problem with messaging is that distractions create more distractions: when you respond, another response comes back. In between, you are trying to get fragments of work done. It's a high-interruption environment.
Text messaging. Just like instant messaging, text messages distract our concentration over a longer period of time, because of the slow pace of a conversation carried out over text. Few of us are willing to turn off text messaging on our phones, but you can set aside times of the day to respond to messages, or wait until you're between tasks, rather than answering immediately.
Internet distractions. Whether it's checking your stock portfolio or updating your fantasy football team, we pay heavy attention tax on internet distractions. It's OK to allow yourself these distractions, but ideally as "rewards" for periods of focused concentration. By flipping the model on its head -- using internet distractions as rewards for completing difficult work, rather than avoiding it -- you can greatly improve your concentration, as well as your quality of work.
Audible and visual notifications. App developers and software companies have a vested interest in getting you to use their products. Therefore, they have developed a wide array of attention-getting devices to remind you to check in -- icons, messages, notifications, beeps, boops, and ding-dong aroogahs. Like Pavlov's dogs, these train us to expect a quick hit of satisfaction whenever the bell rings -- so turn off the bell. Get the icons out of your system tray! Turn off notifications! Ruthlessly uninstall!
Media. Do you switch on the TV as soon as you enter the house? Do you turn on a podcast as soon as you get in the car? We are voracious consumers of media, binge-viewing entire seasons of TV, watching sports games as we eat in restaurants, keeping "one eye on the TV" as we do our daily tasks. Instead of making media consumption your default activity, with brief periods of silence, try to make silence your default activity, with planned entertainment breaks of TV, radio, or movies. Silence is golden.
Email. Eliminate! Filter! Unsubscribe! Do you really need the daily Doctor Who Digest, or the impassioned pleas to save the chickens in El Salvador? It's true that individual emails are easy to delete, but each mailing list you get off eliminates dozens of micro-distractions and deletions in the future. They add up.
To begin, you're only investing an hour in cleaning up these distractions. Set a timer, and stop when the hour is up. Don't fall into the ironic trap of wasting the next week trying to reclaim your time. You're not after perfection, just simplification; you can always continue to simplify later. In other words, simplification is a process. It's much better to start with an hour, then set a recurring appointment in your calendar to review and eliminate further once a month. Keep it Simple, Skywalker.
Retraining Your Mind
"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things. You see so much more than you could see before. It's a discipline; you have to practice it."44- Steve Jobs
The basic concentration game is simple -- so simple, in fact, that you may be tempted to ignore or discount it. Some people call it "meditation" or "mindfulness," but I prefer to call it concentration training, since that's what it is. Your mind hacking success rests largely with the seriousness and tenacity with which you approach this basic game. Like chess, it offers a lifelong challenge of mastery.
- Find a comfortable place to sit, reasonably quiet and free from distractions.
- Sit with your legs crossed, or feet on the ground. If you find yourself getting drowsy, stand.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
- Relax each part of your body, starting from the top of your head, your forehead, eyes, cheeks, mouth, jaw, etc., down through your toes, then back up again. This should take 2-3 minutes.
- Mentally tell your mind what you are going to do, e.g., "For the next twenty minutes, I will focus on the breath, so that I may develop superhuman concentration."
- Now focus on the breath at the center of the nostrils.
- When you find yourself following your mind ("lost in the movie"), simply redirect it back to the breath at the nostrils. Score +1 point for noticing, and calmly redirect back to your breath. (Keep track of your points on your fingers, or in your head.)
- You can set a soft timer or alarm for twenty minutes, though eventually you will get a feel for when twenty minutes have passed.
- Remember to write down your final score (the number of times you caught your mind wandering) on your practice sheet.
Make it your goal to practice faithfully, and you will see the benefits. Studies show this type of game will improve attention,45 regulate emotions,46 keep you healthier,47 make your relationships better,48 and even make you feel good.49 It's scientifically proven to nourish, revitalize, and refresh both you and your mind.
How to Make This a Habit
Practicing for twenty minutes a day is a terrific goal: just wake up half an hour earlier. If your schedule doesn't allow it, then do fifteen, ten, or even five minutes to start. The trick to succeeding over the long term is to make this concentration game a habit. As with getting your body in shape with regular physical exercise, getting your mind in shape requires developing a routine that integrates this exercise into your lifestyle.
In his book The Power of Habit, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg proposes that we can more easily create new habits by "bookending" them with a cue to start the habit, as well as a reward once we've completed the habit.50 For example, if we're trying to create a habit of daily exercise, we might always set our running shoes by the bed as a visual cue upon waking, and always treat ourselves to a post-workout smoothie reward when finished.
In order to turn the concentration game into a positive habit, then, you need to consciously set up a cue to begin, as well as a reward when complete. Here are some tips:
- Choose a consistent time. First thing in the morning is best, before your to-do list kicks in. Make it a part of your day-starting routine, as I do, and be sure to practice at the same time.
- Choose a consistent place. Pick somewhere you will not be disturbed; this can be your bedroom or a spare room. I have been known to practice in my car before work (often while parked).
- Choose a consistent reminder. Keep this book by your bed, or set out your favorite chair. You can also set a digital reminder like a phone alert (here's where alerts can be a useful thing).
- Choose a consistent reward. The first reward is logging your score into your practice sheet, creating a positive feedback loop. Adding in a second healthy reward locks in that motivation: a shower, or breakfast, or music.
- Be consistent in your cue and reward. As with training children or pets, continuing to enforce the same routine, day after day, will help the practice habit stick.
- Practice, not perfection. Avoid "all or nothing" thinking, where you either stick to a perfect schedule, or you don't practice at all. The important thing is to keep practicing: if you miss a few days, just pick it back up!
There are many variations on the basic concentration game to keep it interesting, but my strong recommendation is to decide beforehand which variation you will play. The temptation will be to switch to a new variation mid-practice, which is a subtle trick your mind will play to amuse itself. Pick one and stick with it (abbreviated as Pick It and Stick It).
- The Illuminati: Instead of focusing on the nostrils, focus on the point between the eyebrows.
- Alien Blaster: Pretend each thought is an alien. Focus on your breath while remaining vigilant for stray aliens breaking through your defense shield. Whenever you see a thought arising, mentally say, "Thought," which disintegrates the alien with a hydrogen-ion particle blaster.
- The Third Nipple: Instead of focusing on the nostrils, focus on the point between the breasts.
- Golden Breath: Instead of focusing on the nostrils, focus on the air itself as you inhale and exhale. Imagine that you are taking in pure oxygen, a delicious smell, or a healing elixir.
- The Slow Jam: Do the basic concentration game, but as you exhale, try to capture the "feel" of sinking into a warm bubble bath, relaxing into a sexy rhythm, or grooving to a slow jam.
- Rise and Smile: Perform any of the variations above, but smile while doing so (see more on the scientific value of smiling in Section 3.2).
There are also variations of this game that you can play during the day. In my experience, there's no substitute for dedicated concentration practice, but these are an excellent way to hone your concentration skills throughout the day. You count +1 awareness point each time you lose your focus and remember to get back into the game.
- Single-Threading: Take any mundane activity, from walking the dog to tying your shoes, and "slow down" your thought process to focus on each moment of the experience: a "single thread" of attention on the task at hand.
- Go With the Flow: At any point throughout the day, become aware of the "flow" of sensory input flowing into your mind, the stream of unbroken thoughts and sensation. See how long you can observe the "flow" and not get lost in it.
- The Proton Pack: Pretend that you're a Ghostbuster, and pay attention to the "stream" of your attention as it spews outward. Watch where you're aiming it, and see how long you can visualize that stream. Busting makes you feel good.
As you play these concentration games, you may find that habitual thoughts, memories, or emotions keep popping up. You might even have deep insights or realizations about your life, your personality, or your childhood history. This is normal. What you are seeing is the areas that need to be reprogrammed. You're becoming aware of your own mental code.
The trick is to mentally note these things, and tell your mind you will process them later. Avoid the temptation to get lost in another "mind movie." As if you were training a child, gently say to your mind, "That's interesting, but we're going to focus on the breath now." After your practice, write down any insights or observations on your practice sheet. You can always discuss them with your therapist later.
Above all, try to be gentle but firm with your mind. You may get frustrated when you notice your mind wandering, but remember the act of noticing is the very sign of progress! Resist the urge to get angry or impatient with yourself; this is just more mind movie. Develop the habit of completely letting it go. The attitude is one of non-resistance: gently set the mind back on your object of concentration, and begin again. This is why we call it "practice."
As we diligently practice these games, we develop clarity of mind, and a sense of its underlying codebase. We also develop the precision necessary to analyze the code that runs our mind. This is the aspect of mind hacking we'll talk about next.