Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US President, had hopelessly scattered attention. He had, what his friends called an “amazing array of interests” — a list that contained boxing, wrestling, bodybuilding, dance lessons, poetry readings, and a lifelong obsession with naturalism. While studying at Harvard, his landlady was not pleased with her young tenant tendency to dissect and stuff specimens in his rented room.
To support his extracurricular exuberance, Roosevelt restricted the time he spent on studies. He applied a unique approach. In his daily schedule, he first slotted the classes he had to attend in order to remain in the college, then all the extracurricular activities. The fragments that remained were then allocated to studying.
These fragments when added weren’t much. But Roosevelt would get the most out of them by studying with blistering intensity. One would think his grades would have suffered by studying only intermittently, but they didn’t. He might not be the top student in Harvard but he didn’t struggle either. He earned honors in five out of seven courses.
How he did that? By studying with intense concentration. Something we, the normal beings, are not capable of.
Cal Newport used Roosevelt’s texample to introduce a concept in his book The Deep Work that we all can build in our routine.
He called it Productive Meditation.
When we think of meditation, we think of the time when we sit cross-legged, trying to focus on our breathing and working frivolously to calm our minds.
All of us have given meditation a try at one time or another. Some swear by it, others can’t get a hang of it.
Usually meditation is used to quieten the mind. To be in a peaceful state where thoughts come and go freely. And ultimately to reach the point where mind stops thinking altother.
The productive meditation is complete opposite. It is meant to make your mind think deeply. To concentrate on a single topic. And its purpose is to help you become more productive.
Although we might already have been using concentrated thinking previously, but Cal Newport has given it a proper name and put it forth as a strategy to improve productivity.
He writes in “The Deep Work”:
The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, or showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.
Although hard to develop, it is the single most useful tool for creatives.
Creativity needs time. It needs an idle brain to make connections.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of time or idleness of the brain. Using the time when the brain is on autopilot is a great way to develop thinking muscles.
I do that in the gym. Instead of listening to music, I listen to myself. It is the time when the solutions tend to appear out of nowhere. Shower and driving are two other activities I use invariably to think. I never listen to the radio or music while driving. It is too precious a time to be wasted listening to repetitive news.
But of all the activities, walking is my favorite. Cal Newport practiced productive meditation during walks between his home and work. As spring is here, I have started going for walks on the hills behind my home to practice productive meditation.
Like any other form of meditation, it requires practice. I often get distracted and find it hard to bring my mind back to the problem. Despite that, I get snippets of gems here and there to keep me committed.
You Should Give Productive Meditation A Go.
If you are a busy professional or an artist, you should adopt productive meditation practice in your life. You don’t need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in two or three such sessions in a typical week.
You will need two things to practice — time and technique.
How To Find Time For Productive Meditation.
Finding time for normal meditation is a big limitation. Most people don’t stick to the practice because they can’t find fifteen to thirty minutes to meditate.
Fortunately, finding time for productive meditation is easy.
You can do productive meditation while driving, exercising, walking, washing dishes, cooking, or gardening. The time which was otherwise going to be wasted can be used to increase productivity.
You can even consider scheduling a walk during a workday, specifically to apply productive meditation to your most pressing problem at that moment.
What Is The Technique?
Surprisingly there is not too much to the technique either. The idea is to give your mind free rein.
But there is one constrain. To make your mind go deep, you need to define the topic or problem you want to solve clearly. Having a loose topic wastes mental energy, and you don’t get the full benefit of the exercise.
The other day, I went for a walk to figure a theme for the novel I was going to commence writing the next week. By concentrating just on the theme and not on any other aspect of the story (character, plot, structure, etc.) I was able to come up with a relatively unexplored theme.
After you have settled on the topic, Cal Newport makes three suggestions to improve the practice and to make your session more fruitful:
- Be wary of distractions and looping.
- Watch out for looping thoughts.
- Use structure.
Be Wary Of Distractions.
Distractions are not just from social media. Most of our distractions are internal. Our mind is the biggest source of distractions. It is thinking of fifty thousand thoughts a day. Which means it jumps from one thing to another in a split second.
Getting it to concentrate on one problem or topic is hard. Initially, your mind will rebel. There will be more interesting thoughts that will derail you from the topic.
When you notice your attention is slipping away from the problem at hand, you do the same thing you do in a normal meditation. Gently remind yourself that you can return to the thought later and redirect your attention to the topic.
Watch Out For Looping Thoughts
Distractions are relatively easy to manage. Looping, on the other hand, is hard to control. It would help if you were on guard for looping as it can quickly subvert an entire productive meditation session.
Looping happens when our minds want to avoid thinking about a hard problem and try to sidestep it. We know that from experience that when things get hard we put them off.
During productive meditation sessions, our minds keep bringing back the same things that we already know about the problem/topic we are thinking about. Rather than moving forward or bringing back a solution, it keeps going in circles.
If that happens:
- Acknowledge that you are in a loop.
- Gently direct your attention to the next step.
- Use some clues to take the mind in a completely different direction.
- Use “what if” scenarios.
- Think of at least ten possible (doesn’t matter how radical) solutions for the problem. For example, if you are thinking about progressing your story where your protagonist is in a conundrum about paying the medical bills, think of ten completely different outrageous ways he can raise money.
Thinking about something might seem like an easy activity, but in reality, it is not. Even when you have a distraction-free mind and time to think, it is still hard to think deeply about a hard problem.
It helps to have a structure for productive meditation sessions.
Cal Newport suggests starting with a careful review of the relevant variables and storing them in the working memory. For example, if you are working on an article outline, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the article.
Once the variables are identified, define the next step questions, you need to answer using these variables.
Questions are a great way to keep the mind focused because our minds are designed to look for answers.
In the article example, the next-step question could be —
- How will I start the article effectively?
- What story can I use to hook the readers?
- Do I have a personal story that fits the topic? Is it going to be a “discovery” article or a “how-to” article?
- What three points I want to cover in the “discovery” article.
- If it is a “how-to” article, what are the steps?
Once you have figured out the next step questions, the final step of the structured approach is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answers you have identified.
At this point, you can push yourself to the next level by starting the process over. This cycle of reviewing, storing variables, identifying and tackling the next-step question then consolidating learnings is an intensive workout for your concentration.
It will help you get more out of your productive meditation sessions and accelerate the pace at which you can develop Roosevelt like intense concentration.
Think of a problem or a topic you want to explore.
Select a routine activity (driving, walk, gym, cooking, dishwashing) you can use to practice productive meditation.
Practice productive meditation.
Write about what you discovered in the session, immediately afterwards so that you don’t forget (with time you will get better to remember what you discovered).
Schedule another session for the week.
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