The undeniable property that makes everything increase in quality
What makes Leonardo DiCaprio such a good actor? Why is Roger Federer seen as possibly the greatest tennis player of all time? Why was J.K. Rowling able to write seven volumes of the Harry Potter saga? And how are some people able to read them all in one week? How can the Grand Masters of chess such as Magnus Carlsen make so many right moves during a chess game and how does one even become a Grand Master in chess? How could Rembrandt ever have painted the Night Watch? How could Shakespeare’s writing for his plays shape the English and western literature and how could physicists such as Einstein and Newton discover some of the greatest mysteries of the Universe?
Well, if it wasn’t for the title, you probably wouldn’t have thought of one similarity between all of these people and achievements. But yes, Focus is undeniably the property that the answers to all of these questions have in common. A property that can be turned into a quality. This cannot only further be developed, but also help you to develop as a person. A positive feedback loop. And not only that. It can be a quality that brings quality and enhances your life and that of others.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a not unknown actor that worked with Leonardo Dicaprio in the film Inception, describes how important it is to ‘pay attention’ (or in other words: focus). To make art and to increase the quality of a product, service or work. But according to him, this ‘paying attention’ is more and more exchanged for ‘getting attention’. because this is what we seem to want. And with ‘we’, I mean our ego. This quest for ‘getting attention’ makes you less creative (TED, 2019). Unfortunately, social media platforms are really good in letting you think you want attention from everyone. Eventually you do want this, et voilà: they have a big control over your focus. Of course so that they can direct your focus towards them. They do this by keeping you on their platforms and making you post as much as possible. This well could be a reason that the objective general quality of music is decreased in modern times (and arguably also of other art forms)(Normen, D., 2018). Nowadays, people that are talking about ‘putting emocional integrity in their songs’, are really often more interested in ‘putting the good side of their face on the internet’.
If there’s one thing you cannot do if you want to focus, it is multitasking. Luckily, multitasking doesn’t exist (MacKay, J., 2020). Unfortunately, we all try it… At least the people that aren’t focusing. Multiple research has concluded: being able to do multiple things at the same time is a myth. Many can split their attention, yes, but let us not pretend that that is a positive characteristic rather than a negative. Almost 47% of waking hours are spent on thinking about something other than what we are doing (Bradt, S., 2010). I firmly believe that it is good and healthy to let your mind wander now and then. But not when you are trying to be busy with a task you want to complete. And believe me, if I am talking about wandering minds, then mine is the most wanderlust. And it helps me to get new insights about life, see beauty where I didn’t see it before and it makes me relax. Or as theoretical physicist Brian Green explains in a Joe Rogan podcast (PowerfulJRE., 2020):
“There are certain things in the night sky that you can’t see by directly looking at them and completely focusing. Only by looking away (off axis), are we able to evoke the other qualities of the eye that allows us to see what we intend. When the tried and tested fails, some calculated distraction is required.”
– Brian Greene
I could let my mind go the whole day, every day (and I could also do it, while actively focusing on it). But the thing is, if I did, you wouldn’t be reading this piece of writing right now. Because to write this, I had to focus on the process of writing. At least for some consecutive amount of time and still, I was not efficient in my time management. I was busy with my phone while writing this, drumming along with the music on my headphones and reading different articles and books simultaneously. It took me several hours to write until the sentence that you are reading now. But hey, if you are reading this, it means that I had at least enough focus to finish it. Now imagine the focus writers of books must have to finish those books… I think everyone can write a book, but it’s impossible when you can’t focus. And I can know, because I’m writing one and I’ll tell you; if it wasn’t for focus, I could never have written the amount I wrote until now. But if it wasn’t for the lack of focus, I would already be done with it. The positive result of focus is not only linked to writing, but to everything you do. If you really want to become a master in something or achieve something, you have to actively work on it. For that you need focus. Whether it is in your work, sports, (finishing a) study, hobbies, servicing people, learning, playing music, reading, thinking or for your future achievements.
We cannot talk about focus, without talking about the other important word in this field that starts with an ‘f’: flow. Flow is a state of mind in which you manage to not get distracted by anything else and only pay attention on the activity you are doing (TED, 2019).
And under some conditions, everyone can experience flow. The following passages from interviews done by Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, Susan K. Perry and Susan Jackson, leading researcher in the field of flow, describe the feeling of flow in different field of life (TED, 2008):
“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and time again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out by itself.”
“It’s like opening a door that’s floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world, trying to get you away from the door.”
Figure skating (which is one of my favorite sports to watch):
“It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean: everything went right, everything felt good… It’s just such a rush, like you feel it could go on an on and on. Like you don’t want it to stop, because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think. It’s like everything goes automatically without thinking… It’s like you’re an automatic pilot, so you don’t have any thoughts. You hear the music but you’re not aware that you’re hearing it. Because it’s a part of it all.”
In a way, flow is comparable to ecstasy (from the greek ékstasis, meaning ‘to be outside of oneself’)(TED, 2008). In both situations, one has the feeling that the mind is no longer part of the human body, but exceeds the earthly feeling of being, in which it seems the brain and body can achieve higher levels of activity effortlessly and endlessly.
For flow you need to feel competent to be able to do a task, but the task should be a challenge nonetheless (Ros, A., & Castelijns, J., 2014). See figure below.
Take this piece of writing for instance. As I said, I have been distracted in writing this blog post. However, I also found my moments of flow. But I haven’t experienced them as such, because the thing about flow is, that it is gone, the moment you notice you are in it. This is also one of the reasons it is not possible to stay in a constant state of flow. The importance in flow is also relevant in learning, since the chance of learning is at its greatest in flow. This is due to the high concentration of the student (Ros, A., & Castelijns, J., 2014). In flow, you are not thinking about flow, not thinking about getting something done. You are not concentrated, you are hyper concentrated. The activity that you are handling in that moment is ‘the world’. Another condition for flow is another word with an ‘f’. As you are probably noticing, I’m trying you to remember these words in an easy way. This word is feedback. One needs to receive feedback to have more chance of becoming in a state of flow. Feedback makes you motivated to work on a task and gives value to your achievement of finishing that task. For instance, feedback on this post would motivate me to write another post and enter a state of flow while doing so. I will know that my writing is of value to other people and thus to myself. But finding flow not only has to do with the conditions outside of yourself. Not only with the situation that is presented to you by the environment. No, you can increase the chances of flow actively by trying to stay in a state of flow each time a little bit longer. For this, an old cliché comes up, but a cliché that is true like most clichés: put as much things that can distract you away, such as your phone, guitar or television (or computer, if you aren’t working on that). Also, work in a space, inside or outside, where you cannot easily be distracted by people, sounds or visual pleasures. And you will notice that you will get better in staying in a longer state of flow (MacKay, J., 2018) It works the same as getting better in everything you put effort in.
A negative of flow is that it can be addictive. When this happens, one is not able to easily deal with the changes of order in the mind. These changes often have been created with such pleasant results (Csikszentmihályi, M., 1992). In the next paragraph motivation for focus will shortly be described. If you are further interested in flow, I advise you to type in the name of the leading researcher in this field on the internet; Mihaly Csikszentmihályi. So happy I could write this name and not have to pronounce it. See what you find. You can also read his book about flow, read articles or check his TED talk for instance.
Focus can be the ‘elixer of quality’. But for that we do need motivation. Intrinsic motivation would be the best option. Which is nothing else than to have passion for something. Although intrinsic motivation is preferable over extrinsic motivation, also extrinsic motivation can cause you to focus. But it is harder to focus with this form of motivation than with intrinsic motivation. This is because with extrinsic motivation the work is only being done, because of pressure from the outside world. Not because the activity is seen as interesting by you. Nevertheless, people with extrinsic motivation can focus because they see the importance of a task, want to achieve something, or the least efficient: do it because of an external requirement (Ros, A., & Castelijns, J., 2014).
You don’t need this article to learn about all other positive results of focus or the negative effects of trying to multitask. Some of these negative effects are quite shocking though. Such as brain damage, unhappiness and a lack of sleep (Belle, 2014). Also, there are enough sources that teach you how to focus. There are enough articles on the internet such as the literature for this writing (see list at the bottom). This blog post is to let you know what the link could be between quality in every field of life, the general quality of life and focus. And by that, how decreasing quality in fields such as music must have to do with the lack of focus. I’m not a researcher, but do your own research: focus on something you want to be of good quality and see if it increases the quality. Take things of good quality in, perhaps from yourself, and think about if focus was involved. I bet it was… And yes, it will be hard (I’m hearing my students voices now in my head, while naggingly saying: ‘But it is so hard!”). But that isn’t a reason to give the world a rehash of something that could have been of much better quality. And you could have achieved this if you would have spent a little bit more energy and time in it. And thus focused a little bit more on it. Especially, because you will have more time to let your mind wander and your body relax afterwards.
I don’t know exactly how the pyramids were built, I wasn’t there. However, I am sure they weren’t built by Egyptians that were alternating between looking at the birds, eating ice creams, building sandcastles and once in a while pulling an immensely heavy block of stone forward for a few meters a day. They were built with determination and focus. Now, around 4500 years later, they are still arguably the most impressive structures built by mankind. Now it is up to us to build our ‘pyramids’.
Fun and simple exercise to test the importance of focus:
If you want to catch popcorn with your mouth, you are often more successful if you throw one up in the air than multiple. In first instance this looks counterintuitive, because statistically you have more chance to catch one out of more than to catch one out of one. So why is catching one out of more than often considered more difficult? Of course you know the answer. It is because of the focus, or rather the lack of it. Because all the other popcorns you are not going for are more distractions than oppertunities. You can make it easier to catch one out of more, as long as you keep your focus! Check it yourself! How many do you catch out of 10 or 20 and which way did you experience as more difficult? Could you focus one while multiple popcorns were up in the air?
*It could be that this article is updated from time to time.
Belle. (2014, 16 augustus). The truth about multitasking. Geraadpleegd van https://exist.io/blog/multitasking/
Bradt, S. (2010, 11 november). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Geraadpleegd van https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
Csikszentmihályi, M. (1992). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. Rider. ISBN 978-0-7126-5477-7.
MacKay, J. (2018, 20 maart). Why you’re not finding Flow at work (and what to do about it). Geraadpleegd van https://blog.rescuetime.com/finding-flow-at-work/
MacKay, J. (2020, 20 februari). Multitasking is a Myth: The Ultimate Guide to Getting More Done (By Doing Less). Geraadpleegd van https://blog.rescuetime.com/multitasking/#:%7E:text=The%20problem%20is%2C%20there’s%20no,t%20actually%20getting%20more%20done.
Melissa. (2014, 13 april). The State of Flow. Geraadpleegd van https://melissathebloggess.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-state-of-flow/
Normen, D. (2018, 16 augustus). Gitarist en toetsenist Diederik Nomden schittert met The Analogues en Her Majesty – Nooit Meer Slapen. Geraadpleegd van https://www.nporadio1.nl/nooit-meer-slapen/onderwerpen/41790-2018-08-16-gitarist-en-toetsenist-diederik-nomden-schittert-met-the-analogues-en-her-majesty
PowerfulJRE. (2020). Joe Rogan Experience #1428 – Brian Greene [Videobestand]. YouTube. Geraadpleegd van https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4wQsmAtZoc
Ros, A., & Castelijns, J. (2014). Gemotiveerd leren en lesgeven (1ste editie). Bussum, Nederland: Coutinho.
TED. (2008). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness [Videobestand]. YouTube. Geraadpleegd van https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs
TED. (2019, 12 september). How craving attention makes you less creative | Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Geraadpleegd van https://youtube.com/watch?v=3VTsIju1dLI