In my Karate days, I represented Aston University at a national competition in Glasgow. I was in the men’s 80+ kg group. While waiting for my first fight I watched various other fights, and one gentleman in particular stood out. He was incredibly supple, his kicks were lightening fast and seemed to come out of nowhere. He effortlessly played with his opponents, making them look like absolute beginners. I saw him fight three times, and each time he won without breaking a sweat.
I said to my team mates “I hope he is not in my group. If he is, tell my mum I love her.”
Of course he was in my group.
When our names were called out I was trembling. I put on my belt, fixed it, turned around and stared my opponent right into his eyes. Suddenly, the noise in the hall, my shouting coach, my screaming team mates, and my cheering girlfriend all faded into the background. My attention was fully absorbed by three things – my body, my breath and my opponent. No distractions. With a piercing “Hajime!” the referee signified the start of the fight.
I immediately moved forward and attacked. It took my opponent by surprise and he moved back. I could sense how he wanted to establish his rhythm, and each time he tried, I would break it by changing my rhythm, attacking or shuffling forward. I landed a few punches and scored, I cornered him, pushed him off the matt several times, and scored. However hard he tried, I kept distracting and unbalancing him. His increasing frustration only worked against him, until time was up. I couldn’t believe it, I had won. Not only that, I had won against a superior opponent. I was ecstatic. No one could stop me now, the gold medal was in reach.
A short, stocky Indian guy took me out in the next round. I was too busy, too tense defending my imaginary gold medal, to fully apply myself to the fight.
In both fights, superior focus won over superior technique.
In his book Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, how being focused on a challenging task can get us into a pleasant and productive state of being. When we get into flow, time becomes less important, we enjoy doing, being, expressing, moving towards a goal, without being too attached to an outcome.
Flow happens quite naturally, with the momentum that comes from focusing on a task at hand. The task is almost secondary, as long as it is somewhat challenging and not completely horrible.
It even works with filing tax reports. As much as I hate this annual chore (that’s what I get for stingily not employing an accountant), once I push myself enough to get started and focus on counting receipts, adding up numbers, reading and understand tax-jargon, after only a few minutes a rather unexpected sense of joy starts to set in. It happens just by itself, like a natural reflex.
All I have to do now, is to stay focused and to keep going. It’s very simple but it works. The entire spiritual practice of Zen has emerged out of this simple wisdom of attentive experiential immersion.
However, we have modern foes that zap us out of our flow experience at an ever-increasing rate. These flow foes have many names – facebook, whatsapp, email, skype, twitter, instagram – each application designed to grab our attention at an instant, sparking our curiosity by giving our brains a quick, distracting dopamine spike.
It’s not easy to resist this temptation, so we end up hopping from one “unread messages” to the next. As a consequence, we are being pulled out of our flow state constantly – or we never get into flow in the first place. We remain ineffective, we procrastinate and can’t help but get a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. Feelings of disorientation, boredom and meaninglessness creep in, making us susceptible to further distractions. Like addicts, we trade our long-term happiness for quick hits of distraction.
Luckily, we don’t need to become Zen masters to enjoy the benefits of flow.
When I studied Cognitve Behavioural Therapy I learned that passion follows action, not the other way around. Many wait for passion to find them, for life to send a siren-like call that finally lures them into their mission, a purpose-aligned road to success and happiness. John Maxwell once said that we often treat life like someone, who shouts at a cold oven: “Give me heat first, then I shall give you wood!”, which makes for a long, cold wait.
I am currently taking part in a 6-month inspirational speaking course, and the other day I sent an email to our brilliant and very successful course leader Sarah Lloyd-Huges. This was the automated reply that came back:
Thanks for getting in touch. I’m in Germany at the moment working on the second edition of my book “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” until Mon 2nd Feb
I’m trying to avoid human contact, but may check my emails once or twice during the week.
If you have an enquiry about 1-2-1 packages, or our courses in the meantime, please speak with my VA Susan via firstname.lastname@example.org in my absence – she’d be happy to help.
What a fantastic way to cut out the noise, and to zoom in on what really matters. (Even though now I’ll have to be a little patient with Sarah’s response)
Not everyone is in the position to retreat into the wilderness of Germany, but we can all retreat to somewhere. When I beat the scary opponent at the competition, I instinctively directed my attention from the noise of the outside world into my body. In day-to-day life sometimes all it takes, is to disconnect our devices from the internet, to switch our phones to flight modus and to just start doing one thing with focus.
I find it surprising how much I accomplish, when I block out distractions and invest a little discipline to get me started. Knowing, that the experience will become enjoyable after only a brief moment of focused work, can be enough to create the initial impulse that is needed. Once the stove is on fire and radiates heat nicely, it’s much easier to keep throwing logs of wood into it.
If you are interested in learning more about this subject, you may enjoy watching Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s classic TED talk.
Also David Allen’s presentation on the principles of his best selling book “Getting Things Done” offers a worthwhile perspective.
© Ragnar Speicher