I’ve introduced various new techniques in my life over the past few years in order to improve my ability to sustain focus and awareness in life. I decided to share some as this week’s entry:
(1) About a year ago I completely deleted my Facebook newsfeed by unfollowing every one of my friends (different than unfriending). I also hid all advertisements and sidebars. My Facebook home page now looks like this:
(2) I deleted email from my phone, as well as any app that contains a feed. Now my phone contains strictly tools: Camera, Venmo, Lyft, Messaging, Google Docs, Google Photos, and a few others.
(3) I also used iPhone ‘restrictions’ to disable my browser. This has helped to change my sense of what information and what tasks deserve consideration as ‘urgent’. I’m at my computer so many hours per day anyway. In practice, I do choose to reenable my browser access kind of often…let’s say once every two days. But having it disabled by default ensures that I pause for a second before actually choosing to browse the web on my phone.
(4) Two years ago, I introduced ‘focus sessions’ to my life - a method I developed for structuring my work days. The idea is simple - for approximately 1 - 1.5 hour chunks, I am completely prohibited from checking phone, email, <insert distracting website>, and instead focus wholeheartedly on a predetermined task. My goal is always to complete 6 hours in focus sessions per day, not including meetings.
In conjunction with focus sessions, I write down ‘day goals’ - a list of 2-4 tasks I select each morning that I would be proud to accomplish that day. I also list ToDo items (including any work task that is not a day goal => less mental credit for small tasks) and ‘Meta Goals’ - a set of broader ambitions for how to treat the day.
Pair these various approaches with tracking my arrival time to the lab and my efficiency (# hours spent in focus / number of hours at the lab) and I finally had a workable method for maintaining and improving focus in my daily life. The method proved so useful for me that I later documented it on Reddit
This approach also enables me to more fully engage in fun either in between focus sessions or after they are complete. Briefly, my conclusions regarding efficiency have been as follows (note that I never count meetings as focused work time):
(1) When I feel like I’m working CONSTANTLY, I’m actually only spending about 80% of my time in total focus
(2) When I feel like I’m working with serious rigor, this corresponds to ~66% focus
(3) When i feel like I’ve had a solidly productive day - ~50% focus.
In other words, efficiency is much lower than I realized. I sometimes wonder if I was only hitting 20-50% focus prior to tracking and optimizing my actual performance. These days I’m aiming for more like 6 hours in focus at 40-60% efficiency, which doesn’t always work out, but its a goal I keep returning to.
So there you have it. Various regiments that I strive to follow in order to create a life of more awareness and focus. Whenever I start swaying for long periods from these baseline goals, (especially my goal for 6 hours in focus) much like in meditation I simply acknowledge this observation, watch the associated thoughts flow through my mind, and then gently bring myself back to my desired routine. And if a random day comes along where I vehemently feel like going on a bike ride rather than touching work, that is a-ok too.
In sum, the techniques I learn to apply in meditation transfer very well to any sort of behavioral observations and adjustments I seek to make in my daily life.
Last Sunday I participated a day-long zen retreat, my second experience in longer timescale meditation. I woke up feeling a bit sick that morning and contemplated backing out - ‘who wants to meditate while sick!’ But then I remembered that one zen teacher’s most productive meditation took place directly next door to loud, persistent construction. There is no good or bad time for meditation. This is a core teaching that I have internalized.
And so I committed to the retreat, pledging to simply sit with any mild feelings of sickness and observe the ebb and flow of symptoms: the sudden sharp pain in my throat that traveled up to my ear, the way in which my mind jumped forcefully to the conclusion that I must be getting an ear infection ‘like last time’, the subsiding of the ear pain only a few minutes later…
A friend at the zen center once told me that he leaves every single retreat he ever participates in with ‘a nugget’ - some tiny new insight about himself to reflect on. Experiences like the phantom ear infection demonstrate to me the speed with which I have a tendency to draw conclusions. I wonder if this observation will allow me to treat any quick conclusions I draw with more lightness, humor, and skepticism.
Zen retreats hold an environment constant such that any changes in personal experience can be more readily attributed to the practitioner’s own mind. As a novice to retreats, I found myself nevertheless clinging to the environment for stimulation. For example, I became utterly convinced that the hot water used for tea was abnormally thick, as though it had soap or some other substance dissolved in it. I absolutely could not let go of this thought! It kept reappearing in my mind, it affected even my limited interactions with the environment (taking water from a different source or at a different temperature to compare the thickness) and - the cherry on top! - I found myself drawing absolutely ridiculous conclusions. I watched the hand soap in the bathroom as I pressed it onto my palm, it reminded me of my mental image for the thick tea water, and this connection twistedly caused my brain to reaffirm the thick tea concern with even more vigor.
Ever since the retreat, I’ve been sick of zen. I skipped the Dharma talk that I’ve gone to every week since September, I was a tinge thankful that it was a holiday week for our class, and while I’ve continued my 5 minutes morning meditations, they feel a bit more like a chore. Is there such a thing as zen burnout? :P
Week 5: “When Planning, Plan. When Working, Work. When Skipping, Skip”
When tapping into my background threads this week, I keep notice myself exerting an exorbitant amount of energy crafting justifications for my decisions over the past hour/day/week/month. It’s not that my decisions have necessarily been challenged, but rather that I feel a deep need to be prepared with a defense or a strategy in case they are - imagining and planning for various scenarios that may arise. I think I’m also trying to defend the decisions to myself, since they were made under uncertainty. These background threads are draining and detract from the present moment. At minimum, if I do think it’s worthwhile to reflect on my decisions in this way, a zen approach is to do so only during dedicated times, rather than in my background threads. Or is it possible that these draining exercises are in fact unnecessary and can be eliminated altogether?
I know I’m really playful, free-spirited, and thrill-seeking at heart. Nevertheless, I’ve introduced a lot of structure and routine into my life over the last 1-2 years for a few key reasons (1) Grow confidence in my capacity for self-discipline (2) track, then optimize, and therefore minimize daily decisions (3) Increase efficiency at work (4) Better align my schedule with that of my significant other.
On the bright side, I’d say that I’ve made substantial progress on all of these fronts. But one serious concern I have with this lifestyle adjustment is: do structure and routine impede one’s capacity for appreciating spontaneity and goal-independent exploration, traits that are absolutely core to my identity, and were core to my motivation to join the Media Lab in the first place?
Zen practitioners are often able to pursue a routine without any attachment to it. I interpret this as the possession of sage wisdom to simply know whether it is “right” on a given day to break from my routine, and in the face of any ambiguity, to be comfortable with the state of “not knowing.” Further, a person I trust urged me to remember that even gregarious kids benefit greatly from times of ‘structured play’: routines that create dedicated time for play.
I’ll have to continue reflecting on whether a structured and disciplined lifestyle suits my personality or not. It all comes down to how (and with what degree of insistence), structure and routine are integrated into life. After all, when followed for long enough, some aspects of added structure don’t feel like structure at all! They just evolve to be the new normal. A simple example from recent past is choosing to delete the newsfeed on my Facebook. I hardly remember what it’s like to have that endless, addictive scroll.
The scissors have been strong this week. There have been many excessive thought spirals, confusions, and convolutions of mind, but I feel myself naturally inducing the sound of the scissors to snap these thought-tails away. The sound shocks me back to the present, and suggests that since I unconsciously summon this sound, some aspect of my mind knows the way.
At the Cambridge Zen Center they often speak of how simple Zen is - “just put it all down, and then everything is simple.” I’m so trained to see value in complexity, but what the Zen Masters mean here is a bit different: I’ve had incredibly powerful split second moments at these words: ‘just put it all down, and then you’re free from it!’ and suddenly my mind is clear from all meta-commentary, and free to focus on the most worthy task, whether complex or simple. My mind does not want these excess thoughts, but it needs permission or shock to release itself from them.
At the Zen Center we also are told to meditate to “clear mind” on the up breath, and “don’t know” on the down breath, training to become comfortable with the state of not knowing. I think that achieving this state of mind is intricately related to the practice that I have set out to complete this term involving watching my mind while learning new technical skills. The world is fast, but acquiring technical expertise is slow. Can I turn this a playful and lighthearted sort of slowness?
Meanwhile, I close my eyes and see Go patterns flashing. I hope they’ll soon be circuit boards flashing!
Week 2: Dharma, The Game of Go, Scissors, and Technical Growth
I’ve been attending Dharma talks at the Cambridge Zen Center every week. A foundational principle we are constantly taught about zen is that it is a practice. I find this framing incredibly uplifting, because it gives me psychological permission to be taught the same concepts over and over again - every week, in fact.
This framing takes a lot of pressure off of my morning meditations because there is nothing to achieve, nothing that I should know but don’t, nothing to remember, nowhere to go, and no strategizing to be done. There are only my honest thoughts and bodily conditions, whatever they may be.
I’ve also been attending weekly lessons in the game of Go at the Cambridge Public Library, and feel a similar willingness to take joy in the process of devouring the game, even when it involved getting defeated by a 6 year old :) There is direct support provided for learning the game’s strategies, and no expectations from the instructors. Whatever skill level you enter with that day, the instructor will simply provide feedback. A great sense of community is forged. The support leads to an obsessive fixation in me for learning the game, and a growing sense of momentum.
These days, I am working on giving myself equivalent psychological permission for practice when it comes to learning and remembering new technical matters, where I often feel a broad suite of intrusive and overpowering background thoughts. Why is it so easy to relish in zen as a practice, or Go as a practice, and so difficult to feel that same judgment-free joy and playfulness when practicing deeply technical matters? At what stage in my educational trajectory did I stop believing in the value of creating ample time and mental space for practice rather than judging a task’s worth based on its immediate output? I also very often wonder - who is my teacher?
I also wanted to mention a seemingly effective outcome of meditation over the last 1-2 months: I sometimes ask myself “what physical form does my current state-of-mind take?” hich results in various meandering and surreal images…some superfluous meta-analysis once took on a visual form of this weird 2D fluid-filled and shape-shifting growth that I then imagined slicing off with a pair of haircutting scissors. I vividly heard the sound of those sharp scissors closing during the meditation. Ever since that meditation, I sometimes catch myself replaying the sound of the closing scissors in the middle of an excessive thought spiral to cut the spiral off of me.
Week 1: Superfluous Adrenaline Bursts, Low-Pass Emotional Filters, Turtle-Like Perception
In recent months I have become aware of a set of unnecessary adrenaline bursts I subject myself to:
Push key into bike lock…attempt to turn…does not turn….lock must be frozen!…
—> all tumbles in as a single firework of planning and (pseudo)logical reasoning but really just a trigger for the internal chemical burst that follows ..
Chemical manifestation of the moment feels even more acutely like a firework - starts somewhere vaguely in the chest or gut and flashes outward in loose threads all the way to the wrists and thighs.
Push key in a bit more deeply —> lock turns just fine.
I now stand there with a meager grimace and a gutful of adrenaline, resigned to the reality that the acute planning and self-judgment — and most importantly I believe, the chemical release — are all reactions to an assumption that only a half-second later is demonstrably false.
It happened again just this morning - I came into the lab fresh and renewed, retested some software I was working on, no output at all! experienced a flash of emotion, planning, judgment, chemical….and half-second later realized I’d omitted an obvious step for running the software. Sigh again.
The solution is clear to me - it is to actively enjoy being more turtle-like in my perception of the world. In the case of my bike lock, even a half-second increase in my reality-sampling-period would have allowed me to bypass this physically and emotionally taxing internal conundrum. <Oh, my bike lock appears stuck. This is curious. I will now calmly engage with the moment for another minute before having any followup thoughts.> In this emotional context, reducing sampling rate can have the effect of a low pass filter, cutting out a lot of high frequency oscillation.
While the benefits of downsampling are apparent to me at these short time scales, I believe that my principal challenge in life right now is to apply this reasoning to longer-timescale transformations underway in my work life.