Concentration, Flow and Procrastination

Over at “Wait but Why” there are a couple of excellent posts on procrastination and how to overcome it. If you procrastinate, or you are continually frustrated by those who do, I commend these posts to you: they explain the experience of procrastination well, and the strategy suggested to overcome it is sound enough, if not a complete toolkit.

I do have an issue with the portrayal of the state of mind referred to as “flow”. It’s quite a common portrayal and I would like to unpick some of the typical thinking about it (not all of which is in evidence in the post at Wait but Why? — this is classic off-on-a-tangent thinking).

There is a sort of popular mythology around the idea of “flow” or being “in the zone” or other states of intense concentration. The mythology goes something like this:

  • “Flow” means I am so immersed in the task at hand that I am not conscious or aware of distractions; this is beyond my control, and it is a good thing.
  • “Flow” is when people do their very best work.
  • Once “flow” is interrupted it is destroyed and it is difficult, or impossible, to recover from this.

At best, I see these myths as unhelpful in their inaccuracy.

Involuntary exclusion of irrelevant stimuli sounds great, but it really depends on context. Being able to ignore a ringing telephone while eating dinner with a loved one is good. So is being able to ignore the sound of the neighbours’ thumpthump music while reading or practising. But if you truly do not perceive these things, if you don’t filter them out but actually do not hear them in the first place, that’s less useful. Will you hear a child in distress while you are reading? Will you hear a partner saying “we need to talk…” while you work on a programming project? Will you notice the cyclist ahead of you while you drive, in a single-minded hurry, to your next appointment or meeting? If not, I would suggest that your “flow” state is not a magical state of high performance, but potentially dangerous hyperfocus.

In my line of work I cannot afford to ignore what is going on around me in this way. Rather, I have to be alert to my environment and respond appropriately to relevant changes. If I couldn’t do this, I would be no better than a CD player.

The idea that we do our “best” work when immersed in some kind of superhuman work-trance also strikes me as false. Looking again at musical performance, it is true there have been times when my concentration is intense and responsive and that this can result in an excellent performance. But it’s also true that such performances have been the ones backed up by optimum preparation in terms of physical and mental training. An astounding musical performance happens because of, not in spite of, the rather more quotidian discipline of putting in the time to learn about the music, practice until it is consistently technically excellent, and getting to know diverse variables that can come up in the course of a performance.

Is there a sort of “flow” to that kind of preparation? Certainly, but it doesn’t come by magic. It comes from turning up every day to do the work: and if you let the lack of a feeling of “flow” prevent that work happening, there won’t be much flow to speak of for the performance.

Finally, I would argue that “flow” or skilful integration of attention isn’t as fragile as we sometimes think. Constant interruptions can be a problem, and it is worth minimising distractions in the environments in which we work. It isn’t productive for me to check Twitter or e-mail every five minutes while practising. I dislike trying to compose when there is background music to contend with. It would be totally unacceptable for me to answer my telephone in the middle of playing a hymn for a service, and I suggest that students leave the television and radio off while practising. But I know I can’t control everything that might grab my attention. There’s not much I can do about occasional thumpthump music from neighbours or someone else not turning their phone off for a service or concert. Sometimes, I will be interrupted, and it’s little use to fly into a rage or dive into despondency over the destruction of my precious, special, unique flow state. If a distraction needs to be dealt with, do so and move on. If it’s irrelevant, or impossible to change, ignore it and move on. Concentration is not a one-shot deal.

I do believe that “flow” states exist, and that we can experience them as both exhilarating and productive. This state of mind and body is not totally available on demand: rather, it takes time, practice and strategy. I don’t think it is particularly mysterious, though. Treating it as such is really just another tool for procrastination, another way of giving in to “but I don’t feel like it” instead of doing the tasks that bring the results you want.

Now, I really ought to be cleaning the kitchen…

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