Mental focus or concentration…
is not just for zen masters and chess prodigies. All of us can concentrate extremely well on certain things. Usually, you don’t really notice when you’re completely focused on something. You only realize the degree of your concentration later when you are amazed to find that hours have passed.
For some, those hours slip silently away while they play Halo or while watching Mega-Monster-Movie Marathons. Some may get lost in a good book or chatting online or shopping or playing basketball. Psychologists, led by a man with the tongue-busting name of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, have called this state “flow,” and have lost hundreds of hours of their own trying to figure out what makes it happen and how they can replicate it.
Csikszentmihalyi, in a Wired Magazine interview, describes this flow state as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Wow! What if we could get in that state while studying? If you could get sucked in to your physics text book or into your anatomy notes like that …
Dr. Csiks … uh … Dr. C. lists nine different characteristics of flow. Let’s take a look at each of them and look at how we might apply that to our studies.
(1) Clear and attainable goals. We aren’t talking about long term goals here. This means goals you can hit (or miss) within minutes. In fact, it needs to be even odds–more or less–that you’ll even be able to achieve the goal. It needs to be a challenge, but a possible challenge.
For someone who’s into sewing, the goal might be, “make this seam perfectly even.” For a basketball junkie, the goal might be, “sink this jump shot.” For a student, the goal might be, “recall that chart perfectly,” or “complete the next problem correctly.”
Be aware of your goal. Challenge yourself, but don’t set the challenge out of reach. And concentrate on goals you can hit or miss in the next few minutes, not on a goal that is weeks (or even hours) away. By the way, I’m not saying long-term goals aren’t important. I’m saying super-short-term goals are very important too.
(2) Focusing or Concentration. In general, we tend to focus on the most interesting thing in our environment. I hate going to restaurants with TVs in them, because I’m constantly having to drag my attention away from the idiot box with the interesting noises and flashing lights. Even if my dinner companions are interesting, they aren’t constantly interesting, whereas television advertisers spend millions of dollars figuring out how to constantly suck us back in. Bottom line? Every time the conversation lags–perhaps because of a mouthful of hot wings–my attention shifts back to the boob toob on the the wall.
Lesson: Make sure whatever you are studying is the most interesting thing in the room. Obviously, if you’re doing that assigned reading on “Alternative Uses for Styrofoam,” that can be quite a challenge.
You can make it the most interesting thing in the room either by (1) eliminating anything else that might be more interesting–TV, music, your cell phone, very small rocks, stray bits of lint–or, (2) by making your study materials more interesting. Better: do both–get rid of all distractions and increase the baseline interest level of whatever you’re studying–more on that soon.