There are two ways to tackle distraction: avoidance and mindful practice. If you're distracted by a tool like the Internet, don't cover your eyes and disconnect until it's no longer a source of distraction. Instead, understand the nature of your distraction and practice changing your relationship to it. Use mindfulness to practice self-control and willpower.
I have a folder called 'Free-Writing' that I created almost a year ago with the intention of developing a daily free-writing habit (a technique where you attempt to write non-stop until you reach a certain number of words, writing about whatever comes to your head; it's a form of thought-streaming). The folder currently contains about 17,000 words of writing, but that only represents 32 days in the past 10 months that I've actually sat down to write something in there.
Suffice to say, I haven't formed a daily free-writing habit.
I was adding to the folder again today, jotting down a few thoughts I've had recently on how the lack of silence and solitude in our lives is likely having a negative impact on our personal development, when I became curious about what I had written as my first entry in this free-writing folder (the writing distractions never end). I'm including that first entry below. Ironically enough, I'm writing this entry from the same Starbucks mentioned in the entry below.
I'm sharing this free-writing passage with you because I'd like to hear what you think about me sharing more stuff like this. From my perspective, this free-writing often borders on gibberish-- it's usually just me emptying my head and remarking on things while I go off on different tangents. But it feels wrong to assume what you would think about it.
I've learned that what seems obvious and worthless to us can often be valuable and insight for others. Maybe my gibberish is your gold.
If you find something valuable in the entry below, please let me know and I will start sharing more bits from my free-writing. Perhaps sharing my free-writing will even help with developing a daily free-writing habit.
It's snowing outside and I'm here sitting in Starbucks drinking a large latte as it snows outside. Every glance out the window I'm reminded how alien and different the world seems, so white, wet, cold, beautiful. It's as if something is erasing the landscape, slathering on a fresh coat of paint.
Perhaps I'm staring a little too much, waiting for something to happen, delaying my writing, using the snow as an excuse not to write. How silly that sounds. But is it really so silly? How many excuses do we come up with on an almost daily basis? Excuses not to exercise, not to wake up early in the morning, not to start that next project or begin working on that idea that's been bugging us for the past few weeks or months.
There I go, I was doing it again, staring out the window contemplating nothing. That would normally be fine on any other occasion, but this time I'm committed to writing at least 500 words here, thought-streaming even if it means emptying gibberish from my head. That's an interesting thought: emptying gibberish from my head. If that's what is there, then emptying it should be a good thing. It will give the good stuff room to breathe, room to grow.
I have the urge to check how many words I've written so far because I want to stop. I feel the pressure to "do something productive" and that's pulling me away from this thing I've committed to. I really should commit to doing this more often, to taking my thoughts and simply emptying them to words, pouring them out through my fingers.
I have no doubt that regular emptying of my thoughts will result in a better flow for the thoughts I want to share with others. Anything worth doing requires practice to perfect. If I want to get better at expressing and sharing my thoughts, then I need to practice expressing and sharing my thoughts.
If I want to improve my ability to express and share my thoughts, then the mechanism of turning thoughts into words needs to be practiced. I need to get used to turning thought into word, into taking ideas and concepts in their thought-form and shaping them into ideas and concepts in word-form.
It's almost silly to think that one's ability to express ideas and concepts in word form will somehow magically improve over time, that simply having the desire to improve will make us improve.
Practice will help us improve, not the passage of time. We need to be practicing the art of expressing thoughts and concepts if we wish to improve that skill.
If I want to improve my writing, I need to write. Regularly. Daily if possible. (Of course it's possible.)
If I want to improve my speaking, I need to speak. Regularly. I need to practice conveying concepts by speech, of turning ideas and messages in their thought-form and converting them to ideas and messages in their speech form.
If I want to improve my physical body, the ability for it to stretch and grow and function properly, then I need to exercise my body daily. I need to stretch daily. Simply doing it once in awhile isn't enough. It needs to be regular practice.
Without regular practice, how can we expect to improve? The absence of regular practice creates a plateau where progress stalls. To ensure forward-movement, we must create a habit of regular practice.
"Honor those you quote by practicing their wisdom and then quoting yourself; be not a mirror but a sprouting seed." I was compelled to publish that thought after seeing popular quote after popular quote retweeted and shared on the Internet.
The importance of practicing the wisdom behind popular quotes instead of simply sharing and forgetting them is paramount. I believe the best way we can honor the authors of those quotes is not by sharing their wisdom, but by practicing it.
After I published my thought, my friend Amit shared the following passage from Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, which gelled very well with this train of thinking (the following was written about 2,000 years ago):
But in the case of a grown man who has made incontestable progress it is disgraceful to go hunting after gems of wisdom, and prop himself up with a minute number of the best-known sayings, and be dependent on his memory as well; it is time he was standing on his own feet. He should be delivering himself of such sayings, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that a man who is old or in sight of old age should have a wisdom deriving solely from his notebook. ‘Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? ‘Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under others’ orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity.
Produce something from your own resources. This is why I look on people like this as a spiritless lot – the people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators, always lurking in someone else’s shadow. They never venture to do for themselves the things they have spent such a long time learning. They exercise their memories on things that are not their own. It is one thing, however, to remember, another to know. To remember is to safeguard something entrusted to your memory, whereas to know, by contrast, is actually to make each item your own, and not to be dependent on some original and be constantly looking to see what the master said. ‘Zeno said this, Cleanthes that.’ Let’s have some difference between you and the books! How much longer are you going to be a pupil? From now on do some teaching as well. Why, after all, should I listen to what I can read for myself? ‘The living voice,’ it may be answered, ‘counts for a great deal.’ Not when it is just acting in a kind of secretarial capacity, making itself an instrument for what others have to say.
I've been taking piano lessons for the past two months. I haven't written about it here on my blog but I'll save the details of what motivated me to learn the piano for another post. Right now I'm writing because I recognized something after two months of taking piano lessons. A weekly thirty-minute one-on-one session with a coach doesn't make someone a proficient pianist. It's the practice that makes someone a proficient pianist.
But I already knew that. In fact, when I started taking lessons I knew that if I didn't practice I wouldn't get anywhere. Now it's been two months and I feel like I don't know nearly as much as I should. Every week I end up not practicing enough because I constantly put practice off until tomorrow, telling myself that I can make up for it later. As the weekly session with my coach gets closer, I feel more and more anxiety for not having practiced enough. I fear he will call me out on it and get angry. But why should he? It's not his fault. There is no one to blame for lack of practice but myself! I'm paying him for his time and if I choose not to make use of what I'm paying for then I'm only screwing myself. No one else.
That's another interesting thing. Every week I feel so sure my coach will call me out for not practicing enough but every single time I leave the session calm and relaxed. I'm sure he notices that I haven't practiced but he doesn't get angry or make me feel bad for not practicing. Instead he calmly coaches me and helps me improve, even if the improvements are barely noticeable. Sure, yelling and screaming can be useful when you're pushing your physical body and trying to block out what your brain is telling you, but when you're trying to get your brain to learn something new it has to want to do it. Pressuring your brain into learning just won't work.
Practice under stress is bad. Very bad. Our brains are wired to shut down certain areas when we're stressed out. Stress makes learning much more difficult. If we're stressed out every time we practice, we're not going to look forward to practicing (and when we do, it won't be effective anyway). Practice should be fun. Science has even proven that we learn faster and remember more when we're having fun!
When I started learning the piano, I set myself a goal of being able to play Fur Elise by December 25th, 2009. That's about four months away. At the rate I'm going now it will probably take me another year. But I can fix that. I can shorten one year of skill development into four months. All I need to do is commit to practicing and make it a regular habit. It needs to become a routine -- as routine as sleeping or brushing my teeth. And it needs to be regular. Cramming in a six-hour practice session the day I'm meeting with my coach won't help my brain form new synapses.
You are what you repeatedly do. That's my new mantra. Earlier today I opened a random book on my bookshelf and turned to a random page and saw that quote. Starting today, I'm going to write that sentence every single morning when I wake up and spend a few seconds contemplating what I want to be. Do I want to be nothing? Then I should do things that equate to nothing. Do I want to be a decent pianist? Then I should practice the piano daily.