Meditating comes with an interesting side effect: When you’re sitting still and observing your own thoughts, you slowly start to appreciate how weird and quirky your mind actually is. That can be scary at times—for instance, you realize how little control “you” ultimately have over what’s going on in there. But it can also be highly instructive.
One interesting thing I’ve come to notice, during as well as outside of formal meditation sessions, is how much the degree to which I feel “fidgety” varies from day to day and even from one situation to the next. There are times when it’s relatively easy to focus my attention at will, when there’s a slow undercurrent of calmness, rarely disturbed by intruding thoughts. But then, sometimes, the exact opposite is true: I’m feeling restless and unsteady, as if my mind is being yanked around between a thousand different things, all competing for limited cognitive resources. Engaging deeply with any one of those, however, becomes quite impossible. Instead, I’m caught in an endless loop of unproductive task switching. Running in high gear, but not going anywhere. Constantly distracting myself, and then distracting myself from the previous distraction.
Needless to say, the calm, attentive mind subjectively feels a lot better than the alternative. But not only that, this mental state—call it “flow” if you will—is also a prerequisite if I want to get anything done that requires creativity or prolonged concentration. Cal Newport calls these things “deep” work, but I would expand on the concept to include everything from writing, to thinking about a difficult problem, to coding, to reading, and even to having meaningful conversations with other people. To do any of these things well, my mind has to be free from outside distractions, and, more importantly, internal ones as well.
I’ve also learned that by far the strongest predictor of where my moment-to-moment experience falls along this spectrum between “flow” and “fidgeting” is quite simple: It is the pace, the quality, and the intensity of the input I have soaked up over the preceding hours and days. Have I been on back-to-back, 30 minute Zoom calls constantly for the last six hours? Or have I spent the day steadily advancing a single idea? Have I been doomscrolling through my newsfeed several times in the last thirty minutes, jumping from one headline to the next? Or have I been committed to simply reading a book? Have I listened to multiple short bursts of podcasts, news, half a chapter of an audiobook, and watched a fragment of a Youtube video, each on a totally different topic? Or have I taken a long walk in nature?
It sounds obvious, but the less “stuff” I’ve had coming in, and the more seriously I was able to engage with that stuff, the calmer my mind will turn out to be. And the more deeply I will be able to engage with whatever it is I’m confronted with next, be that work, literature, or, most importantly, the other person in front of me.
Less in this case really is more. But unfortunately, many of the technologies that we’ve put in charge of regulating our information diet completely work against our best interest: Simply put, as long as you keep scrolling, Twitter can show you more and more ads. But the platform doesn’t make any money when you’re deeply focused on reading just one long-form article—even more so, of course, if you do that offline. And there’s an undeniable, as well as disturbing, trend at play here as well: Through algorithmic amplification, even more stuff is thrown at you in shorter and shorter cycles. The information that reaches you is more compressed but also more fragmented. And since it has to compete for your limited attention with all the other stuff that is available, the platforms created a race to the bottom in which whatever is loudest, most colorful, and most outrageous wins. It’s hardly surprising that our mammalian brains (and minds) which have evolved over eons to handle the mostly dull and monotonous environment of the African savannah are completely overwhelmed.
Of course, this is not to say that there isn’t a lot of high quality content on platforms like Netflix, Blinkist, Youtube or even Tiktok. But that’s exactly the problem: How much more “good” content can you expect your mind to seriously take in, if you’re zapping through an average of three to four videos per minute? How deeply can you engage with a topic if you listen to a 15 minute summary of a 400 page book? And what if you’re doing both at the same time while also watching an award-winning documentary?
The solution, to me, is therefore quite simple—but it’s far from easy: To strengthen our capacity for concentration and attentiveness, we have to forsake convenience for depth. We have to reduce the quantity and increase the quality of the information we’re exposing our already overwhelmed minds to. That, of course, requires a basic level of discipline but also explicit forms of self-binding in cases where willpower alone won’t suffice. For example, I can choose to read one book in detail rather than listen to ten shallow summaries on Blinkist. But while doing that, I have to set my phone to do not disturb and put it across the room so I’m not tempted to distract myself with the all its notifications, shiny colors, and breaking news headlines. I’ve subscribed to a weekly newspaper and focus on the few, but well crafted long-reads in there rather than skimming the countless articles that Twitter would expose me to. My daily news I get form a trustworthy, journalistic outlet once or twice every day instead of from a constant barrage of click-bait headlines.
It’s changes like these which, once they took hold, slowly began to compound into something that has positively influenced my ability to pay attention and thus on the quality of my thinking, my work, and my relationships. Sure, these effects may be small. But considering that our attention is the most valuable resource we have, even the tiniest improvements in how we manage it can be meaningful. Meditating undoubtedly also has had a positive impact—at the very least as an indicator for how “fidgety” I am on a given day and thus how I should engage with the world.