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Deep Habits: Listen to Baseball on the Radio

April 11th, 2015 · 35 comments

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Distracted in the Dugout

Last week, the Washington Post featured a front page story about the declining number of kids who play organized baseball. There are various reasons for this decline, but the story emphasized the sport’s lack of action.

Here’s an articulate 15-year old, as quoted in the article, explaining his reasons for quitting baseball:

Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.

This teenager is right. Baseball, undoubtedly, is a slow sport: even more so for spectators than the players.

But while this might be bad news for those hoping to attract the allegiance of the iPhone generation, I’ve found it to be quite useful in my own quest to sharpen my deep work skills.

Deep Relaxation

In particular, I try to listen to at least one baseball game per week on the radio (we don’t have cable, and I can’t stream local coverage, so there’s no other way for me to legally catch the games).

When listening, I maintain a strict “no technology” rule — no phones, no iPads, no other source of electronic distraction (I do allow myself to read during commercial breaks).

My experience is that the slowness of the games, combined with the lack of visual stimuli, can be, at first, excruciating.

If I stick with it, however, my mind eventually downshifts — quieting the noisy neuronal clamoring for easy entertainment, and leaving instead an unencumbered attention of a type that I often seek in my work.

Listening to a ballgame, in other words, becomes excellent training for reaching and maintaining the deep mental states that produces things that matter.

I’m not suggesting that everyone become baseball fans. I am suggesting, however, that if you take deep work seriously, it’s worth having some rituals outside your professional life that help you practice the states of mind it requires.

(Photo by Garry Wilmore)

35 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Listen to Baseball on the Radio

  1. Marc says:

    Hi Cal,

    Do you have any data to support your claim?

    It is quite interesting. I would like to know more about it.

    Thanks.

  2. Erik says:

    Although I think your findings are a bit anecdotal, I agree with your conclusion. Just like reading demands cognitive skills, so does listening. I find listening to baseball games to be great training for being a good listener in the lecture setting and for being mindful in other listening scenarios.

    Listening to a baseball game also requires other skill sets like visualizing the situation through what the broadcaster is telling you and creating a mental model of the game allowing the listener to anticipate what moves the teams will be trying to make in the game.

    I disagree with the person quoted in the article. Football has many of the set breaks and by-design turns just like baseball and can be another opportunity for developing listening skills. Football can also be much slower and longer then baseball in most instances. But my disappointment with the quote is at the beginning, “Baseball is a bunch of thinking.” God forbid that some thinking break out while trying to spectate.

    Thanks for another great article.

  3. Agustin Barboza says:

    Cal,
    What types of habits or rutines you would suggest to a teenager that wants to have more deep work in his life and be less distracted by technology? Thanks for reading Cal, and congratulations for your fantastic blog!

  4. My experience is that the slowness of the games, combined with the lack of visual stimuli, can be, at first, excruciating.

    If you are used to listening to something while driving, try driving in complete silence. You get the same urge and its so painful. After a while you reach a place of calm. Very interesting thing to observe.

    1. I second your advice Jeremy!

      I use transit time as its own type of meditation. Even when I’m driving long distance. Now I drive 75% or more of the time in silence, it’s such a rich experience.

      And to echo Cal, this kind of immersive practice spills over into my other activities, to great benefit.

      Evan

  5. Kathy says:

    The links on your site are not working. Try the links in this article, and you will see what I mean.

    1. Cameron says:

      The links are working for me. For what it’s worth.

  6. Elaine says:

    Ha – I used to do this with my grandfather, major league baseball especially. It does develop concentration and “the mind’s eye”. In-depth radio programs of all kinds can do something similar and I think many people today still enjoy this type of experience via podcasts like “Welcome to Night Vale” if not live broadcast radio. This post has me rethinking my resistance to audiobooks. I find them waaay too slow compared to reading text but recapturing the pace and magic of being read to aloud could be worth it. Baseball may still be the best though. There is a plot but plenty of space for day dreaming too. 🙂

    1. Sophia M says:

      Absolutely. One thing I’ve also observed when knitting or doing other fine needle work is that in order to knit or sew, I need to make my mind calm, or the knots or stitches I make are uneven. It was actually through knitting that I have come to learn to observe the states of my mind and how they can interfere with producing quality work. And I have learned to appreciate the need for a calm mind.

  7. Carole Tansley says:

    I recently re-visited the craft of knitting and found the rhythmic turn of the stitch to induce an almost suspended mental state. Getting ‘into the zone’ occurred fairly quickly and produced a result akin to recharging the mental batteries. When returning to my academic writing I found myself being able to make the same ‘quick switch’ into deep work.

    Thank you for your stimulating blog. Good luck with the book.
    Carole

    1. Sophia M says:

      (I apologize, I misplaced my reply and first posted it above, when it should be here, to Ms. Tansley)

      Absolutely. One thing I’ve also observed when knitting or doing other fine needle work is that in order to knit or sew, I need to make my mind calm, or the knots or stitches I make are uneven. It was actually through knitting that I have come to learn to observe the states of my mind and how they can interfere with producing quality work. And I have learned to appreciate the need for a calm mind.

  8. Courtney Leeds says:

    Now this is a really interesting post! To be honest, it can get pretty tedious listening to people hack on problems that Peter Drucker solved long ago. But this, this is an interesting idea.

    I am a fan of baseball, but I cannot remember the last game I listened to on the radio. Consider me compelled, Mr. Newport. I will definitely give this one the old college try.

    1. A.I. says:

      It’s true, Peter Drucker pointed out many things that still apply today.

      I’ve mentioned his point repeatedly that while all effective knowledge workers have a system, barely no two use the same system.

      It’s all about trial and error and finding out what really works best for you, and that is the hard part. Still, I like getting input from this blog and like to try one or the other hack.

      Currently, I find myself struggling with a milestone/work input dichotomy again, which leads me to believe I need to track both.

  9. David M. Dunn says:

    This surprises me. If you genuinely desire to slow down all one has to do is meditate. Ever the Beatles knew this.
    I simply meditate for about 20 minutes. Daily, and it does not require 2 teams of people batting balls, nor any electronic machinery. When I say “simply” I am stating quite conclusively that it is simple to accomplish. There are dozens of books on how to do this. There is thousands of research projects available to read. For those who read this and are asking for me to cite specifics I tell you to do your own research. It is your job.
    When I said I was surprised by this article I will amend that to include “disappointed”.

    1. Sophia M says:

      Looks like you’ve missed some points central to actual Buddhist meditation – compassion and generosity …

  10. Sportacus says:

    Can’t take your advice this one time, Cal. Baseball is boring to tears on TV. I’ll just actually do research for 3 hours instead.

    1. John O'Donnel says:

      I agree. This post is filler.

  11. Very cool-It seems you use listening to baseball as a form of meditation: quieting your mind and focusing on the moment.

    This technique could work well for people who aren’t huge fans of traditional meditation.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  12. Erik says:

    Can’t you just meditate like the other hip kids? Geez, Cal.

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    I enjoyed listening to the Giants-Nats game on the radio during last year’s playoffs.

  14. Tom says:

    I do this with cricket! But you have to actually be focused on whats happening; it’s very easy to just listen in the back of the mind.

  15. Bob Whyte says:

    I have listened to baseball on radio since I was a kid and continue today to listen to as many games as I can – love to hear the different announcers from the various teams: it’s the radio announcers that give LIFE to the game.

  16. Paul says:

    i just came here from the feedly link to tell you to look into meditation, but I see a few people already beat me to it. 🙂

    I meditate 45 mins everyday. It only gets better with time.

    And best of all, all backed by science.

  17. Watching or listening to cricket has the same effect – but matches can last five days, including all the tea breaks, so a good book helps.

  18. Carey Green says:

    Cal, I love your work around “deep work” and “passion” (or lack of it) 🙂

    In this you article you said of when your brain finally downshifts: “leaving instead an unencumbered attention of a type that I often seek in my work.”

    I’d love to hear your most succinct description of that “unencumbered attention” you’re referring to here. If it’s in a blog post I’ve missed, great – point me to it. I’m just seeking a bit more clarity from you on exactly what that looks like.

    Thanks again for all the great work! I’m a fan…

  19. A.I. says:

    I have this experience when rowing on a lake.

    Rowing is technically very challenging and requires total focus, or you’ll capsize and find yourself swimming.

    I find myself extraordinarily relaxed when coming back from a rowing trip from a lake. Unfortunately, I can’t find the time to do that often enough, because it involves at least half a day of travel back and forth.

    I suppose one has to be really into baseball. I once watched a game live and on TV, and the game is so excruciatingly boring that I don’t think this tip would work for me.

    I prefer doing sports over watching sports anyway. I would rather shoot some balls at the basket to get my mind to diffused mode rather than watching an NBA game.

    At my alma mater, there is opportunity to play basketball almost every day, even for hobbyist players like myself, so you don’t have to be on the team.

    Other than that, I would strongly recommend mindfulness practices, see Jon Kabat-Zinn. My main problem is staying awake through those exercises, so I use them at bed time. 🙂

  20. Simon says:

    The nice thing about baseball is that it lends itself to doing other things while the game is on in the background. I spent 3 hours doing my taxes a few weeks ago and had a game on in the background, and it created a nice meditative atmosphere where I just went into a trance and got the work done.

    The trick is to find the just the right volume setting on the radio where the game is just loud enough to hear, but not loud enough to distract you. That way you can concentrate on your work but be able to shift your focus to the game for 30 seconds here and there when the game gets interesting. If you follow the same team, you get to know the announcers and the players and can follow the rhythm of the game almost subconsciously without having to directly pay attention.

    Again, the trick is to do something else while the game is on and find the perfect volume setting on the radio.

  21. RJH says:

    I found your article interesting, because it suggests that cognitive habits trained in one domain (listening to baseball) will generalize to others. That definitely seems worthy of some systematic study, as one of the other commentors noted.

    Totally anecdotally, I find the same thing happens with me when I listen to music without other distractions. Classical music works well, but it can be any type of music that has subtlies. Not only is there a slowing calming effect that Cal describes, but I find it puts me in a state of mind where I can pull back and attend not only to details (the notes, dominant rhythm patterns, a theme or motif) but to larger patterns/relationships among the parts. Then this more ‘meta’ level of thinking can transfer to my work projects as well.

    Meditation will achieve the slowing/calming effect, but I am not certain that it necessarily provides the experience of noting complex patterns and then transferring some of that ability back to work.

  22. Adam Thomas says:

    Hmm.

    A new form of meditation. A new season. And A new type of training.

    Consider me in…

  23. Nik says:

    Even when watching something as action-packed as “Spartacus” on Netflix, I find myself reaching for my phone to seek out novel stimuli (and the accompanying dopamine dripped we’ve discussed on this blog). A baseball game has a slower pace and more sporadic action than an action-filled flick. Hence, baseball spectating would accentuated the craving to seek out novel stimulus. But cutting off technology or other such sources of stimuli trains the attention of an otherwise wandering mind to settle on the object of focus (baseball).

    What other practice trains the attention of the a wandering mind to settle on an object of focus? The practice other comments have touched on — the increasingly prevalent but ancient discipline of meditation. The mind drifts about various desires and aversions as it’s trained to focus on an object of the present moment (often the breath). Upon practice and perseverance, settling and stillness is reported amongst accomplished practitioners.

    The practices we describe correspond to the Sanskrit word “bhavana,” which indicates in the Pali Canon (Buddhist scriptures) an intentional effort over time with respect to the development of a particular faculty. And modern neuroscience imaging studies have demonstrated the transferability of meditation to executive function — a skill required for deep work to acquiring the unique and valuable skills, and in turn work we’ll love (as described in “So Good”).

  24. Stella says:

    This is actually what I really need. I find myself unable to be 100% focused sometimes. So thank you Scott and everyone else for sharing your thoughts. I will try it today.

  25. Khadijah says:

    If you love the game and it’s notboring to you , would you still get the benefits . I love Test cricket , imagine a baseball game played over 5 days and loving it 🙂

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