I recently began reading Haruki Murakami’s excellent mini-memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. If your life requires a non-trivial amount of creative work, I highly recommend this quick read.
Today, I wanted to focus on a few quotes that resonated with my thinking. On page 77, Murakami remarks:
If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus — the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value.
You’ve heard me make this argument before. But Murakami takes the idea somewhere interesting when he then notes:
Fortunately [sustaining focus for a long period of time] can be acquired and sharpened through training.
His suggestion is to “sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.” To Marukami, training to write for four to five hours each morning was no different than training for the marathon that he’s run every year for the past two decades.
From Murakami to the Classroom
These quotes popped to mind when I received an e-mail this morning from a worried student.
“I’m in an environment that I love, doing what I want to be doing for the rest of my life,” she began.
“But I’m struggling to stay afloat…I try to stay engaged…I schedule time blocks in my day planner, but just ignore them and do other things.”
“I’m having a really, really hard time not putting everything off until the last minute before their due.”
To me, this student is like Murakami’s untrained novelist. School work, like any work that requires demanding thinking, is tiring. After a grace period of maybe 20 – 30 minutes, your mind starts to disengage. In the red book, I compare the sensation to a weight descending inside your skull. Your energy fades and you begin to experience a desperate craving for novel stimulation. Nothing in the world seems more tempting than to go seek such stimulation — to check your e-mail, or sift through your Facebook feed like a hyper-extroverted gold prospector.
To succeed as a student (or a novelist) you have to fight that feeling and keep working. I call this ability hard focus.
Our student from above probably lacks hard focus muscles. She has no training in keeping her concentration locked even after resistance builds. And because of this, she’s collapsing well short of the finish line in the mental marathons she needs to run as an upper-level student.
Fortunately, as Marukami explained, this deficiency can be remedied in the same way that a runner builds his endurance: you have to try to push yourself, each day, a little farther than is comfortable. Over time, your threshold raises.
My Marathon Training
Consider my own example. I’m in the middle of a challenge that might scare most students in my position: I’m writing a doctoral dissertation and a book simultaneously. (Literally: my thesis and manuscript are due within a week of each other.)
This requires, on average, 4 – 6 hours of hard focus (split about evenly between the two projects) per day, five days per week.
I could not have pulled this off five years ago. But in the intervening half decade, I’ve been pushing hard to expand my hard focus capacity. As my graduate student experience progressed, I systematically increased the amount of time I would force myself to work continuously without a break to seek unrelated stimulation. This culminated in my current schedule in which I write for 2 – 3 hours, take a break for lunch, e-mail, and exercise, and then work on my thesis for 2 – 3 hours, before finishing for the day.
My life right now is not easy. And you’ll have to ask me in September if my training was sufficient to get me all the way to the finish line. (I don’t like to mention my challenges publicly because I’m superstitious and feel like its taunting the Gods. I made a reluctant exception for this article because I think the bigger point is so important.) But for now, it’s not overwhelming. Like the well-trained marathoner at the 19th mile marker, I’ve built up the required muscle mass to keep moving at a good pace.
These thoughts all lead to a simple conclusion. When assessing your progress on producing things of real value (the best path to building a rewarding and well-rewarded life), consider your own capacity for hard focus. Most important accomplishments boil down to this single, often overlooked ability.