Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.
This quote, tucked innocuously at the end of the third chapter of Rapt, Winifred Gallagher’s 2009 ode to focus, is life-changing.
Gallagher’s book begins with a cancer diagnosis (“not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind”). She realizes that this disease wants to claim her attention, and that this was no way to live what may be the last moments of her life. So she launches an experiment to reclaim her attention, relentlessly redirecting it towards the things that matter most: “big ones like family and friends, spiritual life and work, and smaller ones like movies, walks, and a 6:30 pm martini.”
Gallagher comes away from the experiment with a good prognosis for her disease and a visceral appreciation of a surprising fact: “life is the sum total of what you focus on,” yet most people expend little effort cultivating this focus.
This lack of cultivation comes through clearly in the student e-mails I receive. A recent request for advice, for example, noted:
“I feel overwhelmed and worried about these exams…as I see all this work [accumulate] I have doubts whether I can do it and get the grades or if it’s already too late.”
The student goes on to detail a doomsday scenario ending in his expulsion from college. A similar e-mail I received earlier this week begins:
“I am a rising senior and EXTREMELY stressed out and anxious about graduation, because I don’t have a set plan.”
In addition, I receive, on average, three or four e-mails per week from students obsessing over their qualifications for graduate, medical, or law school. Earning a “B” on a single test in a single class can spark an epic rumination on the student’s imminent failure in life.
These examples underscore an important reality: no amount of planning, productivity, or accomplishment will provide you an interesting and happy life if you allow your mind to run amok — ruminating on what has or could go wrong; fixating on slights and fantasy dialogues with invented nemeses; leaping perpetually to day dreams of some quixotic future where everything finally works out.
This is why Gallagher’s quote proves arresting. She both diagnoses the problem and describes the remedy: Training your mind is crucial in building a good life.
For some reason, however, us in the advice-dispensing business tend to sidestep this reality. It’s uncomfortable, I suppose, to transgress the boundary into the private space of our mental lives. Sure, we’ll occasionally stick a toe over the line, and tell our readers to overcome their fear of failure or to shake off society’s pressure to conform, but the messier mental gunk that coats so much of our inner world remains out of scope.
I want to put an end to this taboo…
I’ll start with an admission: I spend time, every day, tending to my mind. For example, I practice walking meditation each morning, and I use a shutdown routine, backed by extensive organization systems, to free my thoughts from work-related rumination during the evenings. These are just two examples from a large and aggressive collection of strategies I dedicate to cultivating my focus — a collection I review and polish once a week.
This is hard work and the results take time to manifest. But it’s work that I think all but the most naturally optimistic must include in their strategies for self-improvement, and this is why I want to start talking openly about the subject.
If you find yourself in a state of constant, draining, distracting thought, don’t confine your efforts to the outward causes. It’s important, of course, to fix the inefficient study habits that keep your grades erratic, or to reassess your understanding of passion when grappling with job satisfaction, but you should also dedicate effort inward, to weeding your mental garden, preventing the next batch of concerns — and there will always be a next batch — from leeching so many nutrients from your soul matter.
Perhaps the best motivation for this effort can be found in the words of Gallagher, who concludes: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
(Photo by Joel Bedford)
56 thoughts on “Treat Your Mind as You Would a Private Garden”
yay new post! Your posts are like weekly inspiration for building remarkable life for myself. Thank you for everything! keep it up the awesome writing you do!
What a wonderful post. You keep surprising me with the depth of your writing. Thank you
I’m glad to see this post finally come.
Since subscribing to this blog, it’s been readily apparent that your passion isn’t limited to improving studying and skill development. I think it is important that you start to address how these principals apply to life in general, and how that can be the real value that comes from being critical and analytic about yourself and how you approach life, challenges, school, etc.
I think it was at some point in middle school where I realized that TV tended to drain me of motivation, while reading inspired me. I simply made the choice to do more of the latter, and found that it worked just as I had expected. Ever since, I’ve been living an empirically guided life as much as possible, to what I consider my great benefit.
This blog was really the first time I had seen someone expressing that idea, and I understand your focus on academic success. However, I would urge you not to underestimate the kind of impact of life in general that this empirical sort of approach can have. I don’t think you do, and I look forward to seeing you explore this subject in further detail.
Not to get too carried away, but I truly feel that there is something of a revolution in personal philosophy here.
Can you share more of your strategies for developing focus? Thanks
Glad to see you’re writing about this topic. I agree that much advice-dispensing overlooks the deeper things that people put their minds through on a daily basis…and that makes much self-help and advice dry and obsolete. If you can’t or don’t train your mind, you can’t implement advice given to you, or if you can, breakthroughs come slowly.
I tried to help a friend in high school who was having a horrible time with her school-work, but no matter what I said, she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) avail herself of any advice. She had so much clutter and worry going on inside that attention to actually fixing the problem was too much. I see now that focus and training yourself to think on things that are important and to throw out all the junk is the only way to enable yourself to grow and change in any aspect of life. Thanks for the post Cal!
I’d love to hear more practical advice about these strategies.
Going along with this concept of your mind as a garden, you guys will probably enjoy the book “Magnificent Mind at Any Age” by Daniel Amen.
What will help your mind TREMENDOUSLY is: basic diet and exercise. Think of those things as the earth, light, and water that feed the seeds of information and knowledge, which then grow and eventually bear fruit so you can reap the rewards. (Analogy overdrive haha)
Not exercising and not getting the right nutrients is akin to polluting the soil, and so is making a bad enviroment for your garden to thrive in.
“Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.”
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett. 🙂
Helpful, wise, and timely for me. Thank you.
This reminds me a lot of your post on Steve Martin’s success secret- “Get to be so good that they cant ignore you”
My one question is this. I’m a daydreamer, and I often do it to escape from the pains of the day. Do you, or anyone else, have a clear maker for when daydreaming/brainstroming crosses the line from being productive, creative, imaginative thought to paralyzing?
Horace – look through Cal’s archives to find more information on focus. Start with the Zen articles. Please use the Search function before posting.
Cal – do you have the time, and the passion, to write articles about the various ways to spice up a person’s writing? Its boring to read the same four common types of sentences over and over and ….
If you’re interested in developing focus, the very foundation of meditation is awareness and concentration, so that’s the obvious way to proceed (along with Paolo’s suggestions of healthy diet and exercise, of course).
There are lots of resources out there, including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books, particularly Wherever You Go, There You Are. My own experience has been with ten-day “vipassana” retreats run by students of S.N. Goenka–see dhamma.org for details. They were hard work, but for an intensive immersion into the technique, they’re tough to beat.
Excellent post. I’m considering every possible input I’m exposing to my mind (TV, movies, books, articles, conversations etc) and thinking, “Is this what I want to be cultivating in my garden?”
I will definitely read Rapt. Starting the habit of meditation and mind tending while a young adult will pay off in amazing ways in years to come (in addition to the “now” benefits). I wish I had begun to think along these lines in my 20s!
Great post, as usual. I’ve missed your insights over the past few weeks!
interesting post and dovetails with some of the things I’ve been practicing recently to help me develop my focus, concentration and ‘mindfulness’ especially ashtanga yoga. I’m a PhD student at harvard finishing off my thesis(I’m not in residence this year, otherwise I would have insisted we have coffee!), and I too have benefited from your posts. And I know people who work in finance who read you as well! Just to say, great work! Like some of the other people above I’m curious about your meditation and “shutdown routine/organizing systems” techniques –any tips, book/article recommendations would be much appreciated.
Thank you Aaron. This is a transition I’m trying to make in both my own life and my public writing.
An abundance of similar experiences helped convince me this topic was worth discussing.
I’m considering sharing more about my own toolbox of tips. But I’m no expert. It’s probably best to start by reading the same sort of expert source material I did. For example, read: Gallagher’s Rapt, Matthew Ricard’s The Art of Happiness (or something like that), and/or Zinser’s Full Calamity Living — as a starting place. I’m also getting a lot out of Power’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. This will point you towards a lot of historical thinking on this topic.
I was a constant day-dreamer. Now I set aside time for such wanderings, but don’t indulge in it outside of those times.
Write for an audience. Again and again. The pressure of clear feedback on whether people like your writing will develop it in good directions.
I like Zinn. (I think I accidentally called him Zinser in my above recommendation of books to read.)
A good starting place is the post I linked to regarding my shutdown routine — it goes into some detail. My Kabat-Zinn is a good starting place for some practical insight into the type of walking meditation I perform.
One of the biggest things that I notice when I first talk to people about how they’re using their time is an immense amount of mental confusion.
Stepping back and getting clear on what’s really important, what’s really within their control, and what decisions they can make–right now–floods them with peace.
” Training your mind is crucial in building a good life”. This same thing is taught to me when I go to the temple.Our scriptures (Bhagavad-Gita) talks about training our mind with practice and detachment so that we can focus on what is important in life and not be distracted by petty temptations(which are harmful).
Thanks for the inspiration. Focus is essential to success. I’m happy to be reminded of this time and again.
I really love you posts on focus and “living a remarkable life” and I think it’s a really great direction you’re going with the blog. You mentioned that every day and week you go over the strategies you use to keep your mind in shape. Can you share what are the other sort of things you do?
All of this from a computer science PhD? Well, I’ve got to ask, since you have read works like Hamlet’s Blackberry, how do you program and remain a resourceful programmer without losing yourself in technology?
To clarify, this post is not about focusing on work to being more successful. It’s about eliminating draining, distracting thoughts.
I’m a theoretical computer scientists. I don’t program.
ah, but “fixating on slights and fantasy dialogues with invented nemeses; leaping perpetually to day dreams of some quixotic future where everything finally works out” is the very materia prima of fiction. Us creative folk need to do that on a daily basis.
I think there is a difference between being imaginative and being unfocused. The former might involve imagining interesting new dialogues and encounters. The latter might involve imagining telling off your boss ten times in a row.
I think it’s important to avoid mental ruts where you keep replaying the same self-indulgent scenarios. They crowd out the truly creative thoughts (and the real focus).
“Thought means life, since those who do not think do not live in any high or real sense. Thinking makes the man” – A.B. Alcott
This was such a great post. I am certainly guilty of behaving like the students in your emails and filling my mind with stress and worry leaves no room for happiness and joy. Are there any techniques you particularly recommend for those of us starting out on trying to “train our minds”?
‘Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.’ Marcus Aurelius
This statement is very much in tune with your thoughts! Good stuff
Want to buy the book but apparently shipping takes to weeks for ppl living in Germany… is it worth reading?!
I understand the unifying theme in your posts: specialization, obsession, and focus are the keys to success. What if my focus on a topic is mistaken (by my loved ones) as an obsession? I love hockey and I know everything about hockey, and I am currently studying management of business, events, and marketing to someday work closely with and support that industry. However, people think I’m nuts and I’m a psychopath. How do I communicate my efforts as true passion and not psychotic obsession?
According to Anthony Robbins, you control your focus by changing the questions you ask yourself. We are always asking and answering questions in our heads. Changing the questions I ask myself has been the most powerful mechanism I’ve found for changing focus on a dime.
yeah nazim brings up a decent point. i’m an EE/CS undergraduate program and we have to program ALOT! the internet is very resourceful to make sure you’re doing it right. any tips?
You are an inspiration to me for leading a academically successful and happy life. Thank you!
Amazing post — thanks so much for this. I read the comments asking for practical advice and I’d like to recommend The Work of Byron Katie. It has a short process to use when stressful thoughts kick in, and I use it every morning as a sort of mind-cleanse to address any thoughts that are leading to feelings I don’t want. As a daily practice it works magnificently and all it takes is pencil and paper.
can i plz get the link to the blog where he talks about mid semester dash?
Hey Cal! It’s been a while since I’ve contacted you! Anyway, I wanted to commend you on this post. Admittedly, when I first contacted you (was it 2007?), I tried and initially succeeded in being more efficient in studying and lessening my work load. In the long run, however, I did not succeed. The root of my issues were buried deep in negative cognitions. (I was ordered a medical leave in 2009).
I was overly self-criticizing as I tried to reach an impossible “ideal” of crippling perfectionism. I allowed it to consume my thoughts and to handicap my potential to succeed. Only during the two year medical leave and extensive counseling did I realize “cultivating a (healthy) mind” resulted in better focus and improved mood.
Although I still struggle, particularly with my perfectionism and anxiety from time to time, this everyday practicing of ‘tending to my mind’ has been extremely life-changing. A healthy mind will always help you achieve consistently great results.
Great advice! Thank you!. I like it all, but mostly “Training your mind is crucial in building a good life.”
Clearly going through the post readers will agree with the above as its true so its good to read from a poster that’s writing this online to read
I really enjoyed reading this article! As someone who sometimes finds myself stressed, I found this information really helpful. I have heard about just focusing on the important things while working on school work, but have never really applied that to other aspects of life. I believe that this would be very effective and can’t wait to try this. Just focus on the important things and forget about the unimportant things! I also like the idea of “mental weeding” I will definitely start using this.
I really liked this post. I am a college student as well and am so stressed about all the new things that come up in my life. Things like money, work, and grades. But the one thing that is most stressful to me right now is WHERE AM I GOING IN LIFE! It is so hard to know what to do and what to major in because I want to provide for a family. This was a great post and will definitely work on these things.
Treat Your Mind as You Would a Private Garden
July 6th, 2010
Lately I feel as though I have been stressing myself out on trying to become a perfect student/daughter/sister/friend/employee, that I am not seeing life for what it truly is, because we are all supposed to enjoy life, not just endure it.
How does one become happy, it is not by dwelling on the past, or future problems, it is by living in the moment, living life to its fullest, focusing on the things in life that truly matter. I like how Gallagher says, “life is the sum total of what you focus on,” so if one focuses on the good and the positive, then they will enjoy whatever circumstance life throws at them.
Something that I have a hard time with not allowing my mind to jump to conclusions and come up with the craziest of scenarios. After reading this, “no amount of planning, productivity, or accomplishment will provide you an interesting and happy life if you allow your mind to run amok,” it helped me to put into perspective the fact that I am allowing my mind to run amok. If I let myself keep doing this, I will never be able to be satisfied with what I am doing and where I am at (goal wise).
It has a lot to do with psychology I feel. What is going on with my mind, what am I thinking. Our minds are smarter than we think they are, they pick up on things that we don’t even imagine. Many negative thoughts and things of “I am” stick in our minds. So if we say I am dumb, or I am slow or stressed or incapable, etc. then our sub-conscience mind will pick it up and make it that way, but on the other hand if we say we are super smart and we can do all things, we allow our minds to work in that direction, making us capable of all things. Therefore, “training your mind is crucial in building a good life.” She talks about keeping in order your mental garden. So that means sometimes you have to weed out the things that don’t really matter, things that you don’t really need to focus on at that time, keep it organized. I know that there are nights that I don’t sleep until 3/4:00 in the morning because I feel that I still have so much to do and worrying about things that should not be my main focus. So I really like how she concludes by saying, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” I just need to organize and train my mind and keep my thoughts optimistic and I will live a happy life, because it is not, if this only happened to my life then I would be happy, rather, I am happy with my life right now and therefore I am happy. It’s all about perspective and all about clearing the mind of all negativity, me being the master of my own life, not letting objects/circumstances be my master.
Very interesting thoughts throughout this post, i found it rather insightful that by focusing on our current state and trying to keep it tamed is better for us then looking toward a future where we are happy. “no amount of planning, productivity, or accomplishment will provide you an interesting and happy life if you allow your mind to run amok” this quote hit me the hardest since my whole day, everyday, is controlled by planning for a better future. I would love to see much more on this subject as it makes me question how i live my life and i love that.
Some folks might find it helpful to explore the idea of “reframing” as part of the process. Is it possible to imagine that Winifred Gallagher’s process was not only about what to introduce to the garden but also what to remove from the garden?
I have also found that the “Chimp Paradox” helps explain why the mind is so resistant to lifestyle change.