On concentration & warehousing
I added Twitter to my phone again a few weeks ago since I was out and about and wanted a way to “stay connected.” Unsurprisingly, I found myself checking it much more often this week. Old habit energies of checking my phone re-emerged and I removed the app again. However, it was a good reminder for me on the relationship between concentration, happiness and warehousing.
There is a phrase by Thich Nhat Hanh on concentration that I think about often:
Concentration is the practice of happiness. There is no happiness without concentration.
Think about how radical that statement is. It blows me away in its simplicity…
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to elaborate on how to practice concentration:
“When you eat an orange, try to practice concentration. Eat it in such a way that pleasure, joy, and happiness are possible the whole time. You could call this orange meditation. You take an orange in the palm of your hand. You look at it and breathe in such a way that it reveals itself as the miracle it is. An orange is nothing less than a miracle. It is just like you—you are also a miracle of life. You are a manifest miracle. If I am 100 percent there, the orange reveals itself
I’ve written about similar ideas before in monotasking, and how you can use this over time to expand mindfulness, and how concentration is essential for deep work. But there’s something interesting about how do you protect that initial moment of concentration in a world of constant distractions?
In Roy Baumeister’s “Willpower” there’s a chapter on David Blaine’s habits. For those of you that don’t know David Blaine, for decades he’s performed feats of astounding life-threatening endurance that keep breaking records (e.g., holding his breath for 17.5 minutes; shackling himself to a rotating gyroscope without food or water). All of this started when he was a kid:
[…] He learned to win swimming races by not coming up for air the entire length of the pool […] In the winter, he eschewed a coat, wearing only a T-shirt even when walking for miles on bitterly cold days. He regularly took cold baths and conducted the occasional barefoot run in the snow. He slept on the wooden floor of his bedroom, and once spent two straight days in a closet (his tolerant mother brought him food). He got in the habit of continually setting goals that had to be met, like running so far every day, or jumping to grab a leaf from the branch of a certain tree every time he walked under it. At age eleven, after reading about fasting in the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, he tried it himself and soon got up to four days on just water. By age eighteen he managed a ten-day fast with just water and wine. Once he became a professional endurance artist, he reverted to the same techniques before a stunt, including little rituals that had nothing directly to do with the stunt.
Generally, Blaine approaches his feats through months of preparation that require intense concentration and focus. However, as David Blaine describes, when he doesn’t have a big goal he loses concentration, and when he loses concentration, he enters negative cycles:
“Now that I think about it, when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal, I change everything. I have self-control in every aspect of my life. I read all the time. I eat perfectly. I do good things—I visit kids in hospitals and do as much of that as I can. I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control. I eat food based on nutrition. I don’t overindulge. I don’t drink. I don’t waste time, basically. But as soon as I’m done with that, I go to the opposite extreme, where I have no self-control, and it seems to spread through everything. It seems like when I stop eating right, then I’m not able to sit down and read for the same amount of time. I can’t focus the same way. I don’t use my time the same way. I waste a lot of time. I’ll drink. I’ll do silly things. After a stunt I’ll go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds in three months.”
Which takes me to warehousing. In Willpower, there is a chapter dedicated to analyzing why does Alcoholics Anonymous work? Which part of the program is necessary for what purpose? One of the explanations is that much of the benefit of the program is that it keeps you out of bars in the first place:
There are also a couple of other explanations for the correlation between attending AA meetings and drinking less. The less-inspiring explanation is “warehousing,” to borrow a term used by some skeptical sociologists to explain what high school does. They see school as a kind of warehouse that stores kids during the day, keeping them out of trouble, so that its benefits come less from what happens in the classroom than from what doesn’t happen elsewhere. By a similar logic, evenings spent attending AA meetings are spent not drinking. We think it unlikely that warehousing accounts for the entire benefit of AA, or even the majority, but it undoubtedly contributes something.
David Blaine mentions similar notions in how he does his training and stunts. Elsewhere in his interview he says: “I don’t think I could have succeeded on a forty-four-day-straight fast if I was in this apartment. At the box in London, there was no way for me to be tempted because I was in that space.” If he had to be in his apartment under normal situations, the distractions would overwhelm him; he has to warehouse in order to focus on his goals. This focus then leads to the virtuous cycle of positive habits he describes above.
Thinking back on times when I was able to dramatically change behaviors, often it is because of warehousing. In school there were many classes where I would goof off but by sitting in the front row, I’d go from middle of the pack to one of the best students - just changing seats redirected my attention. Similarly, taking Twitter off my phone forces me to do other things: I read more, I am more present, I do more exercise. Ditto for not putting my phone in my bedroom - it’s a bright-line rule I have that minimizes distractions.
And so if concentration itself leads to happiness, modifying our physical and digital environments is the simplest path to pave the way.