Building community in a changing world

December 30, 2023

Depth Takes Time

Here’s an excerpt from this blog by Carly Nugent about a book entitled “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari:

1. Slow down

I’m teaching less this year, and I have a lot more free time. However, I still feel like I’m rushing. I’m skipping from one task to the next – write this post, go to the gym, organise dinner, walk the dog, clean the kitchen – and I’m doing it at speed. A good friend recently reminded me of a quote from Virginia Woolf: ‘No need to hurry. No need to sparkle.’ I’ve written it on the chalkboard in our kitchen to remind myself that all this running around really isn’t necessary. I feel like I’m skimming across the surface of everything I do, the way you skip stones across a body of water. I’m not really present for anything, and – as a result – I’m not really enjoying anything, either.

As Sune Lehmann – a professor at the Technical University of Denmark, interviewed by Hari – says: ‘Depth takes time’. If we want to really engage with our lives, we need to slow down. We need to stop doing so many things at once. Or – maybe we just need to stop doing so many things. Quality, over quantity. This need for more is something I see in myself, but it also seems to be a larger societal trend. As Hari notes in the final chapter of Stolen Focus, our way of life since the Industrial Revolution has been all about economic growth. Our focus – as a species – has been on getting bigger, getting faster, getting ‘more’. But it doesn’t seem to be making us any happier.

I live in a town where the push for more tourism is creating an environment that is overcrowded and stressful. As a teacher, I find the frequent introduction of new programs and directives from the department disruptive and distracting. There is no time to teach any subject in any depth, because we are trying to incorporate so many things into the curriculum. As a society I feel we need to stop and ask ourselves – does doing more always mean doing better?

2. Flow states

Something that does make our lives better is being able to access ‘flow states’. A flow state is a ‘deep form of attention’, Hari writes. It’s a sort of being-in-the-moment, a time where everything else disappears from your consciousness and you are completely focused on one thing. Lots of different activities can give you this flow state, but art is a big one. Last term I was teaching Visual Art from Prep to Grade 6, and it was amazing to see how kids would get lost in painting or drawing, always surprised when the bell went for the end of the session.

Flow states can also happen with writing. They can happen with reading, or walking in the bush, or swimming, or rock climbing. There is a great joy that comes with flow states. A sense of purpose, a feeling of having participated in something meaningful. Hari notes that we have a choice: between ‘fragmentation, or flow’. Fragmentation is the state of flitting between tasks, on the surface, without depth. Flow is one task, deeply, and slowly. Fragmentation is social media and news headlines. Flow is painting a picture or writing a poem. Fragmentation is like eating a whole lot of different candy. Flow is enjoying a meal.

Hari talks about how experiencing a state of flow for a few hours in the morning left him feeling ‘relaxed and open and able to engage’ for the rest of the day. I can relate to this. I know that if I write in the morning my afternoon will be calmer, less frenetic. I’m able to enjoy whatever I’m doing more if I’ve spent some time in that flow. It’s similar to the after-effects of exercise. But flow states take time. I know as a writer it can take fifteen minutes (at least) of staring blankly at the screen or the page before I start to put any words down. It takes even longer for those words to start flowing. And flow states only come from monotasking. You can’t check your email and like a Tweet and send a text while you’re waiting. You just have to wait. Quality, not quantity. One. Thing. At. A. Time.

3. Mind-wandering

I like to walk our dog at night. I take her off the lead and we walk through the bush, in the dark. It’s quiet, and we set an easy pace. It’s the perfect time for mind-wandering.

We don’t let our minds wander much anymore. There is always something to think about, to plan, to listen to, to read. Just in my own life, I’ve noticed moments that used to be empty of distractions have now been filled. In line at the supermarket, for example. In the past, I would have stood and just waited, looking around, letting my mind wander. Now, I take out my phone and check the news, or do a crossword puzzle. If I’m in a cafe waiting to meet a friend for coffee, the same thing happens. Even when I take a shower these days I’ll put a podcast on in the background. There are so few pockets of time in my life where my mind is free to think without direction, to wander.

There are a number of reasons, according to Hari, that mind-wandering is important. First, it helps us make sense of things in our lives. When our minds wander they process our experiences, organising them, analysing them. Helping us understand how we feel and what we value. Mind-wandering also lets us make associations between things we might not otherwise realise are connected. This is so important when you are working on a creative project. As a writer, I can spend hours staring at the document I’m working on, trying to figure out a character’s motivation, or how to untangle a messy plot point. It is often not until I’m out walking at night, letting my mind run free, that I will discover a solution to a creative problem. And that solution frequently involves the coming together of two ideas I hadn’t previously realised had something in common.

The writer Anne Lamott calls it ‘woolgathering’: letting your imagination wander, watching your mind go ‘romping all over the place’. I’m trying to give myself more space to ‘woolgather’ these days. I’m putting my phone away in supermarket queues, I’m going for more night walks, and I’m letting my mind – like my dog – wander wherever it wants to go.

4. The medium is the message

More and more often over the past few years I’ve worried about my understanding of the world. Or rather, my lack of understanding. So much seems to be going on, and yet I feel like I know very little about anything. My relationship with the news feels very similar to my relationship with daily tasks: reading headlines on social media, skimming the surface, quickly moving on to the next thing.