I recently re-read The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, a classic book on mind management from 1974.
I was struck by this passage:
As silly as it may sound, one of the most practical ways to increase concentration on the ball is to learn to love it! Get to know the tennis ball; appreciate its qualities. Look at it closely and notice the fine patterns made by the nap. Forget for a moment that it is a tennis ball and look freshly at its shape, its texture, its feel….
Concentration is not staring hard at something. It is not trying to concentrate. Concentration is fascination of mind….
This suggested to me a general way to increase one’s power to concentrate on a thinking subject: take steps to feel love for it. How do you take steps to feel love, you might ask? It is not so hard. Turn your attention to the many values involved in it.
I called my new tactic for this, “How do I love thee.” I write on a sheet of paper, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.” Then I make a list of good things about the topic I want to concentrate on. 10 is a good number.
This is an upgrade to my previous warmup process, which was just to write 10 things I knew about the subject. Invariably, some of the things I know about my task would be confusing or discouraging. These will trigger some aversion.
In contrast, focusing exclusively on values triggers the emotion of love.
Love is the emotion that proceeds from the evaluation that something is a value and therefore a source of pleasure. It is a contemplative emotion. It does not trigger action. It just makes you happy to be living in this world with this object.
This is exactly the emotional state for optimal concentration. Your emotions are positive, but not distracting you with action impulses. It is a pleasurable state, one you don’t want to be distracted from.
This is the ideal state to brainstorm, problem-solve, or do any kind of creative thinking. When you focus on what you want, ideas for how to get it are more likely to occur to you. In contrast, when you fixate on negatives, the problems can seem insurmountable.
It is also the ideal state to go deeper.
It’s often been observed that people who know the most about a topic are also the most interested in learning additional information about it. They want to go deeper. Think of a devoted hobbyist you know who is constantly learning more trivia on his topic.
But how do you start that process of going deeper? This tip addresses that issue. If you want to go deep into a topic, start by consciously identifying the values involved in it. This will start that virtuous cycle of interest and learning.
Once I made up this tactic, I started using it immediately. Let me know how it works for you.
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The steps for this tactic are written up for Thinking Labbers on this page.