I am a voracious reader, and by reading, I mean, reading real books. Lots of books. A week ago, I ended up discussing the benefits of reading with some guys I know, trying to convince them to pack more books per year. By saying this, by no means do I mean we read less in quantity. We just read less attentively. Combine the pace of the fast modern world, with the variety of information that surrounds us, and you end up with an attention span as short as mere seconds.
As I have already mentioned it several times before, I believe that this attention deficit in just about anything we do is one of the reasons why most people have unhappy and unfulfilled lives. I have been in this trap before, and perhaps, I still am to a certain extent, but keep trying to get out. By practicing long-term reading, writing, and distance running, I somehow managed to teach my mind to seek peace in doing the same thing over a prolonged period of time.
The long introduction aside, reading books is the first exercise one can start practicing to master attention and patience. It is something we all take for granted, but rather few of use to its maximum potential. The problem: we do it too sporadically, and with little focus.
The biggest barrier towards doing anything long-term is realizing its exponential potential right at the onset. Let’s take our favorite example of book reading. Imagine that the realistic maximum number of books you can read per year is a constant, say 20. Also, imagine that there is a certain amount of knowledge you should consume per year, to make yourselves feel happy and fulfilled Reading one book per year will only move you a little forward – say 1%. At the same time, you have invested 100/20 = 5% of your time. A pretty bad deal, right? Kind of makes sense for you to stop here and keep on with your ordinary life. And here is the catch: the more books you read, the time you spend reading increases linearly, but the benefit you gain from reading grows exponentially. Two books will cost you 10% of your time and will move you 4%. Still pretty bad, but with every next book this gap decreases. By 5 books a year, you will theoretically “break even” – reading those 5 books will take 25% of your time and will move you forward by 25%. From here on, it only gets better. At the 10th book, you will uncover the maximum 100% potential knowledge you used to get per year, and that only at 50% of the time invested! Spending the entire amount of time will bring back an amazing 400% knowledge potential, or in other words, 4 times as much as your realistic goal for the year. You can imagine what happens to people reading 30 and more books a year 🙂
Starting from nothing to a 400% gain is quite a thing, and believe it or not, it applies to just about anything – from reading and writing to long-distance running and playing musical instruments. There is always a barrier one needs to unlock, and before overcoming the hurdle, it seems like the activity is a pure waste of time. At times like these, I usually advise people trying a new thing, to just close their eyes and blindly keep doing it for a little more. The brain is a rational thing, but way too often, does it try to rationalize based on available information, without seeing the big picture. At times, the rational side of our brains needs to be told to just sit quietly, and observe the changes without taking a stand. Sooner or later, patience gets rewarded.
It would be naive though to assume that you could keep reaping the benefits of an activity at an exponentially growing rate forever. Eventually, the benefit growth comes to a peak, after which it plateaus for a while. Whether it’s running, writing, programming, playing instruments, you name it, there is always this phase, where no matter what you do, you simply can’t seem to get any better at it. This is usually the time when the brain forces us to forget the positive effects we have been experiencing so far and focuses on the plateau instead. At the time, a big portion of people decides to quit or stop doing the activity, thinking that it’s not worth doing it anymore. My advice to everyone is to just stick to it for a little while, shutting the signals their brain gives them. Why? Because, it has been the same rational brain, which has been telling us not to start dealing with the activity in the first place, right? The plateau phase reminds the brain of a new beginning, and this scares its. Because a plateau is just that, the hard and somewhat unpaying beginning to a new phase of blasting growth. It’s like unlocking the next level of a seemingly impossible game.
In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.