How To Live a Focused, Meaningful Life With These Essential Rules
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“It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living”― Eckhart Tolle
You’re looking for happiness in life. And so am I. But we often misjudge the source of happiness.
The common source of happiness, as most people think, are moments of enjoyment and relaxation — taking a vacation, spending time with family, buying your favorite car, and so on.
We then start to work backward. To take a vacation, for example, you need money. To earn money you need to work — that is how we see it.
We fix our eyes on the prize, waiting to finish the work and get the reward. As we focus more and more on the goal, we want to get there faster with the least effort.
We spend the majority of our lives working, aiming to squeeze out small moments of happiness or worse, waiting for retirement to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Work, in other words, becomes a means to an end. But what we don’t realize is treating work as such is the root of our misery.
I used to think and behave in the same way. Until I started researching.
One of the many theories that came to my attention was Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly argued that the best moments of our lives are those where we’re stretched to the best of our abilities. When your concentration is one-pointed and all extraneous matters fall apart. When your mind shuts up and you access a new level of consciousness.
This was a shock. All this time, like most others, I believed going out with friends, watching a movie, or having an ice cream would give me what I’m looking for. Never did I realize that work itself can be fulfilling no matter what I’m doing.
Being absorbed in what we do provides depth and meaning to our lives. High levels of focus, concentration, and unflinching determination gives us a sense of purpose. It’s a stepping stone to the state of Flow. It pushes us to mastery by extracting meaning from the boring tasks we’re required to perform. And by eliminating the inconsequential, it makes space for the valuable.
But living a life of depth is not easy. By following these rules, I try to live a deep life away from the distractions of this world.
“Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now” — Eckhart Tolle
One of the biggest predictors of our happiness is where our mind is.
A study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth found that increased distraction and rumination leads to lower happiness. They asked 2,250 people several times a day to see if they’re happy doing what they’re doing at that moment.
They found a ground-breaking insight. People were the happiest whenever they were fully present and aware of the Now. It doesn’t matter if they’re stuck in traffic, or working on their favorite hobby — the principle is the same.
But the sad part is that every activity apart from making love had a high-rate of mind-wandering. Which means that people were generally unhappy most of the time.
This mind-wandering is almost always negative. If left to its own will, the mind rarely thinks about positive things until we force it to.
This is a key aspect of living a deep and fulfilling life. When we’re in the present moment, that’s where our focus is. We can work on our craft and avoid the background hum of anxiety that plagues people all around the world.
As a result of deliberately cultivating the ability to be present, I can write this article and not think about what I’m going to do next, or whether publications will accept this post.
Now is the only place where true happiness is. And it’s the only place our best work happens.
To cultivate this ability, I suggest taking multiple breaks throughout the day to center yourself whenever you find yourself distracted or restless. Any activity that induces stillness is perfect — walking, meditation, or staring out of the window. Avoid sensory inputs like listening to music or watching videos.
Over time, as you appreciate the relaxing power of stillness, you’ll break your dependence on external stimuli and be more present.
“Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly”― Machiavelli
Boredom is the greatest obstacle we face. Even greater than failure.
With the onset of technology, it has become impossible to be bored. We’re bombarded by infinite distractions at the click of a button. Many of us indulge in these from the moment we open our eyes till the moment we go back to sleep.
This trains your brain to look for artificial stimuli such as social media or music, the second you feel boredom arises.
Standing in a queue? Check Instagram.
Getting bored on the treadmill? Switch on Netflix.
Waiting for a file to download? Browse Reddit.
Our brain then expects everything in our life to give us the same amount of dopamine hit. Which isn’t possible.
Whatever task you work on will probably be boring than scrolling through Instagram, for example. And so we start to not like it. We get bored with the task. And we switch back to our stimuli of choice.
I call it the “Decadence Loop”.
The only way to break it is to go cold turkey. Write down the moments when you feel the urge to resort to your stimuli.
For example, “When I’m on the subway, I like to watch Netflix.”
Then chuck it. Observe the people around you, the stations you never know existed. Or let your mind wander. If nothing works, sleep.
This one change itself will give you your life back. Since I’ve started doing this, I find amusement in the smallest things — like staring at the wall or looking out of the window.
Boredom has the power to calm and reset your mind if you let it.
“We become what we repeatedly do.”― Sean Covey
Your success depends not on something you do once in a while but what you do every day.
And so to live a deep life, you have to make an effort to go deep day in and day out.
In the absence of a ritual, this can be surprisingly difficult. Rituals help you free up cognitive capacity to focus only on what matters.
Most people have a ritual, but they don’t know it. Worse yet, they have a bad ritual that harms their goals in the long-run.
Getting up, checking Facebook, brushing your teeth, and then rushing to work is a ritual. Is it a good one? If your goal is to just mark your attendance at the office, then sure, it’s fine. However, if you want to produce something valuable, you need to do better.
In addition to determining the place of work and time you’ll start, here are some pointers to help you out:
Place a time constraint: It pushes you to be focused, reduces the chances of distraction, and makes it a bit more fun.
Establish micro check-points: Let’s say you’re working for an hour. You can break your task into three pieces and check where you stand every 20 minutes. It keeps you on track even further.
Get whatever you need: This is your playground. Get your coffee, foot massager, pens, chocolate, oil lamps, and anything else conducive to your work. If you have to leave every 5 minutes to get something, you’ll not produce your best work.
This brings me to my next point. I’ve not heard anyone say it like so, but I’ll argue if your head hurts a bit, then you’re on the right track.
By hurting I don’t mean a headache (please rest in that case). What I mean is a healthy strain on your mind due to your efforts to strengthen your concentration.
I’ve had this feeling multiple times and I strive to achieve that in every session. If I don’t, I know that I haven’t gone deep enough yet.
The best way to do this, as I mentioned above, is to place a time constraint. My head is hurting a bit now since I only have 35 minutes left to finish this article. After which I have some more work before starting my day job.
The time constraint is a small tweak, but it works wonders. Don’t neglect its power.
Meditation is almost the magic bullet in this article. Combined with all the other efforts to live a focused life, it is a great tool to further deepen your concentration and calm you at the same time.
I and perhaps millions of others have written about meditation on the Internet. But with respect to deep work, the reason it works is that it trains you to bring your attention back to a point of concentration.
Whether you’re focusing on the breath, a body part, or energy in the spine, it’s the perfect way to practice fighting distractions.
“Over time, a commitment to challenging, focused work and leisure produces not only better daily experience, but also a more complex, interesting person: the long-range benefit of the focused life”. — Winifred Galagher
If you’re going to work till your head hurts, you’ll have to recover too. But as with your work, your relaxation needs to be deeper.
You cannot sit in front of the TV until you pass out and then expect to have stellar performance the next day. The activities we think are relaxing like watching videos, using social media, excessive listening to music, often drain our energy even further.
Some examples of activities that truly help me relax are — talking to friends and family, walking, meditation, working out, and reading.
I know it’s difficult to fight these temptations. After a long day of work, it seems justified to indulge in harmless vices. But that is the price you have to pay.
There’s good news though. Over time, your craving for pseudo-relaxation will stop as you start to enjoy your new-found peace and calmness.
“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks”― Winston S. Churchill
Cal Newport gave an interesting twist to a popular technique for fighting distractions. When fighting temptations most think, “I would not do [distracting habit] until I finish my work”
Cal says that we should do the opposite. Instead of taking breaks from distraction, we should take breaks from focus. So the statement looks like — “I would only do [distracting habit]from 6 to 7 pm when I return from work.”
By doing this, you give yourself enough resistance training throughout the day. It’s also easier on your willpower reserves.
The best way to do this is to keep a notepad beside you which tells you the next time you’ll indulge in your distraction of choice.
For instance, the distractions during my workday are emails and instant messaging apps like Slack, WhatsApp, etc. So I’ve set three points to check them throughout the day — After my first meeting, after lunch, and before closing for the day.
This gives me enough attention training throughout the day to improve my ability to fight distractions and embrace boredom.
Deep Life Is a Meaningful Life
“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” — Winifred Gallagher
No one said it’s going to be easy. For most people, there’s comfort in indulging in distraction. For them, it’s hard to be disciplined and admit that their best work is yet to come. So they’ve chosen the easy path.
Don’t be like the majority. Be among the few who are willing to step up and transform themselves.
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