Cultivating Depth and Stillness

Lake Keitele, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1905

Lake Keitele, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1905

Andy Matuschak shares a consistent challenge in his development as a researcher has been: "how to cultivate deep, stable concentration in the face of complex, ill-structured creative problems"

To make progress in his work, he has to "stare hard enough and with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion"

Mathematics is a process of staring hard enough with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion to eventually break through to improved clarity. – Bill Thurston

After learning that this state of mind is necessary for progress, this is what he would tell his past self five years ago:

“Why is this so hard? Because you’re utterly habituated to steady progress—to completing things, to producing, to solving. When progress is subtle or slow, when there’s no clear way to proceed, you flinch away. You redirect your attention to something safer, to something you can do. You jump to implementation prematurely; you feel a compulsion to do more background reading; you obsess over tractable but peripheral details. These are all displacement behaviors, ways of not sitting with the problem. Though each instance seems insignificant, the cumulative effect is that your stare rarely rests on the fog long enough to penetrate it. Weeks pass, with apparent motion, yet you’re just spinning in place. You return to the surface with each glance away. You must learn to remain in the depths.”

I'm not at the stage of my life where I'm doing research that requires this level of depth, but I took away some ideas and tips that I want to implement in my life

  • flinching away
    • you flinch away from slow progress because you set faulty expectations, reinforce a more realistic pace of progress by collecting vivid stories (i.e. memoirs of scientists)
    • Mentally note impulses as they arise, catch them as early as possible
    • the best work is the product of perseverance and unchartable paths, not the result of an impulse to produce "output"
  • curiosity
    • shift your stance of work as a landscape to explore rather than a destination to reach (a task to accomplish)
      • do this by asking lots of questions, imagine potential implications
      • improve the framing, find one which expresses what you're deeply excited about
    • react to setbacks from curiosity; instead of frustration, it becomes: "Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me? How might this change what I try next?"
  • morning block
    • do deep work in one giant, unbroken block in the morning
    • block displacement activities (email, Twitter) with extensions, apps or focus modes
    • depth of concentration is cumulative, and precious. An extra hour or two of depth is enormously valuable. (6 hour morning blocks > 10 hour day)
    • From memoirs of writers, artists, and scientists, 2-4 hours is the norm for primary creative working block.
    • most people are laughably misled about how much time they truly work
    • longer working intervals produce deeper focus in the morning, and shorter ones, towards the evening.
  • on breaks
    • intermittent short breaks – 5 minutes, not 15 or 30 – helps depth of concentration enormously
    • long hours of focus -> more and more willpower to maintain concentration until the pressure builds up, and you give in to distraction to release it
    • don't do anything cognitive during break (no reading, or thinking about another topic, and NO PHONES). It imposes higher switching cost. Do simple house chores. Talk to friends and family.
    • 15-second meditations and body scans can help shift from a break into a new working interval.
  • music
    • play energetic music if you're feeling sleepy (you're expecting more stimulation than you're getting, compensate with music)
    • play something subdued, repetitive, and non vocal for difficult work
  • let the mind wander
    • regularly listening to podcasts when walking can contribute to an internal expectation for constant stimulation, let the mind wander. Listen when exercising or cooking instead.