On Sunday I was driving my family up to my parent’s house to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. As always, when I want something to listen to in the car, I was listening to Radio 4. It being a Sunday morning, Desert Island Discs came on. The guest was violinist Nicola Benedetti.
Time for some honesty here. Classical music generates very little excitement in me. Perhaps it is due to the dogmatic enthusiasm of others who declare that it is the only music of choice for the genuinely intelligent. Maybe it is because it conjures up mental images of Tom and Jerry chasing each other around a house (or sitting together in a corner gently weeping if it’s a melancholy piece). Anyway, there is a disconnect between the way I feel about it and the way I’m told I’m supposed to feel about it, so normally I would reach for the off-switch.
I’m pleased I didn’t.
Eight minutes in, after a particularly bleak piece from Shostakovich (which made Tom and Jerry skulk in dark corners thinking murderous thoughts about one another), there came this as Benedetti explained her mindset during a performance:
“I’m trying not to think. I’m desperately trying not to think. The minute your thoughts start to formulate they can distract you.
If you imagine you’re on stage for maybe twenty-five to forty-five minutes and you constantly have the lead part, the solo part; always technically very challenging. You’re trying to be loud enough to soar above the orchestra all the time. There’s so many things to keep a control over that the minute you start thinking it can be the beginning of the end. So I just try to stay in the moment and try to have as much of a spiritual experience as I possibly can. I’m trying to life my whole being and my whole intention to the highest place that I can and then allowing everything I’m doing physically to follow that.”
I like that. I like that a lot.
There is a huge distance between thinking and concentrating. Thinking is noisy and messy, concentrating is calm and clean. When we are in a meeting with others, listening to their point of view and working together to formulate answers, we are thinking. When we are off by ourselves and devoted to fulfilling a specific task we are concentrating. Both are wonderful things, but both are very different.
When you spend time every day sitting and breathing, you are encouraging your mind to concentrate. As you do this, you will notice thoughts bursting in unexpectedly. With practice it becomes easier to let the thoughts pass and return to concentrating on breathing. Over time you’ll notice that tasks that require concentration, whether it is reading through a contract or producing a perfect hollandaise sauce, become easier to complete as distractions can be ignored.
Anyway, have a listen to the original show. Let me know what happens to your own mental Tom and Jerry during the Shostakovich.
We’re told almost every day that our lives are busy and that to be successful we need to multi-task. But if we are to live our lives in the moment this is patently impossible. By its very nature, each moment can only contain one thing – one task, one thought or one action. The very idea of multi-tasking is therefore a nonsense.
So how do we go about living a busy life without becoming distracted from the moment?
There are four elements to this – planning, concentration, flexibility and having the confidence to say no.
Take stock of what must be done. Make a list if it helps, but treat the list as notes rather than a hard and fast schedule for the day. Break down the list into smaller tasks and think about how they might be interleaved. For example,
Give yourself entirely to tackling each small task. Decide whether it is appropriate to close your email client and turn off your phone to avoid interruptions. As you breathe, you might tell yourself what you are doing to maintain your focus. As I’m writing this, for instance, I’m telling myself that I’m writing about multi-tasking – my mind is exploring around the theme of concentration.
If your mind is focused in the moment, you will be prepared for whatever that moment brings. It may be that there is something new that requires your attention. Perhaps one of the things on your list takes on a higher priority. Take the time to breathe. Go back to the planning stage. Break the new task down and slot the smaller tasks into your list. If you keep yourself in the moment, this change of order is simply part of one continuous process.
Keep yourself open to new ways of taking on the tasks at hand. Maybe use a pen and piece of paper to sketch out some ideas before you start writing that email.
If you hit a mental block, park the task. Do something else that is completely different and come back to it later. If you’re still not making progress, try completing one of the other smaller parts of the task and work on it in a slightly different order. Maybe even consider leaving out the part you are struggling with – would it really have a hugely detrimental effect on the task as a whole if one small part is incomplete?
There may be times when you can take on no more. You have planned out everything you need to achieve and there simply is no time left.
Explain the situation courteously, but be firm. Saying ‘no’ need not be negative.