Focus

Ending showers with a blast of frigid, bone rattling water has become a habit for me over the past few years. At first, it was too difficult to do for long, quickly instigating a hyperventilation-like reaction, particularly when it was only weekly. As frequency has grown, I’ve managed to handle it better, using that final minute as a sort of kick in the butt to get going. So, after hearing that this cold water treatment is well coupled with time in the sauna, and then realizing the school athletic center has a sauna, a new routine quickly arose. I’d spent time in saunas and steam rooms before, but never for more than a few minutes and with no serious commitment. However, when some post podcast reading showed the sauna can both improve endurance and aid in protein synthesis after a workout, the die had been cast. For the last six months, the sauna has not only been part of my exercise routine, but often the motivation to get to the gym. I’ll push for twenty minutes, hopefully three times a week, followed by a quick drowning in the coldest water I can find. But it wasn’t until recently that the hot room gained my total respect.

Most trips to the sauna are personal occasions. I don’t dilly dally in the gym, rarely go with a friend, and generally oppose socializing during a workout. When I finally make it into the sauna, the first few minutes can be an amazing release, a chance to sit, think, and relax. However, the fun fades when it becomes clear that 175℉ is no joke, and twenty minutes isn’t a short sit. Roughly half way through, a bit longer if my routine has been consistent, I’m no longer thinking about what to write in this week’s Unwind or new app ideas. My mind is squarely on my body. My breathing picks up a bit, and presumably my heart rate, so I focus on slowing down and thinking about simple distractions. As twenty minutes approaches, I’m staring at the clock, counting down how many 15 second intervals are left, hoping small bites will ease the intensity.

Recently, about ten minutes through, a middle aged man entered and waited just a few minutes to start chatting. Particularly, he asked about my habit and motivation with the sauna. Never one to avoid a chat, I gave him my pseudoscientist disclaimer and started on the benefits to endurance and protein synthesis. The clock was ticking, but damn do I love the sauna, and hopefully I could convince another. He was ready to chat, as most older men are when sitting half naked in an uncomfortably hot room. He asked for sources and my scientific background, questioning my experiment and the lack of control data, but was generally pleased to get some new info. Two minutes before I was set to leave, he broke down his own motivations. A novelist, he spends most of his time writing and thinking about his work. His mind, and its ability to understand, process, and discuss relationships, is his most important resource and like many writers, it doesn’t always comply. The sauna acts as a much needed, intense distraction from the toils of writer’s block. For much of the year, he lives in Switzerland, frequently going on long hikes, not mountain climbing but enough to require his mind’s attention lest he slip on a rock or miss a footing. These activities provided a means to forget about writing and stories, not by choice but necessity. The mind is a fantastic tool, but even it must heed in the face of physical uncertainty. Twenty five minutes after I entered, I stood up and left, convinced I’d just learned an important lesson.

I began to think of the struggles I faced throughout school and work. Engineering can be challenging in many respects, but few are as troublesome as the multitude of formulas and subprocesses involved in a single problem. The final step toward a solution may rely on an understanding of the entire system and reactions to every possible action. If working on a question for one hour is productive, the second hour is often much more productive. As work continues, connections are made between parts of a system, allowing for quicker understanding and calculations. Finally, revisiting basics can stop. Obviously, this isn’t specific to engineering. Prior knowledge and connected thoughts permeate our jobs, relationships, and writing.

But with these problems, a small deviation can lead to trouble. A single missed thought can mean hours of frustration. As if arguing about a disagreement wasn’t enough, a whirlpool forms and the same issue seems to be revisited with growing frequency. Progress isn’t just slowed but halted or reversed.

It’s no surprise that a writer, running circles in his own head, looks for an escape from the pressure of a looming deadline. Physical limits can make all other thoughts irrelevant. Whether battling unreasonable heat or climbing a rocky hill, the mind prioritizes survival. During these moments, the body has learned to use all necessary tools to remain alive, reallocating resources to make the best decisions.

Leveraging intense moments to distract the mind can be applied through subtler, less violent habits. Reading requires more of us than television, tricky books require more than tabloids. Discussing complex issues, forcing ourselves to dig deep into an understanding, can only happen when other thoughts are sidelined. Practices like yoga and meditation, when learned and reinforced, hack into this system and empower the mind. Relevant thoughts for now, frustrating problems for later.

Upon returning to the problem, fresh connections are made, often from a new perspective. Whether it’s the dinner from the previous evening, a conversation that changed expectations, or simply the patience to start over, a new approach can be all that’s needed.

The mind’s connections, however, shouldn’t be lost because the work day ends or there’s a bump in the road. Instead, it’s best to carry on where connections were well formed and build on previous successes. For this, I look to the ideas of Josh Waitzkin, real life inspiration for Searching for Bobby Fischer. Waitzkin has spent his life teaching others how to learn and consults titans of finance and industry. Instead of finding a clean point at which to end a day’s work, stop in the middle of a thought, precisely where the the mind is moving at full speed. The next day, week, or month, the mind can more quickly hop on the train of thought and rebuild the connections. When frustrated, I try to do something similar, finding the most recent ideas that I can confidently stand behind, retrace my steps, and stop. The next time I approach the problem, my mind can jump back in.

Frustrations exist throughout life and work. Putting it off until morning has always been a wise decision but if we can mimic a night’s rest with other habits and actions, why wait for tomorrow? Focus on something else, really.