We are always told that we need to be disciplined and focused on our goals in order to achieve success in life. That is true but sometimes a laser focus and rigid discipline can become an obstacle to progress. The key is to know when to focus and dig in and when to take a step back.
I remember many years ago I had an old volvo on which I did all the maintenance myself. One day I was trying to replace the fuel filter and I just couldn’t get the connector loosened. I tried using two vice grips and it still wasn’t coming off. Finally I loosened one to reposition it and while doing so the connector easily screwed off.
At that point I realized the problem wasn’t that the connector was on too tight but rather the metal was soft enough so that the harder I squeezed down on it to try and pry it off, the tighter it compressed around the filter. All the force and energy I was putting into trying to get the thing off was exactly what was preventing me from doing so.
Focusing on your goals can sometimes be like that. You pour all your attention into something but past a certain point it starts to work against you. The harder you try, the less progress you make, yet stopping feels like a failure.
There are two mechanisms potentially at work here.
The first is that you can only focus based on your experience, so it could block you from new pathways that you don’t know about yet. The second is that a lot of times your brain needs time to process and make new connections from existing information and it can’t do that when you have your conscious attention constantly engaged on the subject.
Lets look at the first issue.
Focus on experimenting not on process
When you are focused on something, by definition your attention is not directed anywhere else. That’s the whole point, you pay attention to making sure you are executing correctly all the steps that you think you need to achieve a particular goal or outcome.
But what if those steps are wrong?
Our default reaction when things are not going the way we want is to try something different. But our conscious rational mind is not that creative, it operates based on knowledge and experience and as a result “something different” usually just means variations on a theme rather than a truly new path. Slight changes but the same basic approach.
Most of the time that’s enough, we usually end up figuring things out. But sometimes we need to take an entirely different path, something that we don’t already have experience with.
The trouble is when our ego begins to get tied up in our failure to achieve the goal. We made the decision to take the path we started off with and, even if no one else is watching, at some level it feels like a personal failure if we give up on it.
Again, this is generally not a bad thing, perseverance is the way to success. But once our our ego becomes attached to a pathway that is leading toward failure, we feel further threatened if we stop what we are doing because then that becomes the “proof” that we are incompetent.
Failure goes from feeling like a possibility to feeling like reality. So instead we steam straight ahead to crash into that iceberg because that feels more comfortable than thinking we are quitters. Turning means that we choose to fail, crashing into the berg means that we tried our hardest and failed so to a certain extent we don’t feel as responsible for it.
But if the problem is that our basic approach is not correct, then perseverance begins to transform into pig-headedness. We lose the ability to measure the effectiveness of our progress because we are no longer merely trying to reach our goal, we are trying to prove that we are not failures.
We shift from a dispassionate, experimental approach that is open to new information to a emotional, ego-centric approach that views new information as a threat to our self-esteem. Our focus shifts from executing on a task to protecting our self-esteem.
We need to take a step back and try something new and the only way we can make room for that is to unfocus. To pull our attention away from the path we are on so we can see the forest for the trees. Perhaps the path that you were on is not the only one but only once you stop moving down it and lift yourself above can you see other paths to your goal.
The way to do this starts with the realization that perseverance doesn’t mean that we lock on to one path and mindlessly pursue it regardless of its success. True perseverance means that we don’t give up on the goal, if one path doesn’t work, we try another.
This allows us to delink our ego because choosing a path that works becomes our definition of success rather than executing perfectly on any particular path or the other.
By focusing on evaluating different paths until you find the one that works , trying different things becomes by definition executing successfully. You try one approach, then step back and evaluate, try another, evaluate again, over and over again until you succeed.
Your ego still gets attached to your progress but a pathway that isn’t working doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means that you’ve learned more about what not to do.
Give space for your brain to turn knowledge into understanding
The second reason is somewhat related. It has to do with the physical neuronal process of learning.
The way learning takes place in your brain is that connections are built between neurons. New knowledge comes in but that is just filed away as data. It doesn’t become understanding until new neuronal pathways are formed.
When your conscious mind is focused on something that locks your brain into data gathering and investigation mode. Understanding can happen in this mode to be sure. But that is usually an enhancement of something you already know.
You are refining your knowledge or skills but that refinement of your understanding is built on the foundation of that initial neuronal pathway. New connections are being formed but they are off of a core branch that already exists.
Your conscious mind is under your control and as such can reinforce the same pathways that you have already tried regardless of whether or not they have been working for you or not.
To discover truly novel approaches, creative alternate pathways to your goal, you need to create the corresponding new neural pathways in your brain. You need to step back from the conscious data gathering mode and let your unconscious mind start shifting through the data to allow those new connections to form, generating new insights.
The very fact that our unconscious mind is unfocused is what makes it more unfettered. It can make connections that aren’t obvious but are still real. In fact there are theories that say that this is what sleep is for, to form those connections from the data you’ve collected throughout the day.
So by stepping back and taking your focus away, it gives your unconscious mind a chance to forge new information into new understanding.
You do need to take in data, that initial flash of insight or moment of clarity needs to be informed by soaking in the knowledge. It doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. So you do need to consciously engage with the subject, but then take a step back. It’s a cycle of attention and then rebuilding.
This similar to how your muscles suffer microdamage when you exercise so you need rest afterwards but after that you are stronger. If you didn’t take that pause, if you just continued the exercise, your muscles wouldn’t have time to rebuild and you wouldn’t get stronger.
Focus then unfocus
Insight comes from seeing the big picture by stepping back and from making space for your unconscious to find connections that you don’t see consciously. So when your laser focus seems to be getting you nowhere, take a step back and away.