When you’re trying to wrap your head around challenging new ideas, your natural instinct may be to chip away at it in several attempts. Read a bit, take a break, come back later - like attacking a mountain ascent in short sprints. This may feel like you’re making progress, but you’re actually doing yourself a disservice. Every time you re-engage with the difficult material, you’re forcing your mind to re-enter a state of intense flow. This refocusing requires mental energy - energy that depletes your limited cognitive resources. Each time you dip back into flow, you have to:
- Clear distractions and sharpen attention again - draining willpower.
- Reconstruct the mental frameworks and context - taxing short-term memory.
- Make fresh connections between disparate ideas - consuming mental bandwidth.
You end up wasting energy on the process of focusing instead of the content itself. Death by a thousand cuts of context switching. Personally, I find that the most effective way to approach difficult ideas is to minimize the number of flow state attempts. Stay immersed as long as you can tolerate. Don’t completely break focus - keep your toe in the stream. Resist the urge for a mental reset when obstacles arise. Push a little further even as concentration wanes. Building momentum again after stopping takes more energy than powering through lagging focus.
It’s better to be tired after a prolonged flow session than to be mentally exhausted from multiple attempts of never reaching it. Scattered short sprints virtually guarantee you’ll never reach the peak. Limiting attempts helps conserve precious mental stamina for the final ascent.
Here are some practical tips to minimize distractions before attempting to something intellectually difficult:
- Go for a walk or do light exercise to increase blood flow before intense concentration.
- Make yourself coffee/tea or prep snacks so you won’t get hungry.
- Use the washroom so you won’t get interrupted.
- Complete small tasks like responding to emails or making important calls.
- Turn off notifications on your devices and apps.
- Use noise-canceling headphones or ambient background sounds to mask distracting noises.
- Close out of any apps and browser tabs not needed for the task. Disable wifi if it’s not required.
- Adjust lighting, temperature, and seating position for optimal comfort and alertness.
- Block out chunks of time on your calendar dedicated to deep focused work.
- Tidy your workspace.
Essentially, get potential distractions out of the way in advance. This clears the deck before you embark on something challenging requiring deep focus. You’ll be able to stay in flow longer without disruptions breaking your momentum. The next time you’re climbing a steep intellectual mountain, remember: Don’t take more runs at it than absolutely necessary. Stay in flow as long as possible. You’ll reach the summit faster.