~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Finding Flow"
Back in the fall of 1997, I was getting ready to apply to law school. As part of the application process, I had to take the LSAT exam. All I remember about the day of the exam now is that it was beautiful and sunny, and I didn't look forward to spending most of it in a classroom full of agonizing law school applicants, like myself, trying to figure out logical patterns and compose essays. The rest is murky in my memory right now. What I also remember is that a couple of months later, I got a big yellow envelope in the mail, and I was very anxious to open it because I expected to see the results of my test. To my surprise, the envelope didn't have my LSAT score. Instead, it had a letter stating that I had an option of retaking the exam if I wished because something had happened during the test. Apparently, a car alarm went off nearby while the exam was in progress, and the noise lasted for a while and distracted a number of test-takers. They complained to the organization that administered the LSAT, which resulted in the option to retake the whole exam. Interestingly, I didn't remember hearing any car alarm during the exam. I wasn't distracted by it - it simply didn't register in my mind. Nevertheless, I had a decision to make whether to take the LSAT again, in which case it would override the score of the earlier exam, and of course, I had no idea how I did on the first test. I didn't want to take it again, so I opted out. Fortunately, I did all right the first time around, so I didn't come to regret my decision.
You may be wondering by now why I am telling you this story, and I promise, it is relevant to what I am about to share with you. The reason I was able to tune out the noise during that exam is not because I can focus so well or because I have hearing difficulties. More likely, it was because I incidentally tapped into the secret ingredient of focus power. If this ingredient is present, your ability to focus increases significantly. When it's absent, your mind may be looking for a distraction or preoccupied with worry, doubt, or anxiety.
So, would you like to know how to turn your mind into a laser beam? Getting the secret ingredient right is not always easy but well-worth a try. It was discovered by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and described in his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" :
Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of engagement "the flow." If you want to have a better chance to be absorbed in an activity, ask yourself the following two questions:
• Is this too easy for me?
If it is, you will likely become bored quickly and lose focus. Your brain will look for something else to attend to.
• Is this too difficult for me?
If the activity is too hard, your brain will view it as a threat, triggering strong emotions. In this case, you lose concentration because you feel anxious, stressed or full of doubt.
The magic happens when you get it right, when you are challenged and stretched by what you are doing, but your mind perceives it as doable.
That's what probably happened during my LSAT test. I had practiced and believed I could do it, so it was a challenge that matched my skills, which helped me stay focused.
As you go about your days, ask yourself the two questions above and remember that your power to focus lies somewhere in the middle between "too easy" and "too hard."