It’s easy to concentrate on a task we enjoy, but how can we sustain focus on a task we despise?
We might wish for a better life, in which we’ve been so successful at manifesting our dreams that the only tasks confronting us now are joyful and exhilarating ones. But even those people who once yearned to be astronauts and ballet dancers and did become those very things… even they have to do things that aren’t fun, interesting, rewarding, or exciting. Practicing a jump for the thousandth time? There is tedium in the loftiest endeavors.
Setting deadlines, establishing incentives, making public commitments, and cultivating grit – these are common strategies for getting through an onerous task. But such strategies assume that if we don’t like a task, then working on it will inevitably feel bad, so we need to force, persuade, or trick ourself into bearing that discomfort.
The saying goes, “No pain, no gain,” but wouldn’t it be better if we could have “No pain, with gain?” To achieve this would require that our experience of working on an onerous task could be separated from our feelings about the task. Is there a way to make that separation happen, so that the experience could be positive even though the task itself might be anathema to us?
To find out, we need to look closely at the nature of concentration, and here, an analogy to physical balance is informative. When we see a person standing on one leg, or balancing on a tightrope, we know that their muscles are working – their stillness is an active sort. It may look as though the person has escaped the force of gravity but of course they are still subject to that force, constantly experiencing a pull this way and that. What keeps them in balance is the way they quickly respond to the beginnings of imbalance, applying the right countering force at the right time.
We could say that a person with good balance is always being slightly destabilized and always recovering. But because their destabilization remains inside a safe range where recovery can be quick, we don’t even bother to call it “destabilization.” We just say that the person is keeping good balance throughout. But this language hides an observation that’s useful: balance is not about magic, it’s about recovery. Lots and lots of recoveries so fast and effortless we don’t even notice them.
Concentration is like this too. A person who exhibits good concentration is not a person who has magically escaped all distractions. We make a mistake if we think that good concentration must mean being in “the zone” where we lose awareness of everything but the task at hand. A person with good concentration might still hear a car alarm or see an incoming text message. They might still lose focus for a moment, wondering “What am I going to have for dinner tonight?” What defines good concentration is being able to quickly recover from each distraction. A person with poor concentration hears the car alarm, gets up to investigate, and exulting in their newfound freedom, they never return to the task at hand; a person with good concentration hears it, stops for a second, and gets back to work. Good concentration is good recovery, on repeat.
So if we want to be better at concentrating, especially at things we dislike, we need to understand what allows for good recovery from distraction, and what interferes with such recovery.
Let’s start with what’s obvious: loving what we’re doing allows for good recovery. If a task brings us pleasure, we’re drawn back to it because we want more of that pleasure. After we get distracted, and our attention later returns to the pleasurable task, we feel glad to be focusing on it again, excited to take the next step. We experience recovery as a boon.
Hating what we’re doing, of course, makes for poor recovery. If a task causes discomfort, we’re repelled from it because we don’t want to face more of that discomfort. After we get distracted, and our attention lands on the task once more, we might feel fear, or disgust, or guilt – a lump in our stomach – “Oh no, not this again!” We experience recovery as a loss.
Imagine how hard it would be to maintain physical balance – standing on one leg or walking a tightrope – if every time a muscle flexed to keep us stable, we felt a jolt of pain. And yet when we’re trying to concentrate on something we hate – that’s the situation we’re in. Every time we try to recover from a distraction, turning our focus back to the onerous task, we feel pain.
So if we want to concentrate on something we hate, we need to make recovery less painful and more pleasurable. But if we truly hate the task, how could returning to it ever be experienced as a positive thing?
I began thinking about this question earlier in my life, during a phase in my twenties when I had started a flurry of personal projects and couldn’t seem to bring any of them to closure. I was effective at my day job, never missing a deadline in my software engineering work, but it took a lot of willpower to maintain my punctual record there, and I couldn’t muster that same willpower in the absence of external pressure, working on my own creative endeavors. I went to see a psychologist, and she administered what seemed like a glorified questionnaire, and I answered enough questions the right way that I received a diagnosis of ADHD. For a moment, I thought this diagnosis was going to shed new light on my life and become a part of my identity.
As I explained it to my therapist at a time, my mind was constantly going on tangents when I tried to focus. I couldn’t abandon these tangents because doing so was just too painful. I’d sit down to work on one project, like writing an essay on a Topic A, and as interesting as this project had been at the outset, my mind would soon invent something more exciting to pursue, another essay on Topic B, and I’d start thinking about this new thing, researching it, planning it out. When I tried to return to the original essay on Topic A, I’d experience a letdown, a loss of stimulation, and my mind would respond by inventing yet another essay on Topic C. To “give up” on a promising tangent felt like hell. So I was always trying to write a dozen essays and never finishing any of them. If only I had better willpower, and could bear the pain.
I took Adderall for a year and I learned something from it. Along with the energy and euphoria it created, Adderall seemed to function like a painkiller for me. With Adderall, I could concentrate better because I felt less pain when I returned to a task that wasn’t as exciting as a distraction I had begun to pursue. Adderall softened the blow of recovery, making it easier to “give up” on the tangent and continue the slog on the original task.
But when I saw that Adderall was giving me superhuman powers of concentration, I felt inclined to use those powers to work on the projects I most wanted to do rather than on the things I most needed to do. Since Adderall couldn’t help me choose between want and need, it didn’t help me become more organized in my life overall. That’s to say it didn’t help me choose the “right” or the “best” things to work on. And when I realized I had become dependent on it, and when one time there was a glitch in getting my prescription filled, I decided to give it up altogether. Many years later, I don’t believe I have ADHD, but I have struggled with concentration at various times in my life and those struggles have made me think a lot about how concentration works. If my diagnosis didn’t prove right in the end, it still left me with some insight into the nature of concentration that helped me later when I began to meditate.
Meditation is basically the practice of concentration as an end in itself, independent from any specific goal. In meditation, every teacher will say, distraction is normal. We try to focus on our breathing but thoughts clamor for our attention. Instead of feeling frustrated that our mind has wandered, we are encouraged to take a non-judgmental attitude, observing our thoughts without engaging them – instead, letting them dissipate, like passing weather.
If we were to feel frustrated and upset every time our mind wandered during meditation, then this frustration would compound the distraction, making it even harder to return to our chosen point of focus. In a sense, the ideas of non-judgement, tolerance, and acceptance pave the way for better recovery.
But non-judgement is trickier than it sounds. A posture of non-judgement might conceal a judgment we’ve already made and don’t want to admit. In my early attempts at meditation, I would try to be non-judgemental about the distractions I experienced but I still wasn’t happy about them. The phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has comedic value because it pretends to be non-judgemental while at the same time implying: maybe there is something wrong with it, at least maybe there are people who think so. I would sit down to meditate, and my thoughts would race, and I’d keep telling myself, in effect, “It’s OK. It’s no big deal. It’s not the end of the world. I just lost ten minutes to mind-wandering – what a shame – not that there’s anything wrong with that!” Eventually, all of this concealed negativity would build up and I’d still feel quite frustrated by the end of a process that was supposed to lead to relaxation.
A key idea that helped me in my own meditation practice was to set equanimity aside and instead focus on the positive side of distraction. What positive side? The positive side was that I noticed I had gotten distracted. If I hadn’t noticed it, I’d still be stuck inside the distracting thought. But because my mind jumped out of that rabbit hole and asked the question “What am I doing right now?” I received an opportunity to observe my thoughts from a distance and bring my focus back to breathing. Now, thanks to this gift of this awareness, my meditation practice could continue.
The idea here is to make recovery smoother by appreciating it. Instead of trying to soften our negative feelings about a distraction, we can turn our focus away from those negative feelings altogether, concentrating on positive feelings instead: gratitude for the recovery itself. Every time the mind wanders, this sets the stage for later noticing that it has wandered, feeling good that we’ve noticed it, and being thankful for the benefit therein. The benefit is the opportunity to go on with practice. In this way, meditation can be transformed from a series of frustrations into a series of fortunate events. What had been “Distraction. Bad that it happened! Distraction. Bad that it happened!” can become “Distraction. Good that I recovered! Distraction. Good that I recovered!”
But this is more than just a technique for meditation, it’s a framework for concentrating on any task. Whether we like a task or not, we can always see it as a way of practicing concentration. The details of a task, whatever they are, can become a substrate for this practice. We can approach the task as a kind of “meditation,” where we return our focus to the task every time we notice we’ve become distracted from it. We can improve these recoveries by appreciating them, by seeing them as beneficial events.
When we realize we’ve gotten distracted and we remember what we were trying to do, we can stop seeing this attention shift as unfortunate – “Oh no, a bad thing happened – I’m unlucky – now I have to work on this unpleasant thing again.” Instead we can see it as fortunate – “Oh yes, a good thing happened – I’m lucky – now I get to continue my concentration practice.”
If we see our goal as the development of concentration itself, then we can feel grateful for each recovery. And we should feel grateful, because it’s these repeated recoveries that allow us to have agency in our lives, that allow us to proceed with the things we’ve decided to do. Our ability to recover from distraction is in some ways the basis of our “free will,” and there’s reason to feel thankful each time we get to exercise that will.
Still, when we really hate what we’re trying to do, the idea of treating the task as “concentration practice,” might not be motivating enough to overcome our internal resistance. Indeed, there’s more we can do to help ourselves focus, more we can do to smoothen our recoveries.
First, we need to identify the good in what we’re trying to do. We might detest the task – maybe we’re doing taxes, for example – but how does this thing benefit us? How does it benefit someone else? How does it benefit society? There must be a value in it somewhere, or else we wouldn’t be doing it at all.
If we’re doing taxes, then at a minimum we’re preserving our financial and legal health. If we’re writing a difficult letter, it’s for communication, relationships, social health. If we’re sorting through a cluttered room, it’s for home upkeep, domestic health, peace of mind. If we’re doing a hopeless, vacuous project that we’ve been assigned to complete, maybe the benefit is only that we get to maintain our relationship with the person who asked us to do it; so again, the benefit could be relationships, social health? If we started doing it, there’s got to be a reason. Let’s find the pure, positive core of that reason.
Now, as part of the recovery from each distraction, we can visualize that positive core, and we can feel good that we have an opportunity to make a little more progress in its service.
Of course, it will be hard to keep a clear view of the benefit we’re working toward, because our mind will invent stories and arguments that devalue the goal itself and all our efforts to achieve it. These devaluing arguments will seem fascinating and persuasive in proportion to the annoyingness of the task. Our mind generates these arguments because we believe that if we can find proof that a task has no merit and no chance of success, we can get out of having to do it. These arguments intoxicate us, therefore, because they seem to offer an escape from pain.
If we’re doing taxes, some arguments might be: I’m not good at this. I can do it later, I can file an extension. I’m not going to get it right. I’m not in the mood right now so I won’t be as effective as I’d be later when I’m in a better mood. Taxes are unfair. I’m losing money that I deserve to keep. It’s taking too long – something’s wrong. I made the wrong choice to work on this now. The weather is beautiful today so it’s more valuable for me to go outside and enjoy it now than to keep working indoors.
Any time our mind generates these devaluing arguments, there’s a chance that they contain some truth. The weather might be great! But that doesn’t matter from the standpoint of concentration practice. We shouldn’t look deeper for the truth in these arguments nor should we try to refute them – both pathways are distractions. As soon as we get into a debate with ourselves about the value of what we’re doing – including whether now is the “right” time to do it – we’ve set ourselves up for the very pain that we’re hoping to escape.
Think about it, if you try to do something hard, and then someone tells you that this effort you’ve just made is a worthless waste, that hurts! And it hurts even more if it’s your own mind telling you that, because when you dispute the statement, you’re disputing yourself. When we find a task really unpleasant, it’s often right HERE, in the self-sabotaging vortex of fear-driven ideation that the pain actually resides.
What we learn to do in meditation – observing our thoughts and letting them pass – is precisely how we should handle all the colorful arguments our mind invents to devalue our goal. Any time a devaluing thought arises, we should say “That’s a devaluing idea, invented as an escape from pain,” and let it go on its way. If we do this, the pain itself may subside, because we will no longer be in conflict with ourself. If we go further and appreciate the good fortune of our recovery from distraction, the pain can give way to pleasure.
To spell this out, imagine your mind tells you: “This isn’t going well, you should stop working on it and here’s why.”
Don’t get into an argument. Don’t say, “No, it’s really important that I keep doing this and here are all the reasons.”
Just think of the idea “You should stop and here’s why” as a story, a fiction, a construct.
You can say, “Hello, Mr. Story. Thanks, but I don’t need your services to help me escape this pain right now.”
This essay was almost lost to the devaluing story, “No one is going to read it.” That thought was “exciting” to me at one point because it seemed to offer a justification for stopping work and thereby gaining a free afternoon. But the reason these words are here is because I practiced what this essay itself is preaching.
In using meditation as a framework for concentrating on any difficult task, there’s one more lesson we can draw. Just like meditation often uses breathing as a primary focal point, we can use breathing – perhaps as a secondary focal point – when we’re trying to concentrate on a difficult task. Each time we recover from a distraction, a good way to manifest gratitude for our recovery is to tune in with our breathing: take a deep breath, maybe a few. The more we let ourselves breathe as we work, the better the work will feel. Often when we fear a task, it’s because the task leads to shallow, restricted breathing which makes us feel uncomfortable without knowing why.
In conclusion, concentration is like physical balance in that it depends on recovery. When we don’t like what we’re doing, it’s hard to recover from distractions, but the recovery gets easier if we take it as our goal to practice concentration itself. In that case, recovery allows our practice to continue, and we can feel grateful for that opportunity. To further support this gratitude for recovery, we can focus on the benefit of the task. To do this, we need to tune out all the stories our mind is inventing to devalue that benefit. These stories may fascinate us as they offer a way to escape the pain of working on the task, but we should not seek truth in them nor try to rebut them; instead we should let them dissipate as we would handle any thoughts that come up during meditation. If we do all this successfully, we can reach a point where it’s actually pleasurable to work on something that was painful and annoying.
This is not going to happen with one simple shift in mindset. The pain of the difficult task will not be converted into pleasure in an instant, and we should not expect this. Rather, the pleasure gradually develops as we keep recovering and taking a moment to appreciate the good fortune of each recovery. As our focus stays more and more on this “good fortune” we begin to forget the “bad fortune” of having to work on the thing we don’t want to do. Little by little, it starts to feel better to work on it. If we tune out the devaluing stories, and bypass the inner conflict they would create, we can begin to appreciate the inherent benefit of doing the task. And before long, it’s done.