Level 4: Triumph in getting into your peak mental performance

What is peak mental performance for?

What’s so bad about going easy on ourselves?

Not at all.

However if we are looking for an enjoyable experience, our peak mental performance, also known as psychological flow, could be a contender for that. 

It is about getting into a state where we are completely immersed in an activity. Our attention is focused. We are totally absorbed. Time seems to fall away. We are tired, but we barely notice. This is not an artistic description. This is a standard description of psychological flow state.

It is about boosting our productivity 5 times1.

It is about halving the time we take to learn2.

If we consider the compounding effect of reproducibly getting into flow, and how it affects our happiness and the happiness of our future self, it is a highly profitable endeavor indeed.

Having said that, reproducibly getting into flow is no easy skill. 

As it requires one to be able to

  1. Consciously tune out distraction to be rid of Mindlessness Loop (Focus Skill Level 1)               
  2. Consciously manipulate motivation to curb Self-sabotaging Loop (Focus Skill Level 2)
  3. Consciously manage willpower reserve to stave off Catastrophizing Loop and Burnout Loop (Focus Skill Level 3)

Withstanding all that, the remaining obstacle in getting into psychological flow is to balance our emotion state, in real time. 

Yes, in real time.

This means we need to learn to prevent getting trapped in a Paralysis Loop and at the same time, learn to pick up the tempo of work that might get us into a Paralysis Loop. 

In particular, are we too stressed to be focused, or not stressed enough. The right level of stress is essential to get into flow. (See Yerkes-Dodson law).  

Psychological flow is about being balanced.

Too much to one side, we would be grazing against Paralysis Loop, but too much to the other, and we would be too relaxed to be able to dive deep into focus.

At the end of each Deep Work session, we will be able to read into how we work in much finer granularity. With the session report, we can interpret the emotion balance between tense and relaxation, from the side to which the “focus bandwidth” is tilting. 

 

Deep work summary, feeling too relaxed, so can’t focus deeply.

 

Figure 1. You can tell that you are too relaxed to get into deeper focus, when the “focus bandwidth” is tilting upwards to “relaxed”.

 

Too much upwards, it means that we were too relaxed, and that implies that we didn’t pace our work tempo to step up focus.

 

Deep work summary, feeling too stressed to focus.

Figure 2. You can tell that you are too stressed to get into deeper focus, when the “focus bandwidth” is tilting downwards to “tense”.

Too much downwards, it means that we were too tense, and that implies that we probably slipped into a Paralysis Loop.

With the right balance, the “focus bandwidth” would be able to expand until we get into flow state. If, halfway through the session, we lost balance, the “focus bandwidth” would shrink.

If however, the “focus bandwidth” is thin, even if relatively balanced, this almost always means one or more of the 3 prerequisite conditions are not met, and that the essential prerequisite Focus Skills, are not yet consolidated.

 

Prerequisite Focus Skill Level 1          

Consciously tune out distraction to be rid of Mindlessness Loop  

Getting into flow needs a focus trackway, as your brain needs to “sync up” each brain region to focus on tackling the problem at hand. 

However, when you are distracted, a part of your brain region has been “called upon” to engage in paying attention to some other tasks, and this would disrupt the trackway you have built, so you cannot get into flow.

Merely a flickering light has been shown to distract and reduce our capacity to focus cognitively. And the more distracting the environment, the greater a challenge it poses to focus. So careful management of our environment to reduce levels of audio and visual distractions is paramount.

General distractibility is high if we are already in a Mindlessness Loop, as each and every external stimulus gets magnified, further disengaging the different brain regions from working in sync on the task at hand. We can tune our brain into a less distractible state with Focus Biofeedback.   

 

Prerequisite Focus Skill level 2

Consciously manipulate motivation to curb Self-sabotaging Loop

The most insidious way to procrastinate is to entertain internal distractions such as random thoughts or even sensible thoughts that might be work related, however not directly related to the piece of work at hand. It is estimated that an untrained mind spends 47% of the waking hours in this “mind-wandering” state.

These internal distractions interrupt the naturally long focus trackway to get into flow. It takes around 10-20 minutes of undivided attention on a task to get into flow. If internal distractions result in task-switching, it becomes even more costly, as it wears down willpower.

By recognizing that entertaining internal distractions and consequent task-switching is a form of procrastination, we can use the mental contrast self-talk to tune our motivation, to work our human nature to our advantage instead of against it. As we need sufficient time and internal drive in order to stay on course.

 

Prerequisite Focus Skill level 3

Consciously manage willpower reserve to stave off Catastrophizing Loop and Burnout Loop

Once Catastrophizing Loop or Burnout Loop sets in, conscious will depletion will occur in no time. Without sufficient willpower reserve, it is almost impossible to get into focus, let alone flow.

So it becomes paramount that we avoid staying stuck in a Catastrophizing Loop or Burnout Loop, using the gratitude self-talk and Deep Relaxation Biofeedback combo. And that we pace our work and willpower replenishment schedule with care. 

Overcoming the final barrier with tech augmentation.

The final challenge is about finding the intuition to build flow and the instinct to balance work tempo.

Within a Deep Work session, we can exploit the in-work flow stats to help us find the touch for building flow. 

Finding balance is very hard, as it could take years of practice, to gain both self-awareness and control. 

Much as breathing reflects your emotion, it goes both ways, breathing affects your emotion states. So we can learn to pace our breathing to stay focused to build flow.

How does this work?

Breath Pacing is adaptive, and it changes according to your current emotion state, to always bring you back to balance. You may find that it seems to “rush” you a bit, and sometimes “slow you down”, all with the effort to bring you back to this subtle balance which gets you into flow.

When you first use it, there will be a learning curve, as you may need to pay conscious attention to the rhythm in order to follow it.

Maintaining breathing synchrony with the audio is like balancing a bike, with a little practice, it becomes intuitive and automatic, giving you a considerable focus boost when you work. 

The flow challenge

Getting into flow reproducibly is on par with running a marathon. The former is a challenge of mental discipline, fitness and prowess, while the latter is physical.

You can’t run a marathon when you are unwell, much as you can’t sustain a flow.

However, few could argue against marathon running being a hallmark of physical prowess, much as sustaining flow is the mental superpower, as well as an experience of sheer pleasure.

We only live once. We deserve the best. Don’t we?

 

Objective

Practice the following “If-Then” and build this Level 4 Focus Skill into your knee-jerk in 66 days, the natural habit formation lifecycle.

 

IF

 

A:you feel that you are focusing but not deeply enough, or

B:you receive strings of short focus streaks but not flow streaks

 

THEN

 

Step 1: start a Deep Work session.

Step 2:use Focus Breath Pacing to work.

 

If A: you feel that you are focusing but not deeply enough

The feeling of shallow focus, is very different from your peak performing state, where you seem to be in the “zone” where things just come naturally, and you are in full control.

This typically happens when the task at hand is trivial and is losing your attention or if the challenge is a little too much. 

This feeling of shallow focus means that you either feel too relaxed with your working pace, or that you feel you are struggling with the problem at hand or even frustrated (Paralysis Loop), which in turn throttles your momentum.

What essentially happens, is your emotion state is off balance. Possibly as a result of not managing the work tempo well enough, consequently you are either too relaxed or too tense. In both situations, this im-balance forestalls getting into deeper focus.

In contrast, when you are in flow, you are at the balance of relaxation and tension: the right amount of relaxation, keeps you calm in the face of challenges, and the right amount of tension, helps you maintain attention and get into deeper focus. 

 

If B: you receive strings of short focus streaks but not flow streaks

In FOCI, you can tell that you are in this shallow focus state, when you are forming a stream of short focus streaks, but not a flow streak. You can set up haptic alerts for Focus Slip Alerts, or see when they form in the streak records.

 

Then Step 1: start a Deep Work session

 

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.
Warren Buffett

 

And that's right, we are using Deep Work session to build a chain of habit such that in its entirety, it forms our deep work ritual to help us get into flow.

Why deep work ritual?

Ritual is a pseudonym for psychological conditionings that we deliberately build and maintain. All with the effort to make it easier to get into a state of flow over time.

And because it is based on a chain of habit, it is rare and hard to achieve. 

Based on our estimation, partially from observation and interviews with undergraduates of Cambridge University, arguably privileged and intelligent young people, under a demanding academic system, only around 1 in 4 has a well-honed Deep Work ritual.

On the other hand, around 1 in 4 lack consciously maintained rituals and as a result, suffering Burnout Loop, Catastrophizing Loop, Mindlessness Loop and Self-sabotaging Loop more rampantly than they would otherwise be.

The relative rarity of this skill and the benefits are obvious.

The good news is that you would already have the elements to build this chain of habits, if you have mastered level 1, level 2, level 3 Focus Skill, with the benefit from tech augmentation.

 

Tune out distraction

If: you feel that you are distractible
Do:
Step 1: do a Focus Biofeedback training, and wipe out all the droplets on screen.
Step 2: label the source of your distraction and try to mitigate its effects.

Manipulate motivation

If: you feel that you are procrastinative
Do:
Step 1: do a Mental Contrast self-talk immediately for 1 minute. 
Step 2: do a Focus Biofeedback training, and wipe out all the droplets on screen. 

Manage willpower reserve

If: you feel that you are tired or tense 
Do:
Step 1: do a gratitude self-talk immediately for 1 minute.
Step 2: do a Deep Relaxation Biofeedback, and wipe out all the droplets on screen.

 

Chain these 3 skills into a footwork together before the start of each Deep Work session to build a robust deep work ritual.

To be prepared is half the victory.

Now when you are ready, you can step up your focus progressively until you get a flow, and you can use the flow metrics to help you build up your tempo.

 

 

Flow metrics, showing how to get better at focusing.

Figure 3. Getting into flow needs a focus trackway. You will need to sustain your focus In order to get into flow, and you can use the flow metrics to guide you.

 

Then step 2: use Focus Breath Pacing to work

The centerpiece of getting into flow, is to maintain emotion balance, too much stress, we would get into Paralysis Loop, too little tension, we can’t step up our focus.

And this is understandably hard, which is where tech comes to the rescue.

Much as breathing reflects our focus, it goes both ways - breathing affects our focus. 

So we can use Focus Breathing Technique together with Focus Breath Pacing, once learning of our physiological state is complete, which can help us maintain balance of tension all in real time, while we work.

*Prerequisite: practice and learn to follow Breath Pacing without conscious effort.

Focus breathing technique

Figure 4. Focus Breathing Technique: Breathe in twice with one beat, and breathe out with one beat.

 

Maintaining breathing synchrony with the audio as you work, is like balancing a bike, with a little practice, it becomes intuitive and automatic, giving you considerable focus boost.

It’s worth the effort, as our alternative is years of training of self-awareness and mindfulness in order to replicate the effect of this tech augmentation. 

Acquire the skill, so you can reproducibly get into flow, as and when you want to get into flow.

 

Summary

 

IF

A:you feel that you are focusing but not deeply enough, or

B:you receive strings of short focus streaks but not flow streaks

 

THEN

Step 1:start a Deep Work session

Step 2:use Focus Breath Pacing to work

 

Build this Level 4 Focus Skill into your knee-jerk in 66 days.

Tick off a checkbox for each day you practice “If-Then”.

 

How to get flow, build new focus habit in 66 days.

Focus Skill Foundation: Discover your Achilles’ heel of your performance

Identify the 5 main types of vicious loops that could be affecting you all the time.

Level 1. Tune out distractions at your will

Understand the perennial chaos happening inside your brain and bring it under control in minutes with biofeedback.

Level 2. Terminate procrastination in a snap

Power up the most well researched psychological technique with tech augmentation.

Level 3. Boast a longer focus span than others

Stay balanced with fatigue and stress more effectively with added emotion-awareness and the right countermeasures.