One afternoon when I was four years old, my mother left me and my brother in the car while she ran into a friend’s house to pick up a sewing pattern. My brother was about three months old, asleep in a basket on the back seat. Car seats? Seat belts? Never heard of them.
The car, with the parking brake on, was parked at the top of a hill. A few minutes after my mother went in the house, the car started to roll down the hill.
I realized I couldn’t reach the brake pedal, opened the door, got out of the car, closed the door, ran for the house yelling for my mother, and got to the house in time for her to run out, get in the car and stop it before it plummeted down the hill. I did all of this in seconds, with absolute focus and clarity that I remember to this day. That was my first experience being in the zone.
I love that zone feeling. The way that time dilates. That sense of absolute focus. The way that connections that I couldn’t see before suddenly make complete sense.
Here’s what research has discovered about how we naturally increase our ability to zone:
1. Focus on the task. If you are writing, write. Don’t answer e-mail. Don’t Google or Bing or any of those other new verbs. Don’t get up to check if your spices needs to be arrange alphabetically. Write, write, write over and over.
2. Slow breathing and pulse rate. That’s not as hard as it sounds. Find your pulse in your wrist. Take a deep, slow breath. Hold it for a couple of seconds at maximum inspiration. Let it out slowly. In those couple of seconds with your breath held, you should have felt your pulse slow. The more you practice this, the easier it gets. Um, stop somewhere short of hyperventilation and passing out, okay?
3. Enjoy the pursuit. Believe that the task is rewarding for its own sake. Find the sweet spot where your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand. There’s no sense kidding ourselves, a lot of writing isn’t enjoyable. We get through it because we have to, because whether it’s editing for comma usage or mucking our way through a scene we don’t yet understand but have to finish, those tasks are part of the package deal of being an author. We hope for, live for those incredible, tasty bits where the writing becomes supremely fun.
4. Silence self-critical thoughts. Unlike that breathing and pulse thing, this often is neither easy nor fun. But it is doable and, over time, we either learn to cope or we give up writing and go somewhere else more fun.
5. Expand the focus to include an outside reference point. We’re talking reward points here, whether it’s a perfect cup of tea as soon as you finish this chapter, or anticipating climbing on a plane for Hawaii in three months. We need rewards and treats outside of ourselves, outside of projects for which to aim.
6. Keep doing the above 5 things for roughly 10,000 hours of practice. If we imagine 300 days a year as a base, and practice, say, 2 hours a day, that should take us about 16 to 17 years to achieve.
Or if you’re in a hurry, and putting in 10,000 hours of practice doesn’t appeal to you, you could sign up for lab experiments where your brain patterns are teased apart and projected on a screen. Then you have the fun of learning to change the shape of the pattern to create a zoning pattern. Create the right pattern and enter the zone immediately.
For the people in a real hurry, scientists have discovered that zapping certain brain areas with electricity produces transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This fast tracks your brain instantly into a zone state that lasts as long as the electricity flows. If you’re interested, check out the New Scientist article about research in this area. This is being touted as the next great revolution in education.
If you have some concerns about this, especially for your kids, you might also want to look at the Scientific America article on the ethics of tDSC.
For the really got-to-get-to-that-zone-and-hang-the-consequences group, people are actually trying the tDCS stimulation at home as a do-it-yourself project, with instructions they found on the Internet. Never mind that we don’t know what the long-term effect of this research are. Never mind that a short-time side effects can include blindness that lasts several months. I can’t think of a single situation where home-grown tDCS a good idea. But then, maybe I’m just old-fashioned. After all, I was born before infant car carriers and seat belts.
So what’s it going to be for you: practice, practice, practice, or a 9-volt jolt to the brain?
Quote for the week:
To the make of a piper goes seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before. At the end of his seven years, one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.
~Neil Munro (1863–1930) Scottish journalist, newspaper editor, author and literary critic.
The same can be said of writers as of pipers.