Focusing for 5 minutes

Creating Breathe is part of my personal journey to increase focus and attention. My success or failure at work depend on my ability to keep structures of code in my head as I try to solve problems and create solutions. Focus is a key factor in the depth and breadth of my code, and the usefulness and lasting quality of my work.

But I can’t stay focused on something for longer than 5 minutes at a time. That’s bad. I’ve had moments when I’ve had longer focus. But those are infrequent occasions, when my energy and mood is high, and the code I’m working on is challenging but not impossible or frustratingly illusive.

I believe it’s because I’m anxious all the time. There is a set of conversations rambling in my mind, which include:

  • You better not waste your time
  • Something isn’t right
  • …Am I forgetting something?

Maybe you have a similar set of thoughts. Or different sets, but equally anxiety causing. How many thoughts do you have? How often are you thinking them? Are you aware that you’re thinking them?

The anxiety from these thoughts pull me both away from what I’m working on, or too deep into it. Because I might be forgetting something, I try to go deep into all the things that can possibly go wrong. This quickly leads me away from what I should be working on, like a game of That Makes Me Think Of (TMMTO). And while my code is compiling I make sure that I’m not missing anything on Gmail, Slack, Facebook, xkcd, Dr. McNinja, etc. I shouldn’t just sit here and stare blankly into nothing as my code compiles, right? Or maybe I should go get something to drink.

Breathe

At first the idea of an app for breathing was OK, not my cup-of-tea. But I really wanted to do something with random reminders. I have had this idea for an app in the back of my mind for over a year now and Breathe was basically the same thing, but simpler and way better. And I liked the person who was proposing the idea to me, he also had a willing partner for design. All I would have to do was code the thing? I jumped on board without really thinking about it.

While developing Breathe I would use it daily myself. I would use the reminders as a moment to take a step back from what I was doing and relax. This included both body and mind relaxation.

I remember odd forays into meditation groups with a good friend of mine. Buddhist centers in the middle of mountains, Zen centers in a remodeled house, or finding a hairless spot to do some “sitting” with my friend in his studio and his three cats. I would spend the first 10 minutes trying to not think. It’s like trying to balance a pen on its pointy end. And then the rest of the 50 minutes battling all the different pains showing up in my body.

I liked it so much that I thought I would make a habit out of it. That was sarcasm, but I heard about all the benefits and I wanted some of that no-mind stuff that turned Tom Cruise into a Kendo master in one season in The Last Samurai. I tried various things like including it into my daily Muslim prayers, then just 10 minutes a day, then nothing. Like all good habits, they die young.

The Breathe reminders though, they’re like a tap on the shoulder. I sometimes just take one deep breath if I’m really busy. Usually I try to relax my face. That physical act does wonders and triggers my mind to quickly fall into a state of relaxation. Where the body follows, so does the mind. I set it to 10 Breathers between 10 AM and 9PM. When I’m in the middle of coding, I take a breath, relax my face, and continue. While talking to someone I just breathe deeply. If In meeting, I am usually already deep in some Tibetan-monks-meditating-in-the-snow shit.

It may seem contradictory, but the added interruptions from Breathe is helping my life, instead of burdening it.

The Apple Watch

My work is like cooking, but just stretched over a span of 8 hours. Usually I have 2-3 simultaneous tasks that I’m trying to accomplish while making a delicious yet nutritious meal for myself. There would even be a smattering of some miscellaneous tasks like chopping up an extra onion for later, or putting something interesting on TV while I cook. I would neurotically jump between stirring the pot, cleaning the dishes I’ve been using, and frying the side vegetables.

These tasks are always too small and too ever-changing to waste time trying to schedule it with TimedTrainer ahead of time and treat it like a workout.

Recently though I’ve decided to purchase an Apple Watch. What attributed to me spending money on something like the Watch (because I wouldn’t normally) was Apple sending me an email. It said that I’ll get special expedited treatment because I have the Breathe app, which has a Watch Extension, on my account. And they also said that I will be the first one to walk into work with a fancy shiny Apple Watch and all my co-workers will bow down at my feet and kiss it (I think I added that part, and it didn’t happen, someone got it before I did). Writing this now I realize just how powerful something like special treatment was for a stingy person like me, while costing Apple next to nothing extra to do it. Steve Jobs would be proud.

So I had the watch and I wanted to try an experiment. Whenever I could, I would set a reminder before moving onto a different task. I would tell Siri to schedule a 2 minute timer before I would have to stir the pot again. Then while I clean up the counter, I only focus on cleaning, not anxiously worry about the when I need to stir the pot.

The experiment was largely a success. The food turned out delicious and those worry free 2 minutes were bliss to me. Moments that were truly mine, not some mindless action driven by worry of the future or regret of the past. 2 minutes that I remain in the now, given to me by a piece of simple and reliable technology. Again Steve Jobs would be proud.

Conclusions?

Using these two technologies, I am trying out new ways to get back into reality. So long it’s been the other way around. Radio and TV took children out of nature and play. Computers now keep us from having to be in the same room with anybody else. Mobile phones keep us from having to look around as we travel through this world.

I welcome a change where I can get one or two minutes of reality. I like getting a gentle tap on my shoulder reminding me to breathe. But it’s all in the experimentation phase, I’m still on my journey. I don’t even know what it is that I’m seeking. Does more focus mean going from 5 minutes to 10 minutes without interrupting myself or going off tangents? Or does it mean that the same 5 minutes are full of quality. And my co-workers would slowly come to hate me if they hear “Hey Siri, timer two minutes 30 seconds” every 10 minutes at work. So I can’t run these experiments in the real world just yet. Maybe I can make an app for that though…

I’m interested in knowing about your challenges and some hacks you’ve thought up that might help me gain focus in my life too. Please leave a comment below with some ideas or stories of your successes or failures. And you should really try Breathe out for yourself and let us know how you like it.

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Breathe

My shoulders are hunched and tight, my forehead scrunched with worry. The precious moments of my life wasted with each short, gasping breath I take. My mind occupied with the mistakes from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Where am I going with my life? Maybe I shouldn’t be so stubborn with my Mom. Am I being a pushover at work? We’re going to run out of oil by 2030. What will I do if I get cancer? China will overtake the US economy by 2020. I should’ve bought that stock earlier. Is my cholesterol ok? What if I fall down these stairs, break my spine, and then live out the rest of my life regretting—

Take a deep breath in. There is nothing really wrong right now. Breathe out. I am alive, I exist, I am lucky and grateful.

I haven’t found an effective way to interrupt my stream of concerns. Regular Google calendar and Apple reminders haven’t helped me. Instead, I need a random reminder to open my eyes a little wider, relax my forehead, and take a deep doctor’s-office-checkup breath.

For those like me, deeply concerned about everything, I would like you to consider adding one more interruption into your life. I’ve partnered with talented people to work on a vision, towards which we are taking our first tentative steps. It’s an iOS App that interrupts your life to remind you to Breathe. We’re including an Apple Watch App so that you don’t have to glance at your iPhone during meetings.

The value I get from this app is 10 random moments from 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM to take one deep breath, regardless of what I’m working on, which meeting I’m in, or who I’m talking to. When I can, I try to set aside the weight of my responsibilities, and spend 10 seconds to relax my body and mind. I’m sure it’s good for me, we can collect all the statistics and do the research later and I can tell you about it.

Breathe is basically a polished beta app, so there aren’t very many bells and whistles. And maybe that’s how it should remain. I’d like to know what you think of it, please download and try it out for a few days. Then come back here and comment on what you think, and any benefits you get from the app.

Let’s start a conversation.

Breathe iOS App

Playing a losing chess game

When I play chess, as soon as I hit some internal threshold where I feel like I’m sure to lose the game, I want to (and usually do) quit.

Now how does that translate to the rest of my life I wonder?

Today I won a game even though I was a bishop, a knight, and a pawn down within the first 20 moves. Granted if I was playing against a Grand Master, It’d probably have been a waste of both our times for me to continue playing.

Or maybe the Grand Master wouldn’t think so, and that’s part of being a Grand Master.

This time though, I swallowed hard and didn’t quit. Mainly because my opponent doesn’t quit either no matter how down he is. Eventually I was able to make solid moves until my opponent made mistakes while I kept increasing my advantages.

Before long I was only  down one pawn, but that didn’t matter because I had a discovered check that would allow me to capture his queen.

The game was over, I had won.

When re-analyzing the game, we found that I was allowed to continue forking or skewering his queen on different variations of those last few moves. It was because he made the fatal mistake of moving the king out of his protected pawn structure.

So far in my life I’ve worked to overcome my fear of pursuing goals that might seem unattainable. But I keep becoming hindered because I quit the first time things begin turning sour, when the curve of progress stops going up.

If I had to venture a guess as to the nature of success, I bet that it includes several dips on the road, no matter the pursuit. And yah, I’ve learned to start taking the first step and beginning the journey. But I haven’t been so good at finishing it.

The missing Jiminy Cricket

Growing up I thought that quality was a natural inherent sense in all of us. I would hear things like “follow your conscience” and imagine that inside all of us is some hidden wisdom that will tell us what is good and bad.

As an adult I tell myself that I don’t believe this anymore, but it’s still a deeply ingrained habit of mine to assume that there will be something that stops me from being too bad. Our bodies give us a sense of what is harming us in our immediate physicality. But the cells in our body and the dendrites in our brains don’t have any ability to predict what’s good for us in the future. Or what psychological harm there may be in the long term, or hidden physical harms.

Now the terms “follow your conscience” has taken on a different meaning for me. It’s not the conscience of the little voice I expect to be there to guide me whenever I’m in a confuddle. I’m now trying to find the conscious in me. The awareness when I open my eyes and mind, and drop the automatic filters that block my perception.

It’s satori that I’m seeking. The awareness of the buddha.

 

Meditation FAIL

After 34 Minutes opened my eyes to just how loose-fit my life was, I decided that I want to change a few things.

I decided that maybe I should do 20 minutes of meditation every night at EXACTLY 10:00 PM to help me develop more discipline in the art of being on time and concentration and all that junk.

But little did I know just how painfully long 20 minutes would be.

I started the meditation about 22 minutes late, an improvement from 34 minutes of 35%.
After a while of shifting around, moving about, yawning, I began focusing on my breath.

5 breathes in, I began thinking about how I’m glad I’m doing this, it’ll really help me with my life. What if it’s like THAT thing. That thing that one day I’ll be on a TED talk and I’m relating this story about how I began to meditate 20 minutes every day and it changed my life and I made a million dollars that first month and then the next month I won a gold medal in being awesome-as-shit competition.

No wait.. shouldn’t be thinking about anything.
Empty the mind, focus on the breathing.

10 breathes in, I was thinking about my insecurities about my business. I’m not progressing as fast as I want to. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m incompetent. I’m going to fail and then I’ll have to go back and start looking for a job, but by then the ponzi scheme the Fed has been running for 3 decades now finally breaks and there is global depression and I will be forced to wear tattered fluffy coats and stand in soup lines for 3 hours and..
Shit.. focus on breathing. Focussss.

I wonder what time it is? I’m sure it’s been like 15 minutes. Maybe even 18 minutes. Can’t be more than a few more minutes left.

Just as I check my phone, the time ticks down from 10:00 to 9:59.
Only half way through the meditation.

I laughed loudly at myself. “Man..” I thought, “This is pretty pathetic.”

Ok. Enough. Focus on breathing.
Inhale.
Exhale.
Inhale.
“Man my neck hurts.” Exhale.
Inhale loudly.
Exhale. “Oww.. this is really hurting right now.”
Yoga is like meditation right? I don’t know yoga, but I’m sure they have these neck stretching moves that I’m doing right now. So I’m still meditating right?
Right.

I wonder what time it is? This time I’m sure it’s almost over. But no. I shouldn’t check it.
Focus on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. It should almost be over.
Inhale. Exhale. What if the alarm app is broken?
Inhale. It must be, cause it’s been like 30 minutes already.
Exhale. I should check to make sure that the app is still running fine.

5:00

34 Minutes

I set a reminder at 12:00 PM to do something that I need to get done, I left the house at 12:34 PM to do it.

34 minutes late.

To a lot, 34 minutes late is ok if no one is waiting for you. And for a while now it’s been ok for me too.
But I think I’ve hit a wall in life, progress is harder and harder to achieve, and I need something to kick it to the next gear.

I remember a time in my life, when I was much younger, when time was extremely important to me. I remember that I had it down to the t how long it would take me to go to school, exactly when I’d leave, exactly when I’d get there. How long to the bus stop. To the library, to my friends house, to the grocery store. Everything was mapped down in detail in my 12 year old head. Sometimes I’d even go as far as break down exactly what movements I’d make when I went to get a snack from the kitchen.

Why? No reason, usually just because I could do it. But when it involved other people, there was fear involved too. Fear of disappointing them or hurting them in some way because of my lateness. None of my friends were like that though, I’d wait around for them when they were supposed to be ready at a certain point, I wouldn’t say anything. And I’ve experienced plenty of times when I’d get to a party or someone’s house and be the awkward first person there because someone told me it’d start at 8:00.. when they actually meant 8:34.

So over time I loosened up a little. At first it was difficult, I had to time it to be later than usual. Knowing that I had to be “fashionably late,” I’d time to head out at 8:22, the drive time will be about 11 minutes, parking and etc probably 2 minutes. That’ll get me there at approximately 8:35. Hopefully I’ll be the third or fourth person there.
After a while this became normal and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

But now, I’m in a different phase of my life. Right now I don’t need or care about being awkwardly early to parties. I don’t go to any parties. Right now my meetings with people usually involve business of some sort, even the ones with my friends because we’re all at similar stages of our life. Now, every minute late is a minute of negative energy, sucking life out of my day, life and energy I need tremendously to climb the mountains that I want to be climbing right now.

But that’s with other people, why am I being so hard on myself for a personal goal that didn’t have any real consequences? I didn’t have anything else going on in my day, I didn’t have to be on time.
But it was a commitment I made to myself. It’s my life that I’m living right now. My life that I’m building. Try building a house where every joint is ±0.34 degrees off the angle.

How you approach the smallest things in your life, is how you approach everything in your life. I can see all the ways that lots of things in my life are 34% off the mark. I can tell myself that 34% isn’t that bad, it’s better than 40% or 50%, I’ve met people who are that far off the bullseye of their life.
But will I, a brown-asian man with glasses, be satisfied with a 66%, a D, in life?

Hell no.

Thank you for 2m 19.5s of your life.

Prattle

There are people in your life who can do amazing things you can’t do. So why waste your time, and their time, talking about useless things that bring no value to anyone?
If at the end of each sentence uttered by a person doesn’t make you even an ounce better than how you were before, either spiritually, emotionally, or mentally, then what the hell are you doing with that person?

And if every sentence you utter doesn’t similarly enlighten the other person, then shut up. Shut up and at least listen intently to those who can do it.
Let them make you laugh, let them make you cry, let them expand your mind, let them tell you their deepest darkest secrets, let them be of use to you.

Stop being scared. Stop being scared to try and say something useful, something true, something deep, something that makes you vulnerable to the possibility that they’ll look at you weird and not reciprocate or appreciate what you’ve just said.
And then stop hanging out with those people.

Go hang out with people who you’re ever climbing some great mountain with. Every single moment is spent furthering each other’s lives, ever slowly moving higher and higher towards a better existence. If you don’t have any of those in your life, what a damn shame. You’re a loser. But it’s ok, that’s just a temporary life situation that you can solve easily. There are lots of people out there. Or maybe some of your equally loser friends will join you if you suddenly brought up some real emotion that has been plaguing the real you.

And of course, remember to laugh. Laugh and joke and say the most outrageous things to each other, comfortable that you can let yourself free like that. Once the soul is opened, and you peak inside each other’s dark corners and find that it’s not really that bad and you don’t mind the weird smell from certain sections of the closet. Then there’s very few uncomfortable zones and at no point do you have to screech to a stop and go through the mental checks of “wait, can I say this? Should I say that? What will they think of me if I say it?”