The Importance of Being Clever

When it comes to developing any new skill, it is more important to be clever than to be disciplined.

This does not mean that discipline is not valuable. It’s essential. But shrewdness can support the cultivation of discipline until it reaches a sustainable momentum. It can also help strengthen and maintain consistency and navigate inevitable plateaus.

Unrealistic expectations create obstacles. Walking around the block might be a more astute approach to marathon training than trying to run five miles a day if I have not been running at all.

Outsmarting resistance to consistent practice is also required for strengthening attentional skills.

The idea of paying close attention to a specific component of experience for twenty or thirty minutes a day can be compelling when you learn of its potential benefits, but this goal is often abandoned long before they are realized.  

Here’s a pattern I have observed:

  • A book or teacher inspires people to meditate every day in order to feel or perform better or to suffer less.
  • Daily practice turns out to be surprisingly challenging and involves a lot more confusion and agitation than expected so many give up.

  • The ones who manage to persist for ninety days or so discover somewhere along the way that they are pausing to pay attention differently many times every day and gradually feeling more at home in their lives in spite of circumstances not being ideal.

One clever approach based on this common pattern is to invert it:

  • Try to make a habit of pausing to notice aspects of ordinary experiences throughout the day.

  • Consider adding periods of timed practice starting with five minutes and gradually extending the duration realistically based on your schedule and responsibilities. These practice sessions don’t have to be in silent rooms or along pristine beaches. Bathrooms, parked cars, and coffee shops might even work better. Adapting exercises to fit a variety of circumstances is fun and powerful.  

  • When you get stuck, confused, or frustrated, you can turn to teachers and books for clarification of techniques and inspiration to continue on.

I also recommend the clever angle Dr. Mike Evans uses to coax people off the couch and into better physical health. Rather than shooting for thirty minutes of daily exercise, he suggests limiting inactivity and unconsciousness to 23 ½ hours a day.

This translates perfectly to attentional fitness.

See if you can find your own way into limiting the time you spend in the default attentional modes of spinning narratives, evaluating yourself and others, problem solving, zoning or numbing out, and sleeping to around the same amount of time each day he recommends for walking and moving. If you really want to get clever, you can follow his advice and mine at the same time.

Being clever about attentional fitness workouts helps steer through and around the common, inevitable obstacles to cultivating key skills of attention. Other payoffs include the many ways that robust attentional skills support the acquisition of all other abilities. Improving the ability to concentrate makes it easier to learn. Greater equanimity leads to accepting confusion and frustration as natural components of gaining knowledge.    

The accumulation of stolen moments of practice throughout your existing routine has the added benefit of keeping the emphasis on how you live and experience your life rather than on identifying with the exercises themselves. You actually begin to pay attention more instead of thinking of yourself as someone who pays more attention.  

Clever, right?