take a break

take a break
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I've always been told that the best way to study involves taking frequent breaks. I have a hard time accepting this. My time is precious–especially before exams–and wasting any of it doing nothing would be an enormous waste. I've already explored one facet of this in my post on Sabbath rest, but here I'm going to expound on mindfulness.

Since we generally have extremely short attention spans, we need to break our studying or work into manageable chunks. People who write sitcoms figured this out a long time ago: we can't really focus for more than ~15-20 minutes at a time and still engage with it effectively. We need time to let the information soak in, time to make connections between what we just learned and everything else we already know, time to rest our mind from cramming it with new information.

I've tried a lot of systems for both studying and practicing music. I've tried setting Pomodoro timers, planning my study sessions in small, logical chunks, putting limits on how much time I spend studying, etc., but I haven't really enjoyed any of them. They have, however, taught me something fundamental: that I learn most effectively when the end is in sight. That is to say, I need to know when I'm going to be done. I need to see the "light at the end of the tunnel" so that I can push through until I get there.

For example, while practicing organ, I block out an hour on my calendar. That hour is too long for me to have the end in sight. At the start of the hour I ambiguously think "I have plenty of time!" and toward the end I think "Oh no! I'm not going to finish!"

Recently I've tried to break my hour into chunks that include time for mindful reflection: something like, 10 minutes of practicing technique, 2.5 minutes to plan tomorrow's technique practice, 2.5 minutes to think about the next piece I'm going to practice, 20 minutes practicing the next piece, 2.5 minutes to reflect on it and plan tomorrow's practice session, 2.5 minutes to think about the next piece I'm going to practice, and 20 minutes to actually practice it.

When I practice like this, it seems like every chunk of practice is so full of new, important, and critical things that I can't help but stay focused for the entire time chunk. The hour is gone before I know it and I go away feeling satisfied that I practiced effectively. When I don't practice like this, I go away feeling unsatisfied and think about all the time I wasted because I got distracted drilling one part, and neglected all the other parts.

This is what I would call "discipline." Ordering the things you do in such a way that you accomplish them effectively. I think you see where this is going by now...


This post continues my exploration of Richard Foster's excellent book, Celebration of Discipline. The whole series can be found here:

celebration of discipline - tate
a life observed

The subtitle of the book is "the path to spiritual growth" and Foster does a great job of demonstrating that spiritual growth is just like any other growth: we have to work for it effectively. If I want to get in shape, I could just throw together a random assortment of exercises and I'll get some good results. But if I really want to get in shape, I need to have a plan.

Foster provides that plan and its first step is meditation. I must admit, I was extremely skeptical until I read its first sentence:

In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in "muchness" and "manyness," he will rest

To put it another way, we perceive the end (whether it be the end of the day or the end of our life) as too far away to reasonably affect how we live now. We get distracted with all the little things that sometimes actually matter but usually don't. Then we lay in bed when the end draws near and wonder where all the time went.

In the last post, I showed that meditation provides the conditions that cultivate patience and kindness. Now, I will say it also provides the conditions that cultivate peace.

There's a paradox to spiritual discipline: in order to practice it, you often give up the thing that's most likely to help you achieve it. To learn humility, you first have to be secure in the fact of your greatness. To learn generosity, you first have to give away your resources. And to gain peace, you have to stop working, stop worrying, let be, and be still.

My gut tells me that if I don't work to keep it all together, everything's going to fall apart. I think that if I don't spend every moment constructively, things will only get worse. But the opposite is true.

When I meditate, it takes more time away from my work than I'm already taking away (by the end of this book, you'll really see how much time spiritual discipline takes away from your normal tasks).

But think about it: how many hours do you already waste in a day? Is it Facebook or YouTube? Is it watching the news? Or even watching commercials in between the news? I'm sure you have something in mind. If you're like me, those hours haunt you. Instead of accidentally wasting them, purposefully waste them!

what you need to do

Put an hour on your calendar. Within that hour, turn off your phone and every other screen. Set a timer that makes a noise so that you don't have to look at a clock. Put away everything that is a source of information. During this hour, everything that goes through your mind will be a result of you putting it there. You will not allow anything else to stimulate you. This might be the first time in a long time that you are totally in control of your own mind.

If that scares you, use the hour to think about why that scares you. Write down every reason for fear that comes to mind.

If an hour sounds like too much time, use the hour to think about why one specific hour on this specific day is too much stress in your busy schedule. Write down all the reasons that come to mind.

Even during my undergrad when I worked from before dawn to after dusk studying, working, teaching, practicing, and performing, I found that I could still spare an hour a day. In fact, it might be better to say that I couldn't afford not to spend my hour a day in meditation.

I'm not sure how it works, but putting a block on my calendar where I was not allowed to do anything but write down my thoughts (recently, I don't even write anything down) somehow made all the other hours of the day more productive. It's like the sabbath on a smaller scale: I have to plan how I'm going to accomplish all my work before Saturday which "puts the end in sight" for Sunday through Friday.

When the timer goes off, you can do whatever you want with the things you wrote down. I keep mine in a notebook that I never read. I know other people who just throw them away. This is not an hour of productivity: it's an hour of putting your heart and mind back in order; it's an hour of healing from this busy world.

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