Monday, April 26, 2010

Unsticking the mental clutch

Did you ever drive a car with a manual transmission?

With practice, going from first to third (or fourth) becomes almost an unconscious process.


One must still remember to put in the clutch before moving the gear shift. There is an awful, audible reminder when one fails to remember. Too many such failures and the clutch will burn out.

Over the years I have come to realize that our mental gears also require shifting. Different skills are needed for chatting up clients than relaxing with friends -- even if the talk, on the surface, is in both cases about last night's ballgame. It takes one skill set to stand up in court and argue; it is quite a different set of skills that one uses to write the brief that serves as the basis for that argument. There is a completely different skill set required to write an entertaining blog post than an appellate brief. A tremendous focus and concentration -- an immersion into the record -- is required for the latter. And, in my personal opinion, it's not nearly as much fun -- so it takes me a while to reach that level of mental intensity.

In other words, I have trouble shifting gears.

As a solo practitioner, I have to cover sales and production and administration alike. Different mental gears are, I believe, required for each. And my clutch is sticking: I have a heck of a time going from one mental state to the next.

I have to write an appeal this week -- I've stalled long enough on this project and I've cleared the decks as best I can -- and I'm starting to achieve that nervous, edgy, cranky state that precedes the requisite level of concentration. If I can just focus for three or four... or seven or eight... days, I'll get it done.

I feel myself slowing down, digging deeper, entrenching, in order to get this project started. I think this is what professional athletes are referring to when they say the 'game slows down for them' as they reach the highest levels of achievement. On the surface, this seems absurd: At the highest level, any sport moves faster by far than at any lower level. Balls are hit harder, runners run faster, collisions are more violent. But what may happen with an elite athlete is that he or she re-gears mentally to become entirely 'in tune' with the game. All outside distractions are banished and total focus is achieved. The process of mentally dispelling those outside distractions, whether the cheers of the fans or the day-to-day business of running an office, may seem to the person achieving focus like a true slowing down.

The hardest part, for me, is getting started. It's hard to achieve this focus, and there are so many other distractions. There are bills to be gotten out. And clients can't always cooperate and not call while one tries to focus in on writing an appeal. Call it inertia; call it clearing the decks. Either way, it is real and must be done.

The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (Laozi) is credited with saying that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." I saw an alternative translation of this statement this morning, though, on The Quotations Page: "[A] more correct translation from the original Chinese would be 'The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet.' Rather than emphasizing the first step, [Lao-tzu] regarded action as something that arises naturally from stillness."

Purposeful action that can only begin when one has slowed down.

I should be back later in the week. If I can keep slowing down sufficiently.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

okay curmy, you work, we'll wait...

smiles, bee

Dave said...

You don't actually need a clutch to shift, with practice listening to the engine. This probably adds to your point - when you are fully in the zone, you're attuned to the engine.

Shelby said...

I drive a manual now. My 20 year old son can't. sad. true tho. I never taught him. doh!!

Barb said...

I just set myself on auto-pilot and see what happens.

Eileen said...

Wonder if the fact most of us drive manuals on this side of the pond makes us more adaptable... never thought about it before!!! Now me, I hate automatics because I find it too difficult to forget about the lack of a clutch.