In How Adults Build Products, I explored a cognitive difference between adults and babies: adults have “endogenous attention” while babies only have “exogenous attention.” In other words, adults have the capacity to control their own attention. For babies, in contrast, their attention is directed by the external world.
Adults behave like babies in the workplace. Instead of staying focused on their true goals, grownup creators allow themselves to chase squirrels, build shiny objects, over-react to customer feedback, or succumb to political pressures. My thesis is that controlling your own attention is key to achieving good results in product development or any creative endeavor.
Since writing the post, I’ve started scratching the surface of meditation, primarily through listening to the How to Meditate series by Jeff Warren in the Calm app. Learning the basics of meditation has helped me appreciate that controlling one’s own attention is not a capability that adults can take for granted — it’s a lifelong skill to cultivate.
For example, I’m pretty good at staying focused on a task in the face of distractions from the external world, but I have huge room to improve in managing distractions from my own mind. After a few hours of practicing meditation, I’m already a bit better at important things like savoring moments with my kids or nature without obsessing over a work problem that can wait until later. I’m learning how to be present.
There’s fascinating potential to translate the techniques of meditation into a system for maximizing innovation, which is what we’ll explore in the rest of this post.
In Meditation Muscle Groups, Jeff Warren explains four muscle groups that get stronger through practicing meditation:
- Concentration. The ability to commit to a thing and stay focused on it. When your mind wanders, your concentration muscle brings it back.
- Clarity. The ability to notice when you’ve been distracted. It’s easy for your mind to wander for seconds or minutes without realizing it. The clarity muscle gives you self-awareness of what your mind is doing so your concentration muscle can bring it back to your intended focus.
- Equanimity. When you’re concentrating, it’s self-defeating to try too hard to block out distractions. The equanimity muscle helps you maintain a relaxed openness to external stimuli. To concentrate, you must allow yourself to experience sensations and thoughts without flinching or overreacting.
- Friendliness. The friendliness muscle helps you feel goodwill towards others and yourself. When you do get distracted, it doesn’t help to get mad at yourself.
To continue the line of thought I started in How Adults Build Products, the four muscle groups of meditation provide a guide for how to control your own attention, which is key to creating great things. On the surface, the translation to creative work is easy:
- Concentration. The ability to commit to a creative goal or path.
- Clarity. The ability to recognize when work has drifted away from the intended focus.
- Equanimity. The ability to be open to external feedback on your creation without overreacting.
- Friendliness. Goodwill towards coworkers, collaborators or users.
Part of what makes meditation powerful is that it helps you build those muscles while sitting still. The foundation is committing to a “home base”; that is, a sensation to fixate your concentration on, like the feeling of breathing in and out. You must use all of the meditation muscle groups to keep your attention on your home base. This might sound arduous, but it’s surprisingly entertaining. By staying vigilant towards your mind wandering, you become more aware of the thoughts that pull you away. You gain fascinating insight into your own mind. Meditation makes it a little easier to “pop out” of unwanted thoughts even when you’re not meditating.
With innovation, however, yo can’t always commit to a home base like you do in meditation. In product development, for example, it’s critical to have a north star or Thielian secret to direct your focus, but external feedback should change what you’re doing. In meditation, external stimulus doesn’t change your home base. When creating something new, in contrast, your foundation is unstable. As I explored in The Threat of Hylomorphic Design Thinking and The Fundamental Tension in Product, there’s a constant tension between bending the world and adapting to it.
But even with an unstable home base, the benefits of applying the muscle groups of meditation to the innovation process is deep. Meditation helps you create more space for creative decisions.
At first, I found the notion that meditation creates more “space” in one’s mind to be counter-intuitive since there’s a fixed amount of room in a skull. But now I get it. Meditation has helped me create more space between myself and the thoughts that were previously crowded up against me. The power dynamic between myself and my thoughts is gradually reversing. Instead of my thoughts choosing me, I can look around my spacious mind and choose what to think next. At least, I can do that more than before.
When you’re building something, feedback from your environment crowds your process like thoughts crowd the brain. Your materials don’t work the way you want, new opportunities emerge, people don’t like what you’re doing, new competition pops up, the economic climate changes, etc.. A weak creator knee-jerk reacts to external change and loses their original vision. An equanimous creator, from the comfort of a spacious interior, feels perturbances and methodically decides how, if at all, to adjust course.
The muscle groups of meditation cultivate autopoiesis (self-creation) in the creative process. When those muscles are weak, the outside world governs your creations more than you do.
Neurofeedback tools are emerging to assist with meditation. Dr. Jeff Tarrant writes in Psychology Today:
By monitoring brainwave activity in specific regions of the brain, we can get a pretty good idea if the person is actually engaged in the meditation or is instead, caught in mind wandering. When the attention is focused, the program plays an audio signal, such as a piece of ambient music, indicating to the person that they are “on track.” This provides direct and nearly immediate feedback to the meditator, allowing them to refine their internal awareness.
The vision of my startup DoubleLoop is to provide a similar feedback mechanism for the innovation process. Through integrations with project management and dev tools, DoubleLoop collects the output of finished work to make it clear when your actions have diverged from your goals. DoubleLoop lets you know when your team’s collective mind has wandered.