Mental in theory
Our attention is under siege! How many of us have been conditioned into a Pavlovian response to an incoming email. We are concentrating (or we think we are) on writing an essay or cleaning the kitchen and, *ping*, we hear the sound of an email landing in our inbox. “Someone loves me!”, we think. Forgetting whatever it was that we were doing, we feel a pull to the screen. Hours later we realise that we have done twenty minutes of real work and three hours of time-wasting.
This familiar situation led on to several other observations on the third evening of the Personal Effectiveness Project. We thought about what Linda Stone (formerly of Apple and Microsoft) calls “‘continuous partial attention’... we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges”.1 Sound familiar? Ever spent an entire conversation with someone peeking out of the corner of your eye at that text that has just come in? Ever spoken on the phone with friend while quietly (you hope!) tapping out a reply to an email?
Mental effectiveness is largely about taking control of the mind.
For those of you on tenterhooks since the last post, we have now reached the well known marshmallow test. Over a period of several years, the psychologist Walter Mischel challenged a succession of 650 four-year-olds in the same way. Here is how Tony Schwartz reports what happened2:
Each child was offered the chance to eat one marshmallow immediately, or two if the child was willing to wait while the researcher stepped out of the room for an unspecified number of minutes. Children who decided they couldn’t wait were invited to ring a bell, at which point the researcher would return. The majority of children gave up in less than three minutes, rang the bell and settled for a single marshmallow. Thirty percent, however, held out for a full fifteen minutes, until Mischel or one of his researchers returned.
The difference? Attention.
The children who succumbed to temptation were the ones who couldn’t keep their eyes off the marshmallow and often stared directly at it. As a consequence they very quickly burned down their limited reserves of will and discipline.
Worse, attention and emotions became intermingled. Schwartz goes on to report that for most children, their desire for the marshmallow became intense. “This is what Mischel calls ‘a hot stimulus’.”3 Things then got more interesting, more than a decade after his original research concluded. In 1981 Mischel sent a questionnaire to teachers and parents of all his original students, asking about how the children had got on since.
The ones who had been able to delay gratification at the age of four grew up to be more confident, self-reliant, trusting, dependable, and persevering. They also developed more lasting friendships, responded more resiliently to stress, and eventually scored an astonishing average of 210 points higher than the low delayers did on their SATs. The [children who went for instant gratification] turned out to be more stubborn … [and] were more likely to be overweight, to abuse drugs and to be less resilient in the face of stress.4
—- if you want a laugh, here’s the link to the marshmallow test again: —-
Over pizza and other unhealthy food (perhaps we need to revisit the first evening of this project - physical effectiveness), we discussed several facts and stories related to mental effectiveness. Space limits the amount of detail I can put here, so I’ll give you a flavour for the questions we looked at: How can we set priorities well? How can we generate creativity? How can we deal with distractions effectively? How does mental effectiveness connect to our spiritual journey? That last question is fascinating, so here’s where we went with it (more questions!):
• Why do we need to feel connected?
• Where do we get our sense of belonging from?
• How much do we value others?
• Why should we give others our full attention?
Personal reflections on the series.
With the recent death of Osama bin Laden, one might ask how 9/11 affected people’s attitude to religion. Columnist Terry Mattingly observed that the “emerging consensus seems to be that vague, comforting spirituality is healthy”. In the light of these observations, I will close this mini-series with four reflections.
Firstly, in this seven-part mini-series I have merely scratched the surface of something very deep. Personal effectiveness is a huge field and by piloting the Personal Effectiveness Project and blogging on it I have felt like a beginner.
Secondly, grounded spirituality is central to personal effectiveness. Do not listen to those who claim that spirituality should be separate from real, tangible stuff. In her excellent book Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey added, “[t]he concept of spirituality has come to mean an experience devoid of doctrinal content and detached from any testable historical claims”.5 Rather, historically verifiable claims about Jesus Christ give us confidence that true, effective spirituality is connected to how we live. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, “by him all things were created…and in him all things hold together.”
This leads to my third reflection, that Christian spirituality is central to personal effectiveness - whether physical, emotional or mental. Our bodies are valuable. It is good to be humble and not grasping. The high value I attach to other people is what motivates me to give them my full attention. Here are examples of Biblical truths that should inform our behaviour. Surely the only healthy way of taking control of the mind is to submit it to God, revealed in Jesus Christ?
The above two points are linked. We must beware settling for a decaf view of spirituality where it just means “a sense of significance” or “that which gives me a sense of meaning”. The problem with this kind of decaf view is that spirituality becomes simply about behaviours that are linked to values. What the values are no-one seems to care. Are they good? Does a moral compass guide them? These objective checks are as vital in the area of spirituality as a blood pressure test is in the area of physical effectiveness. True effectiveness comes from knowing why I value other people, why they deserve my attention. Not just “values I like” but “values that are good”. In Christ we can know what those are, and can have confidence that they are good, coherent and true.
Finally, theorising is never enough. One of the things I have been most impressed by in the Personal Effectiveness Project is that the participants have taken each topic further than I imagined. The evenings involved a guided session in which each participant spent time reflecting on what he or she would commit to do differently, and many participants then journalled about their progress. Many of these participants actually did something as a result, and in the slightly modified words of Graham Chapman, “I was impressed by some wonderful people”. Thank you!
1 The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, p. 183.
2 The following indented quotations are from The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, pp. 192-3.
3 Ibid., p. 193.
5 Total Truth, p. 118.