11. April 2021

Thoughts on 'The Practicing Mind' by Thomas M. Sterner

Having been on a journey to increase my ability to focus for some time now, I recently read ‘The Practicing Mind’ by Thomas M. Sterner. This book emphasises process, and the importance of not getting distracted by a goal while being in the process of working towards it. Let’s review what to take out of this book.

I tend to read multiple books on the same topic, and recently this topic has been focus. In my quest to increase my ability to focus, I read The Practicing Mind. In this post, I am reviewing what I am taking away from the book. I will share these thoughts with you, in the hope that they will inspire you for the journey that you find yourself on.

In late 2020, on the same quest towards better focus, I posted about Pursuit, a take on personal OKRs. Here, I focused on the power of using habits to set oneself up on the journey towards the goal. Forming the right habits, particularly when it comes to mindset, is something that features frequently in The Practicing Mind.

Learning has always been a big part of my life, and also taken up space on my blog in the past. End of 2020, for example, I mused about The sublinearity of spaced repetition learning, sharing thoughts on the practical aspects of learning through repetition. The joy received through learning also manifested itself through language learning many years earlier, as described in my series on Swedish in Sweden, covering mostly the practical aspects involved when acquiring a foreign language: Translation Tools, Gathering New Input, Learning to Listen, Practice and Rehearsal, and Musings about Motivation.

In 2021, I also shared my Thoughts on ‘Focus’ by Daniel Goleman, as well as my Thoughts on ‘Pragmatic Thinking & Learning’ by Andy Hunt. Both of these books also tackle the subject of focus directly. The benefit of studying multiple books─or sources, in general─is to see different perspectives on the overlap between the respective subjects of the books.

But without any further ado, let’s dive into the book ‘The Practicing Mind’. What is the book about? How does it differ from the other books mentioned? What did I enjoy about this book? What is the key message that I take away from it? These are the questions I will answer in the remainder of this post.

In fact, the author presents no radically new ideas. That’s a bad thing? On this subject, I actually find that’s a good thing. Instead of packaging up existing concepts and selling them under a new name, the author claims that he is only packaging up knowledge that has been passed on and has to be learnt by every generation. That’s a humble thing to write because so many other books I see try to sell you the “next, hot thing”. I see the author’s contribution rather in reframing and thus supporting small shifts in perspective.

In its essence, I’d say, ‘The Practicing Mind’ is about staying in the present moment. This includes for example staying in the present moment when working on what could be a task at work, or just a moment with a member of the family. Fretting about the goal while being engaged in the process towards the goal is counterproductive. Instead, the art is to reframe the process towards the goal as the goal itself. If success does not come with the first attempt, then that’s just part of the process of practicing.

“Practice: the repetition of an activity with the purposeful awareness and intention of accomplishing an intended goal.” Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind

As an ultra long distance runner, focusing on the process instead of the product intuitively makes sense. If you focus too much on the finish line during the race when that is still ten hours away, you are wasting your energy. Instead, acknowledge right from the start that it is going to be a very long journey and then simply focus on what matters: putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you do that, you will pretty certainly arrive, even if it takes a long time. It took me almost 18 hours once, but hey, the principle was just that: one foot in front of the other. You may focus on the next step, maybe look ahead as far ahead as the next tree (if you can still see it when it is dark).

At first, I was a bit doubtful when Sterner claimed to describe a way to reduce “struggle” from learning. That’s because I’m skeptical of any strategy that is purely based on the avoidance of stress. But upon further reading, I believe that Sterner means the struggle from staying present in the process rather than avoiding stress altogether. Compare, for example, the central idea from Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness who frame stress as a necessary part of the growth equation (“growth = stress + rest”). Sterner does not take a disapproving view on stress in ‘The Practicing Mind’. Actually, he cites some rather tense moments as a concert technician while working under perceived time pressure towards getting a piano ready. Sterner instead suggests to reframe here, and argues that the energy spent on being anxious about the result is wasted if it only distracts from staying in the process.

Many of the ideas presented in the book were not new to me, however the repetition is part of my learning process. My take-away is certainly to clearly distringuish between planning/goal-setting in life (“product”), and execution (“process”) towards it. Since I am frequently in situations where I do not have the skills yet to execute based on past knowledge, this process automatically becomes “practice”. It will certainly require a lot of practice itself to establish that mindset. But it will pay off and I believe that my time reading the book was well-spent.