Picture this: six, clear tubes, labelled in a simple code that belies the complexity of the underlying experiment. I add liquid, typically clear with no discernible color, hue or other distinguishing features that might signal that this is anything more than water.
I set a timer. Ten minutes of incubation at room temperature. I place the tubes in a centrifuge and spin, 15,000 cycles per minute. I wait fifteen minutes more, remove some clear liquid and add more, but a different kind. I repeat each step six times, one for each tube.
In between actions, I change the tip of my pipetman - the device that allows microliter control over the liquid added to the evolving biochemical reaction. Change tip, add liquid, next tube. Repeat.
During these day-long exercises in repetition, I've experienced some failures. These mistakes fall into one of two broad categories: external or internal. In the external class, I become distracted by something happening outside my head. A conversation between colleagues or a conversation I've started. When these conversations reach some mystical level of distraction, I will realize in a moment of panic that I've skipped a critical step. Or, I've lost track of the tubes. Or, I've lost count. Failure.
After enough mistakes like these, I learned my lesson. I turned inward; ignoring outside conversations and became a curmudgeonly introvert. Friendly colleagues, or friendly friends, received a growl or, at best, a one-word grunt. Beyond that, I focused on staying focused.
However, this approach was not without problems, and I soon fell victim to the second class of distractions: the internal. Being in my own head often resulted in mind-wandering. I started thinking about the rationale for my experiment. I brainstormed alternate strategies for answering my question. I cogitated about what I knew about my research, hoping my subconscious might stumble on some new insight. Often, I humored metacognitive tangents: what am I thinking about? Am I staying focused? How much control should I exert on my own thinking? In many cases, these daydreams were beneficial, leading to some moments of creativity.
But, like external distractions, when these daydreams sufficiently dominated my consciousness, I would realize in a moment of panic that I had skipped a critical step. Or, I had lost track of the tubes. Or, I had lost count. Failure.
In desperation, I next tried to maintain extreme focus on the process. One, two, three: pipette up, pipette down. Next tube. Next liquid. Repeat.
This worked to some extent, but had the side-effect of producing a tiny case of the "yips", a phenomenon frequently associated with golfers that is marked by the sudden loss of the ability to putt or perform other high-skill, high-precision actions necessary for their sport. In my case, I fumbled about, made little manual errors, and lost the fluid rhythm that normally accompanies pleasurable, hands-on work. What I craved was some in-between state. I wanted to be in the zone, adopting neither a hardened, process-focus, nor an undisciplined mind, wandering without control.
In the end, for me, having "good hands" depended on adopting a sort of loose mental club grip, to run with the golfing metaphor. On the one hand, not "squeezing" the club hard enough by maintaining sufficient focus, resulted in errors of precision. On the other, too much focus, too much control, had negative consequences as well. From a cognitive perspective, over-thinking may ask too much of our limited working memory system, ignoring how the rest of our brain might contribute to the task.
Instead, a loose, "fun", fluid approach to activities that require precision may be the way to go. Molecular biology is one example of complex, hands-on work, but considering the significant link between athletics, surgery and Flow research, I speculate that an absorbed, but fluid, state-of-mind is an essential skill for anyone looking for "good hands".
In the end, like almost everything in life, moderation was a key for me to find a successful approach to concentration. I recommend the "Goldilocks" approach to concentration: not too little, not too much, but just right.
I guess I'll try that experiment one more time. Hopefully, I'll get into the zone.