Ever struggled with lack of focus or not getting as much done as you would like?
Sure, we all have. I have gone through hours of sifting through my email inbox and engaged in mindless activity only to realize at the end of the day, that I haven’t actually produced any results.
If you want your business to grow or your life to improve, producing results is kind of important.
So what does it take to make that happen?
The answer is focus. That’s it! Nothing revolutionary, I know, but read on to learn the three psychological strategies to boosting your levels of focus to Everest like heights.
The biggest mistake people make in being productive
When I first started my business working from home, I struggled with creating a structure that ensured success. I read a few books on the subject, I created to do lists, I marked things down on my calendar, but nothing seemed to work.
I still found it challenging to focus and get a lot of work done in a short amount of time. Until I changed the context through which I approached the subject of productivity.
I realized then that most people focus on the external when trying to be productive. They focus on all the things they need to do, like creating lists and syncing calendars.
The problem is if the mindset is not conditioned to focus, it does not matter how many systems or structures you put in place. No matter what you do, you will still find it challenging to focus on one thing at a time and get things done.
Productivity begins with psychology.
Don’t get me wrong, systems and structures are important. In fact they are necessary to prevent multitasking and to producing results, but if the right psychology isn’t there, external “fixes” won’t be of much value.
Think about this way, your GPS can’t get you from point A to point B unless it has the right maps programmed into it, right? Similarly, we can’t get the results we want unless we program the right mindset into our system.
In this article we are going to focus on creating that mindset. In future articles, we will go more into the external structures to put into place that ensure results.
A world of distractions
A few weeks ago, I was taking the train into New York City. On my way in, I took a look around at all the other commuters to see what they were doing. I noticed that everyone was engaged in some activity on their phone. They were either checking Facebook or their email or they were playing a game. One person had his IPhone in one hand, an IPad in the other and headphones in his ear that led into his pocket, which more than likely contained an IPod.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Apple products as much as everyone else does. But while on the train, it occurred to me how distracted we all are from ourselves. We spend every waking minute bombarding our minds with an overflow of information.
The natural state of mind is chaos
It’s not your fault that you are so easily distracted. Our mind naturally exists in such a state. Inevitably, we created our world as a representation of our mind.
In the bestselling book, “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience,” after decades of research Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that “contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos. Without training, and without an object in the external world that demands attention, people are unable to focus their thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time.”
Try it yourself. Try silencing your mind from the influx of random thoughts for just one minute. It is near impossible, isn’t it?
Only without practice.
Awareness vs. Focus
The neuroscientist, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz distinguishes awareness and focus as two different states of mind. He says “focusing is an activity in which you consciously direct your attention. Awareness, on the other hand, is being fully knowledgeable of whatever is happening right now, in this very moment.”
Last week, I wrote this post on the awesome blog run by Mary Jaksch, Good Life Zen about separating yourself from your thoughts and practicing awarness. I highly recommend you read the post and check out Mary’s blog. One of the key takeaways from the article was to name your emotions while you are experiencing them. To expand on that information, here are three action steps for you to start increasing your awareness and improving your focus:
Dr Lieberman, a researcher at UCLA conducted an experiment where he placed participants in a brain scanner and asked them to look at pictures of people’s faces. He found that the act of labeling emotions resulted in decreased activity in the emotional brain, which we are not in control of and an increase in activity in the conscious parts of the brain related to focus and awareness.
Throughout the day, practice naming your emotions. Simply notice the emotion you are going through at any given point during the day and give it a name. This exercise will start to increase your awareness of how you experience life.
Another practice to take on in service of improving your awareness is, throughout the day while you are watching TV, taking the dog for a walk, eating supper, or anything, notice what your body is doing. Become aware of everything that you do without changing your actions. You are only practicing awareness in this exercise. You may notice that you are scratching your face, crossing your legs, shifting your body position or any number of little actions that you engage in without being consciously aware of it.
The secret to focus
Awareness allows the conscious mind to become involved in our daily actions as opposed to being the victim of our subconscious. Focus then gives us the power to direct our conscious mid.
In his research, Dr. Andrew Newberg scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists. When comparing them to brains at rest, he found increased activity in the areas of the brain related to focusing our mind and focusing our attention.
In a follow up study, Dr. Newberg taught a group of elderly people experiencing memory problems a short meditation. They were told to practice this for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, Dr. Newburg found “some very significant and profound changes in their brain just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention.” Participants in the study also reported better memory and an increase in ability to think more clearly.
We all have the power to literally change our brain, we just have to work it out more.
To build the focus muscle, spend 10 minutes every day in silence, with your eyes closed and no external distractions. During these 10 minutes, focus your attention on your breathing. If you notice your mind start to wander, that’s okay, it’s natural, simply bring your attention back to your breathing. Your breath provides an anchor for you to direct your focus.
At first it may be challenging to keep your mind focused on your breath for even a minute without it wandering because you have not worked out this muscle. In time, you will start to find that ten minutes of focused time will be a breeze.
In later articles, when we discuss the external structures needed to increase our productivity, this practice will help ensure success in implementing the structures.
Reviewing the action steps
To summarize, here are the action steps to start practicing every day:
1. Notice the emotions you experience and give them a name.
2. Practice being aware of what your body is doing throughout the day in various activities.
3. Spend 10 minutes every day in silence with your eyes closed focusing on your breathing.
If you have two friends who are struggling with productivity, email this article to them so that they too can develop insane levels of focus. Then post a comment in the space below describing your biggest challenge with focus and productivity.
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