May
02

4 Steps to Achieving Mental Focus

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Mental Focus1.1

Achieving anything great takes more than talent and vision. Ask any Olympic gold medalist, self-made millionaire, or award-winning actor. Talent is essential, but simply having superior ability won’t get you very far. In fact, it won’t get you anywhere at all.

Years ago, I had piled a ridiculous number of challenges on myself. I spent 50 hours a week conducting legal research and drafting policy documents for a large insurance company. My daughter was a toddler at the time, and I wanted to make sure to be there for all of the little joys and big milestones. And somewhere along the line, I let my boss and coworkers convince me that going to law school was the ticket to advancing in my career.

Of course, there were all of the day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping, keeping the house in order (well, sort of), managing finances, and making sure there were clean clothes in the closet. Any of this sound familiar?

The problem was that I wasn’t doing any of these things very well. No matter what I was doing, there was a voice in the back of my mind reminding me that I should be doing something else. Many days, I was completely stressed out. I felt like I was being pulled in a dozen different directions.

As a result, I spent a lot more time worrying about what I needed to accomplish than actually getting things done.

After my semester finals, I decided I needed a better way of approaching things. So I headed to the library and picked up a stack of books on time management, including Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out, David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. I spent the next several days devouring the information contained in these books.

Through my research, I discovered the problem wasn’t a lack of time.

It was a lack of mental focus.

See, managing your time is easy if you have a system in place. Managing your mind… now that’s a challenge.

Over the next several months, I kept a journal that allowed me to identify the things that improve mental focus, and the things that interfered with it. I ultimately found that four simple (but not necessarily easy) steps greatly increased my ability to focus on each activity:

Bruce Lee mental focus1) Maintaining an organized work environment. When I felt rushed and pulled in multiple directions, the last thing I wanted to think about was keeping my workspace organized. My office desk was piled with books, folders, notepads, pens, and study guides. Then there were the crayons, picture books, toys, and whatever else my daughter brought into my office to make a desperate plea for my attention. Oh yeah, and coffee cups.

Once I disciplined myself to organize my workspace, I felt less stressed. Clutter distracted me and made me think of the million other things I needed to do. Clearing my desk of everything but what I absolutely needed for the task at hand eliminated those distractions. As a result, I could focus my attention and get things done more quickly.

2) Following a predictable schedule. I was guilty of coming home from a long day of work and law school, and studying until 3 or 4 am… then trying to catch a few hours of sleep whenever I could. Weekends were just as bad, because I used those days to catch up on whatever I had missed during the week. I never had a set “day off,” much less a predictable schedule during the week. Once I consciously established a schedule and stuck to it, the “when the heck am I going to get this done” panic surfaced much less frequently.

3) Getting off my butt. Exercise seemed like a laughable option, considering my already packed schedule. But I started walking 30 minutes each morning before I launched into my daily routine. The increased focus allowed my to accomplish tasks more quickly and with fewer errors. Each half-hour I exercised probably saved me two hours or more of time wasted trying to keep my mind on task.

Some of you might say that walking doesn’t really count as exercise. Fine. Jog, swim, ride a bike, bench-press a Buick… whatever. I’ll stick with the low-impact stuff.

4) Taking time to reflect. Some of you might call it meditation. Others might call it daydreaming. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t have to take long. I spend about 10 minutes each morning in meditation, which lets my mind settle so I can get ready for my day. I do another 10 minutes before bed to avoid having mental chatter screwing up my sleep. If I skip either session, I definitely notice a decrease in my ability to focus on work and play.

I’m sure there are many more steps you can take to improve mental focus – these are just the ones that work for me. You might keep a journal and note what works best for you. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – I even used the voice memo feature on my cell phone to note ideas before they fell out of my head.

 

Categories : Motivation

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