A Time-Out for the MindPosted: January 15, 2013
How many times have you been in a meeting at work and suddenly realized you have no idea what has just been said? Or you have a deadline looming but every time you sit down to finish up the project something else suddenly seems more important? It happens time and time again. As soon as we try to concentrate on one particular issue, our mind is flooded with a thousand other things we could or should be doing. It’s as if our mind is purposely trying to sabotage us and distract us from what we need to do.
The bad news is that it’s true–our minds continually try to distract us. The good news is that we can control that. To some degree we learn to control our thought processes as we age. It is a natural progression. But like any skill set, concentration can be improved and strengthened with use and training. After all, an olympic runner may naturally be pretty fast and beat the other local runners, but she isn’t going to make it to the top of podium without major practice and training.
What are some of the benefits of enhanced concentration? One of the most popular benefits is improved work performance. When you can focus on one topic and give it your full and undivided attention, the resulting product will undoubtedly be of a higher quality, completed in less time.
Another benefit of concentration is peace of mind. If we can train our minds to remain on the situation in the present moment, there is less chance to let our minds wander to the future and the “what if” possible scenarios. These scenarios are the basis for a lot manufactured stress in today’s world. We spend too much time thinking about what may happen, or what could happen. These thoughts tend to generate anxiety about situations that may not even occur.
Improving concentration and focus in the present moment is a great way reduce stress, but many people are at a loss when asked just how to do that. Some feel they have no problem concentrating. Here is an exercise to see just how distracted your mind may be. Set a timer for three or five minutes. Without a given subject in mind, begin to write down whatever comes into your head. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t even think about what you are writing, just let it flow as a stream of consciousness. When the timer goes off, take a look at what you’ve written. Chances are that you will see a variety of subjects, and many thoughts or ideas which are only half-finished before switching to another topic. It is a fascinating exercise to see how quickly the mind can jump from subject to subject.
In mindfulness circles, this behavior is often referred to as monkey-mind. Swinging from one idea to another, the mind is like a monkey in the trees swinging from vine to vine. This is the monkey that worries about the future and keeps us up at night. Even when we are enjoying ourselves, that monkey is swinging around and trying to distract us. I also like to think of it as the squirrel syndrome. Picture a cartoon dog who stops mid-sentence because he is more interested in the squirrel or shiny object that just saw rushed by. Not only is it hard to concentrate or enjoy any activities at hand, quite frankly chasing those squirrels can be downright exhausting.
So when the mind is misbehaving and running amuck, treat it like the preschooler that it is and give it a time out. For just a few minutes, stop what you are doing and concentrate on nothing. Now, most people will find when they try to clear their minds, it only allows space for more thoughts to rush in, so finding a starting point is good. Instead of nothing, concentrate on your breath. Breathe in, count for three counts and out for five counts. Think about how it feels as you breath in and out through your nose. Here’s a tip–you will probably think about other things as you do this. That’s perfectly normal. Just acknowledge the thought and move on. Let it go out as easily as it came in. Like the writing exercise, try this for three to five minutes.
The good thing is that you can do this anywhere (except possibly behind the wheel). Steal a few minutes at work and give yourself a mini-vacation. Try it while taking a bath and create a spa-like experience. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you will become at it. You will be able to focus for longer periods of time. You may start to see improved concentration in areas you didn’t expect. Anxiety levels may decrease. Enjoyment of the present moment may increase.
Just like a monkey or a toddler, training the mind to behave is never easy. However, you can train your mind to focus on one item at a time (or nothing at all). When you do that, you eliminate trips into the past or the future and thus reduce feelings of regret or anxiety. Aside from boosting self-confidence from mastering a new skill, you can’t help but improve your quality of life. And that, I think, is definitely worth the effort.
So when the monkey is swinging in the trees, give your mind a time out. Put it in a corner and let it rest. You’ll be glad you did.