A Time-Out for the Mind

monkeyHow 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.

 

 

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Big Feats and Baby Steps

I love having a goal.  Something that challenges me and makes me a better person.  Actually I love having several goals to work on at same time.  Some are personal, some are professional.  I have long-term and short-term goals.  Sometimes it depends on the day and my mood as to which ones I want to focus on.  Having multiple goals keeps my to-do list full, and as every Type-A personality will tell you, it’s very important to have a full to-do list.   As a matter of fact, most Type-A’s will say that they have trouble keeping their to-do lists under control.   So it must be great to have all these projects and challenges to keep motivated, right?

It’s a great theory, but there is one basic problem with it.  A problem that reflects the world in which we live.  A fast paced world moving faster everyday, where  if we don’t keep up we will be left behind.  Sometimes it is hard to keep pace when there are so many expectations at work, not to mention all the responsibilities to be managed at home.   We don’t want to disappoint the ones we love,  nor do we want to fall short at work.  So we keep setting goals and pushing forward with our personal and professional agendas.  Quite frankly, it can be exhausting.

The other problem I find with having a goal, or several, is that we tend to focus on the outcome and not the process.  We have been trained to be  results-oriented, always looking toward the finish line.   That’s great, but when the finish line doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, it can sometimes suck all the motivation right out of you.   And with a distant winner’s podium and little motivation, it can be very hard to keep moving forward.  Sometimes it can seem easier to sit this one out and pick up on the next race.

So what do you do when there isn’t any wind left in your sails?  It’s time to stop.  Stop, breathe, and look around.  Chances are that you may feel like you aren’t making progress, but are you really in the same place you were yesterday?  Most likely not.  Something has changed, and something has been accomplished.  It may not be all you want it to be, but it shouldn’t be discounted.  Actually it should be celebrated.   It is so much easier to look back on the day and see all that we haven’t done and load up  the to-do list for tomorrow.   Why not take a moment and acknowledge all the things we did do?  It’s really a variation on exploiting your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses.  And working from your strengths will always make you feel better and more confident.

When you feel like you are falling short, or things aren’t going the way you want, it is easy to blame yourself.  To say you’re not working hard enough or you are losing sight of your goals.  Ironically, that really is the best time to lose sight of those goals, if only for a moment.  Instead of looking ahead, look to the side, or look behind.  Admit that you really have made a change, that things are different.  There is movement, and that is a good thing.

Several years ago I suffered a back injury.   I was in constant pain.  I couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes, and I certainly couldn’t bend over to touch my toes.  The pain was continuous,stabbing,  and lasted for almost two years.  My doctor said I would most likely have reduced mobility, and absolutely never have the flexibility I had enjoyed.  I would have to accept that bending at the waist was something for other, um, younger, people to do.

I flashed on that this morning when I was in a full forward bend in my yoga practice.   True,  I don’t have the same flexibility that I used to,  but bending over isn’t a problem.   It didn’t happen overnight.  It  happened inch by inch.  There were times that I thought I had a ridiculous goal–I would never be back to where I had been.   But then I realized that where I was okay.  That just adding that extra inch or half-inch toward the floor was exactly where I needed to be.   I gave myself permission to accept things as they were, and that gave me the ability to keep on stretching, literally.

This came to mind because  some of my current goals are taking longer than I expected.  There was a time when I would have blamed myself for not succeeding, not achieving everything I set out to when I wanted to.   At times I can  hear the echoes of my inner bully trying to bring me down.   In the past,  it would have been easy to give in, settle into a funk, and give up.  Now, I take a breath, look around,  and recognize that I may not be where I expected to be, but I have come a long way.  Even if there are disappointments, they are building blocks, not potholes.  As long as I am taking some kind of action, I am changing something.

We hear a lot of jokes about taking baby steps these days.  But baby steps are good.  They allow you to pause on your way and enjoy the scenery.  To stop and evaluate where you are.  To enjoy where you are.

As I said earlier,  it’s good to have goals.  But it is also good to remember that the journey can be as important as the destination.    If you take baby steps, you can accomplish great feats.  Just don’t forget to appreciate each tiny step along the way.

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