Monday, February 16, 2009

Staying Focused: 5 Useful Practices

Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.
— William James

Here are five practices that can be useful tools in reducing distraction or frenetic activity and cultivating focus and concentration. They are surprisingly easy to implement and, almost before you know it, can become positive addictions.

1) Appreciate Impermanence

I saw a cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine in which two people were finishing their dinners at a Chinese restaurant and had just opened their fortune cookies. One fortune read, “You are going to die.”
If you let this fact sink in — that life is short, and we all die — it can actually act as a powerful motivating force to help maintain focus and priorities. Everything changes and is impermanent, so are we fully present and making the most of this fleeting moment? Are we fully aware of what we are doing? Appreciating impermanence clarifies priorities, and it helps us identify any frenetic, shallow and ineffective activities we’re being distracted by. We see clearly the things that exhaust us and distract us from experiencing the blessing and opportunity of each particular day.

In Zen practice it is often said that the span of our lives is like a dew drop on a leaf — beautiful, precious, and extremely short-lived. Life is remarkably unpredictable. Whatever you want to accomplish, whatever is important to you, do it, and do it now — with as much grace, intensity, and sense of ease as you can muster. None of us knows what life will bring. In any moment everything we take for granted can change. We can use an awareness of change on a deep and wise level to focus our priorities and increase our appreciation of the sheer beauty of existence.

2: Clarify Aspirations and Create Next Steps

Make two lists. Title the first one “Aspirations, Plans, and Projects.” Title the column next to this “Next Steps,” and list concrete action steps toward implementation of each aspiration, plan, or project. What is the very first action required toward completing each item, and the step after that and the one after that? In the popular book Getting Things Done, productivity improvement expert David Allen describes the relief that people experience just by listing “next steps” in relation to incomplete projects. The act of identifying clear actions can have a freeing effect and make you feel that you’re making progress (sometimes when mired in setbacks and resistance, project management minutiae, or office politics, this is not so easy to believe). It can be daunting having many projects hanging over your head, so this helps clarify the actions needed to move each project toward completion.

3: Retrain Pavlov’s Dog

We react to email and phone calls the way Pavlov’s dog reacted to a bell: we come running at once, tongues wagging. Instead, when approaching the daily onrush of emails, phone calls, and other attention “grabbers,” try these habit diffusers and attention refocusers.

Learn to check your email only two or three times per day — say, at the middle and end of your day, or at the beginning, middle, and end. Granted, sometimes this isn’t realistic. Sometimes we have truly time-sensitive matters to resolve, and we absolutely must read and reply immediately. But these situations are probably fewer than we think, and this type of behavior can be the exception rather than the rule. Actually, despite the prevailing belief that we live in a world where everyone expects quick, near-instantaneous responses, this isn’t true. Most people don’t need responses right away; they just get used to it.

Phone Calls
As with email, learn to respond to phone calls or messages only two or thee times per day. Like changing any habit, learning this new behavior takes patience and some repatterning; give yourself a week at least. What you do also depends on your communication needs, but commit to different behavior. Let your message service do its job, so you can do yours. Retrain yourself not to always respond to the ring of the telephone or the vibration of the cell phone. This way, you control your interactions; they don’t control you.

Think Time
Schedule think time and reflection time at the beginning and end of each day. This could include a full meditation, or perhaps just silent, focused thoughtfulness over a cup of coffee or tea, while taking a robust walk, or while still lying in bed first thing in the morning. In any case, commit to giving yourself this daily gift of a few moments to sit quietly and gather your thoughts. These can be some of the most pleasurable, precious, and practical moments of the day. They can help to reframe your focus and energy in unexpected ways.

4: Savor Borrowed Time

Borrowed time is when we take a brief moment to do nothing; we just breathe and smell the sweetness of the air, think briefly about the task we just completed or are about to start; or listen to the birds flying, one’s heartbeat, or the conversations around us (without participating in them). These refreshing bits of time can be just a minute or two long, and they can happen many times throughout the day if we let them. They are, quite simply, daydreaming, but we shouldn’t view them as guilty indulgences. One helpful result of engaging in the more disciplined practice of meditation or mindfulness is that it makes us more relaxed about “do nothing” time. The quietude is familiar; all of these practices become the pause that refreshes.

5: Create Your Own Toolkit for Reducing Stress

Experiment with beginning each day, or most days, with meditation practice. Explore routines and rituals to center and relax during the day. Just breathing deeply and from the diaphragm three or four times, several times a day, can be a great start. Commit to stopping: notice the warm power of the sun or the sound of the freezing rain; smile; drink a glass of water; close your eyes for a minute or two; stretch your arms and legs, giving your neck and shoulders or hands a mini-massage; or get up from your desk to chat with a colleague down the hall. It can be any activity that refreshes and makes you pause from the whirlwind of activity you may have (unconsciously) gotten yourself into. If you work at a computer for much of the day, consider setting a timer to remind yourself to stop and stretch at regular intervals.

(Credit: M. Lesser)

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