In the previous November 2020 insights, you read about why focus and attention are important in the 21st century and about the link between focus and purpose.
Please note that focus is only one of the five elements impacting individual and organizational attention. Focus is only one of them. During the complete Better Focus Now journey, you will experience all five journey pit stops which are 1) Focus 2) Mindset/Culture 3) Body Wisdom 4) Tools 5) Environment.
In this article, I provide five short exercises, under 10 minutes, to train your focus. However, before you begin training, please take time to notice the state of your baseline wellness.
Baseline Wellness Needed for Focus
There is a minimum baseline state human beings require to be able to focus. These basic needs include safety, sleep, food, exercise and low stress levels.
Being in a safe environment means having the feeling of both physical and psychological safety. This may sound obvious, but if you feel unsafe for any reason, your ability to focus will be compromised. Please do what you can to be in a safe space.
A New York Times Magazine article on the topic of psychological safety, “Google’s perfect team quest”, gives a good summary. “At work, this means knowing that you can be free enough to share the things that scare you without fear of recriminations. You must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving you crazy.”
In order to focus well, you need 7-8 hours of sleep. If this is a challenge, I recommend Adrianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution. The Shleep app is also useful.
This may also seem obvious, but the importance of a healthy diet that includes fish and whole grains, cannot be underestimated. Eating breakfast and having caffeine in the morning definitely helps us focus. Staying hydrated throughout the day is important. We often forget to have snacks nearby to tie us over between meals. So, pack some brain boosting snacks such as nuts and dark chocolate, fruit (especially blueberries, avocado), or quality protein bars.
Regular physical movement, such as walking or biking builds a key foundation for brain health, especially memory. Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus which is responsible for memory. Make sure you are moving at least one a day for 30 – 60 minutes.
In today’s pandemic world, with economic and political uncertainty around the globe, maintaining low stress levels is a challenge. This is a huge topic in and of itself that I will not attempt to cover here. However, all of the points noted above and all of the focus training exercises noted below are helpful in reducing levels of stress.
If safety, sleep, food, and exercise are a gap or a problem, please take steps to improve these first as they are the baseline wellness elements for improving your focus.
Improve Your Focus in Less than 10 minutes a Day
You probably expect me to write about meditation at this point. Yes, mindfulness and meditation are great for improving focus. Meditation is one of the best ways to train the mind. I highly recommend any form of meditation that is useful for you. There are many courses and apps that you can use to learn meditation. If you are already meditating, please continue!
Today, my aim is to provide some very short exercises that will improve your ability to focus. Choose one exercise and practice for 5 minutes each day, working up to 10 minutes per day, with a timer. Always be in an environment with no devices or screens.
If your only timer is your phone, just put the phone in airplane mode on the other side of the room, so that you have to get up and walk over to it to turn the timer off.
Once you can do the exercise without thinking about something else, try another exercise. Note that this may take several weeks or more.
- Simple Breathing. Sit alone and undisturbed in a comfortable position with your spine upright. Settle into your seat. Notice your inhale. Notice your exhale. When the mind wanders, notice the inhale again. Notice the exhale again. Repeat.
- Marking. Sit alone and undisturbed at a table with a blank sheet of paper and pen or pencil. Pick a writing instrument that you really like. Feel the pen or pencil in your hand and slowly put it on the paper. Allow the hand to guide the movement of the pencil. Avoid “trying to draw something.” Notice, with curiosity, where the hand takes the pen on the paper.
- Word Counting. Sit alone and undisturbed with a book, any book, and count the words in any one paragraph. Then, count them again, to be sure that you have counted them correctly. After a few times, do so with two paragraphs. When this becomes easy, count the words of a whole page. Do the counting mentally and only with your eyes, without pointing your finger at each word. (This exercise is taken from an article by Remez Sasson.)
- Chocolate Melting in Your Mouth. Sit alone and undisturbed with one square or piece of your favourite chocolate on a small plate or napkin. (Make sure the rest of the bar or box is far away in another room.) Take some time to study the chocolate, noticing its shape, color, texture, ingredients. Then pick it up, close your eyes and smell it. Notice anything specific about the aroma. Keep your eyes closed. Then place the chocolate on your tongue and gently close your mouth. Allow it to melt and fill other parts of your mouth. Do not chew it. Notice taste, texture, moisture, physical sensations in the nose, mouth, throat. Advanced practice: Follow the physical sensations of the chocolate in your body as far as you can notice anything. Notice the feeling in the stomach. Experiment sitting with the chocolate taste and feeling until it completely disappears. (this may take more than 5-10 minutes.)
- Object Noticing. Take a fruit, or any object you find interesting, and hold it in your hands. Examine the object from all its sides, while keeping your whole attention focused on it. When irrelevant thoughts arise, let them go and direct your attention back onto the object. Just look at it, with curiosity. Examine its shape, smell, texture. Feel the physical sensation of the object in your hand. Try the same with closed eyes.
There are hundreds of exercises you can do to improve your focus. To begin, just choose an exercise that sounds fun or interesting to you and that is easy for you to begin doing daily.
In addition, you will want to design your work to improve focus. In future insights, I will share recommendations around culture, body wisdom practices, digital tools, and environment (physical and virtual). Stay tuned or join a Better Focus Now journey today.