Short (!) Exercises to Train Focus

exercices-to-train-focus

Photo Michal Vrba

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.

Safety

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.”

Sleep

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.

Food

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.

Exercise

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.

Low-Stress Levels

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.  

  3. 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.)

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.

Why you can Focus Better when Aligned on Purpose

Photo: Darius Bashar

Most of us have Difficulty Focusing

Do you feel reactive and distracted?  Does everything seem like it is top priority?  Do you have the nagging feeling that time and resources are being wasted?

If your answer to any of these questions is, “Yes, probably!” then you may be experiencing difficulty focusing.  If you can’t focus, continuing to create value without sacrificing your wellbeing may become difficult.

You are not alone.  That is why it is useful to reflect on your purpose, i.e. answering the question, “Why am I here?”  Being consciously aligned with your purpose is a first step in improving your ability to focus.

Purpose is Popular

On Amazon today, there are 10,000 books with the word “purpose” in the title.  There are sixteen books on purpose to be published in 2021.  Simon Sinek’s famous TedTalk and book, Start with Why, is already nine years old!  

There are three books that have helped me with my own purpose. In Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, I find the question, “What is my Work?”, with a capital “W”, particularly useful.  I also appreciate Frederic Laloux’s approach on evolutionary purpose which is presented in his book, Reinventing Organizations. I also recommend Lance Secretan’s book, The Spark, the Flame and the Torch.

Most probably you have read a book on the topic of purpose.  Many of you have written purpose statements in a workshop or as part of a journaling exercise at some point in your life.  Have you answered the question, “What is my purpose?” in the last six months? 

I invite you to consider another business case for having a succinct, clear purpose statement.  You will be able to focus better.  You will be on your way to cultivating the right balance between attention and distraction.

Why?  Because when your purpose is clear, how you create value for the world, for yourself, is also clear.  The best example that I can think of is the emergency physician.  I will assume that this doctor’s purpose in life is to save the lives of other human beings.  She wakes up every morning wanting to save lives at work that day.  She is laser focused on the patient in front of her, in the moment.  If she is distracted, she risks saving that life.

Imagine if your purpose, every day, was as clear as the purpose of the emergency physician?  Would you still have difficulty prioritizing tasks?  Would you still feel reactive and distracted?  At the end of the day, will you have wasted a lot of time?  I highly doubt it.

Today I can offer a practical exercise to formulate or update your purpose.

The Why-Be-Do®

This summer, in the pandemic of 2020, I rewrote my purpose statement.  I had the good fortune of becoming a student of and collaborator with Dr. Lance Secretan, the world renowned, Canadian leadership expert and author of 27 books.  Lance developed the Why-Be-Do® exercise. It is clear and simple, but not easy, to complete.

In this exercise, first you articulate the world problem that you would most like to support fixing.  This is the terra-threat.  Examples include poverty, inequality, violence.  The terra-threat I care about helping to solve is DISCONNECTION. Next, you articulate the terrafix, the opposite of the terra-threat.  For mine, the opposite of disconnection is CONNECTION.

This results in my “Why” statement which is, “To create a more whole, connected and balanced humanity.”  This is my purpose statement and underpins everything I am delivering as part of my work.

The Why-Be-Do® exercise continues to help you arrive at a statement about how you want to “be” as a human in this world.  Finally, you articulate what you are doing to “do” in the world, in your work. This summarizes the gifts you bring to the world.

So, the culmination of the Why-Be-Do® exercise for me is:

“I am here to help create a more connected, whole and balanced humanity.  My character is to be open, sensing and inspiring.  In my work I will share wisdom practices through consulting, writing, teaching and speaking.”

How does this help me focus better?  It brings clarity to how I define value for my clients and for myself. It allows me to determine which activities contribute to my purpose.  Then I know how much time I need to block for focused work.  This, in turn, enables me to avoid, outsource or minimize activities that are more logistical in nature.  All of that saves time and improves effectiveness.

In the MindEQuity journey, Focus Better Now, the first of five pitstops is the Focus pitstop.  Here participants begin to understand focus and attention, purpose, the definition of value, and the value creation portfolio.  Then participants are able to play with a prototype of their future of work that enables focus!

Join the December Focus Better Now journey.  

The Importance of Focus and Attention in the 21st Century

focus and attention

Photo: Stefan Cosma, Unsplash

We live in a world of overwhelm, digital and otherwise.  In this pandemic, we are all facing fatigue, bad news bombardment, and lockdown lows.  There is a growing attention economy with a business model built on capturing our attention so that our data can be mined and sold.  In an overwhelmingly virtual world, we are having difficulty focusing.  Mental health challenges are on the rise.

That is why these two words, focus, and attention, are top of mind and more important than ever. 

Both focus and attention are key to wellbeing, innovation, and effectiveness.  If we have strong focus and attention, the ability to sustain long-term value creation, without sacrificing well-being, is possible.

Focus and Attention

Focus and attention are closely linked and details are provided below.  The main difference between them is that focus is a skill that can be trained while attention is a function of the body.  Further, attention is an asset, like money, that is in limited supply and must be protected and cultivated.

What is Focus?

Focus means “to cause to be concentrated.”  It is an act of will and a skill that is learned and improved with practice.  It is like a muscle that needs building.  This means that the muscle of focus also needs to rest in order to remain strong.

The ability to focus is one of the most important skills we need in order to learn new things.  It is also key to changing habits.

There are multiple definitions of focus.  I have chosen some of the most interesting ones below.

Daniel Goleman wrote an entire book on focus and offers various, wider views on the topic.  Simply put, Goleman defines focus as “directing attention toward where it needs to go.”

Dr. Susan Taylor, The Neuroscience of Focus writes,

“Focus allows us to direct all of our mental and physical faculties toward one objective and it allows us to avoid distraction or confusion. … To focus in meditation and on any project, for that matter, requires that we hold our attention on an object for a specific length of time.”

The neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, maintains that focus is one of a handful of essential life abilities based in separate neural systems.  These guide us through our inner lives, relationships, and challenges.

What is Attention?

According to yourdictionary.com, the top definitions of attention include:

  • “The act of close or careful observing or listening.”
  • “The ability or power to keep the mind on something; the ability to concentrate.”
  • “Notice or observation.”
  • “Acts of interest or interference.”
  • “The act of keeping one’s mind closely on something or the ability to do this; mental concentration.”

Attention is actually a function of the body.  It is similar to metabolism, the mechanism through which the body converts food into energy.  Attention is “the mechanism through which the brain focuses its resources onto something,”  writes Kitty Chisholm, leadership consultant and expert on the neuroscience of leadership.

Further definitions of attention include:

“the brain’s conductor…. key for higher forms of thinking, morality and even our very happiness,” William James, psychologist, philosopher.

“an organ system, akin to respiratory or circulatory system,”

 Michael Posner, cognitive neuroscientist.

Michael Posner discovered that attention is actually a system of three networks and developed the Attention Network Test (ANT).  which measures all three.  These are 1) orienting network, 2)  awareness – alertness network and 3) executive – planning network. 

The orienting network helps us select info from millions of sensations, voluntarily or in reaction to surroundings.  The orienting network helps us select info from millions of sensations, voluntarily or in reaction to surroundings. The awareness – alertness network makes us sensitive to incoming stimuli.

The Importance of Focus and Attention in the 21st Century

We have left the information age and have moved into a new era, the name of which is yet to be agreed upon.  Some are calling it the Age of Knowledge, the Experience Age or the Creative Economy.  Regardless of the name, the ability to learn and improve the skill of focus, combined with the ability to harness and protect our attention is key to our human success.

“Attention is the most crucial building block of wisdom, memory, and ultimately the key to societal progress,” Maggie Jackson, author, Distracted.

attention

The Business Caring Formula Podcast: Michelle N. Moore on Theory U

You are invited to listen to a conversation about Theory U via my interview on The Business Caring Formula podcast hosted by Emma Arakelyan. This is part 1 of the interview where Arakelyan asks me questions about

  • the career path that led to transformation work
  • how I discovered Theory U and what it is
  • the three most important traits a caring leader should have
  • applying a sense of humor or a positive attitude in a difficult situation

The Business Caring Formula podcast is about building a leadership lifestyle. It fosters inclusivity and action-driven leadership while taking others on the journey. In her podcast episodes Emma Arakelyan shares stories of inspirational and caring leaders who are catalysts for positive change in the world.

How I Discovered Theoy U

In part 1 of the podcast, we talk about helping organizations cultivate 21st-century competencies like empathy, collaborative learning, and creativity – all in service of humane innovation and holistic transformation. Central to this work is MIT’s Theory U, a framework for innovation that incorporates presencing practices.

Listen by pressing play above or by clicking on any of the links below:

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash