You work longer days, often late into night and on the weekends, and still feel like you haven’t accomplished anything. Does this sound familiar?
We tend to embrace the idea that more time and effort equals greater results when the opposite is often true. Blame your brain. The human brain has evolved to focus more on past and future events and less on present ones. How can you stay focused on the here and now? You need to think like an animal.
When wolves, tigers, and even hawks search for prey, they seem to focus all of their brain power and attention on making the kill. They don’t appear to think about the previous hunt or the next one. This may be due to the fact that their brains are hardwired to hunt. According to a study by the Yale School of Medicine, scientists identified a sub-region of the amygdala in the animal brain that is the epicenter for predatory hunting. Additionally, they determined that animals have two distinct neural pathways that are designed for hunting.
In comparison, many of us don’t need this level of focus to survive. Our human minds wander back and forth from the past to the present to the future and back again. Of course, this comes in handy when solving problems and thinking creatively. But it also makes us vulnerable to letting our past failures or future fears affect our performance. It also makes us easily distracted by the ping of a text or e-mail, or the opportunity to partake in office banter.
If you have trouble staying present, you need to tap into your inner lion or hawk. Practicing mindfulness can help you do this in order to stay focused on the task at hand and avoid putting in extra hours with little result. Here are three ways to do this:
1. Close your eyes and follow your breath.
Meditating for a brief amount of time can reset your brain and sharpen your focus. As Deepak Chopra, a prominent author and public speaker on mindfulness and alternative medicine, has said, “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that is already there, buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.”
I incorporate meditation into my workday by setting reminders on my calendar. When my calendar says it’s time to meditate, I stop what I’m doing, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing for two minutes. Counting breaths–saying one with each inhale and two with each exhale–helps me stay present and keep my mind from wandering.
2. Listen to music to reset between meetings.
We tend to just dive into meetings or conference calls that require our full attention without giving our brains a chance to warm up. I always schedule two to five minutes before any meeting or phone call to just sit and be still and clear my head. Sometimes I listen to a soothing or energizing song — whatever will help me calm down or pump myself up, depending on what type of situation I’m going into next. This helps me to be completely present, attentive and have the right level of energy for the specific situation.
3. Play a game or take a walk for a short diversion.
A study by a social networking company, Draugiem Group, found that we can stay absorbed in work for up to 52 minutes, but then need a 17-minute diversion. You can use this time to take a walk, read, or play a game. Focus on activities that are fun and relaxing. The key is to provide separation from the energy intensive work, so you can allow your brain to relax before getting back to work. One way that I relax is by creating playlists on Spotify.
When I’m in my home office, I also pick up my bass guitar and practice a few songs before going back to work. If you work in an urban environment, think about taking a walk with a colleague to your local Starbucks to get a coffee with the agreement that you will not talk about work.
Training the brain to be more present can help you stay focused and attentive when it matters most. So next time your mind starts to wander, visualize the focus of a lion or hawk to help you refocus and teach your brain to recognize that the most important task is always the one right in front of you.