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One Effective Way to Improve Your Attention

Use this strategy to improve your focus.

Key points

  • Mindfulness, awareness, and attention can create a force greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Mindfulness is the energy of presence, and one can regulate its intensity.
  • Pre-awareness helps one focus on what's important to achieve a goal in real time.
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay
Source: Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Mindfulness and awareness are associated with the way we pay attention. You can understand and use all three separately, or you can integrate them. This provides a force greater than the sum of their parts. By doing so, you increase your focus and your ability to zero in on detail that matters most to you.

I studied and taught martial arts for decades. One lesson learned from sparring is that just telling yourself to pay more attention than the last time doesn’t assure results. Telling is usually not enough. You may also say to yourself, "Be present,” but increased presence alone does not mean you will effectively focus on what matters or that your attention’s spotlight is crisp and bright.

To improve their focus, martial artists, like other athletes, spend a good amount of time visualizing what goes wrong and what goes right in their competitions. Visualization helps you realize internal and external factors that could give you a competitive edge in performance, if you focus on what matters. It helps you discover what those things are. At times, it may be something internal (an inhibiting feeling) that got in the way, which you will need to regulate or eliminate. Other times it’s external, like a distracting noise, or an opponent’s body language or feint. And sometimes, you see something you did that you want to be sure to repeat because it was perfect.

Following is an even more personal example and with higher stakes:

I have always enjoyed rustic country living and the outdoor work it involves. Nonetheless, this past spring, I had an accident cutting wood. The accident happened toward the end of a long day. I was mentally and physically fatigued and heard that “little voice” that goes off inside your head warning, “Enough wood cutting for one day.” I ignored it, thinking, "Just one more round." I felt a second and even a third wave of fatigue and ignored those, too.

Suddenly, the two ends of the tree trunk I was cutting squeezed together like a vice. The saw kicked back wildly. The blade nearly hit my face, then snapped down and skidded across my work pants. Amazingly, all it did was tear the fabric, sparing my limb. I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen again.

Now we are at that point in the year when I am cutting this year's fallen trees scattered about the fields and stacking logs for the winter ahead. I try to be more mindful. Again, to me, this means more than just being present. So I practice combining mindfulness with a sense of pre-awareness of safety cues beforehand. I try to visualize cues like the angle the trunk is leaning when it is possible it may pinch the saw’s chain. I try to feel the first tug of tightness along the blade, indicating trouble. I generate this feeling in my hands and arms to help lock the cue into memory—muscle memory. All this helps me “read” the saw faster in real time. You can even smell the blade biting into the tree, and mentally identify (in your visualization) the scent of sap that says, “It’s deep enough to get stuck … best to pay attention!” In my visualization, I listen when that little voice inside my head sounds off, saying, “Time to call it a day.” And I visualize myself paying attention to all these details as I work the saw. This enables me to energize my attention so it will identify these details (safety cues) and more quickly focus on them when I am actually cutting the wood.

Whenever you want to improve your focus in a specific situation, consider using a combination of mindfulness, pre-awareness, and attention to catch the first signs of a potential mistake and avoid it. You can use the same regimen to catch details that have given you an advantage in your performance. But there’s one more thing to consider before you have a go at it.

See Mindfulness as Energy

Many concepts of mindfulness revolve around the idea of being present in the moment. This can be a moment within a visualization, reflection, or real-time action.

Think of mindfulness as energy. Your cellphone’s flashlight bar makes for a good analogy. You can slide the bar up to brighten the beam or slide it down and dull its intensity. Mindfulness works similarly. It is the energy of your presence. You can regulate it to a desired strength, depending on the activity. Sometimes you want to experience presence in high definition, other times as mellower. And sometimes you want a kind of hyper-presence. (See "Cancer and Mindfulness: More Than Just Being Present" for more discussion of that.)

Know Thyself

Use pre-awareness to guide your actions. Retrace footsteps to find the details you want to focus on in real time. Increase your mindfulness beam throughout. The result: Your focus will best stick to what matters. Knowing yourself and your habits counts.

Try This!

Practice mindfulness as energy. Reflect on an activity. Mentally experience the details you want to regulate. See any changes you want to make. Then act accordingly in real time.

More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
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