A research in New Zealand tested the ability of self control amongst over one thousand young kids, and then followed them throughout their lives. The result was clear. The better their self control during their childhood years, the better they did in their 30’s in all key areas of life. In fact with regards to wealth, willpower proved to be a stronger indicator for success than IQ or the social class of the family of origin. The conclusion of the study was that the ability to control our attention so that we can disengage it from one thing and move to another is essential for our well being, and a key predictor of success.
At the same time, we live in the most fast paced era of history, a time in which everyone seems to feel rushed. A wealth of information continuously robs the focused attention of most people. Deadlines have become the norm, chasing people in the same manner a dog chases his tail. The power to disengage our attention from one activity and move to another has become more difficult than ever.
Despite the many distractions that seduce our attention, the biggest challenge people face with regards to being focused, comes from the emotional chatter we experience within our heads. It keeps us obsessing over the same worries over and over again, often at the expense of rather focusing our attention on matters that are within our circle of influence. As a result, many of us rush through life like distracted animals- not ideal circumstances for peak performance.
In a study, the goal was to measure the extent to which people were thinking of something other than what they were doing, and found that people’s mind wanders most when they are working, commuting, using computers or standing in queues. And guess when they seemed least distracted? Exactly! People were generally most engaged when making love (although I don’t know how they managed to do the survey in those instances).
But even while making love, the mind can play a trick on us. When the mind wanders, and we try and force ourselves to relax, we can experience the downsides of over thinking and over trying. The thought of wanting to perform well, can cause exactly that. We can witness these same phenomena more clearly in competitive sport, where it is very common for athletes to tighten up when they over try not to mess up under pressure. Thinking about not screwing up (I better not miss this shot), can cause exactly that.
Performance anxiety robs us from the ability to be fully immersed in what we are doing, and any conscious efforts to try and relax under such stress usually amplify the negative experience. This can be terribly frustrating. The key then is to use our Mind to strengthen our focus. This is why what Dan Siegel calls “Mindsight” becomes such an important skill. Mindsight is the ability to experience our inner self, and also the ability to put our self into someone else’s perspective, in an open, observing and objective manner.
I will talk more about Mindsight in of my next blogs. In the meantime, I want to share a key first step that helped me strengthen my attention and drastically improve my quality of life. I call this step “time out”, which has become a daily routine. During my Time Out’s, I slow down my life, engage in a pleasant activity while focusing my attention on my thoughts, feelings and sensations in that moment. Time Out’s can range from walks in nature, making love, taking time out to reflect, or simply meditating. The key is to give our mind a break from our hectic life, and tune in to ourselves as well as our loved ones.