Mind Pushups – Build Concentration for Sustained Focus

by Marc Winitz

This is Part 2 of a series on developing Mind Focus.

My last post dealt with a basic definition of “mind focus”. I explained the idea in a martial arts context but it applies to everyday situations. A wandering mind can be a good thing for idea generation, creativity or other creative activities. However, a lot of life situations require periods of sustained focus to be effective. Business meetings, interaction with customers, teaching others, class room learning, important conversations and even raising children all require a level of consistent mental drive. The concept of mind focus centers on keeping your attention on whatever you are specifically doing in the moment.

“Everyday” War and Opportunities to Apply Focus
The focus I am discussing here was developed for warfare as it was means to protect yourself. Sustained focus supports hand-to-hand combat in the most physical sense. Punches flying, swords swinging, arrows flying – literal carnage. Fortunately those days are gone but they have been replaced by the everyday dealings of modern society. Like the carnage of a boss droning on, following a Twitter feed, etc…Believe it or not, you are exposed to this type of “combat” regularly through:

  • Working under deadlines;
  • Being thrust into situations where you feel like you have no control (e.g. an emergency such as a car accident);
  • Presenting in a front of a large group of people;
  • Having to make any decision but notably difficult ones (business, financial, personal, etc…)

A distracted mind breaks concentration and cannot focus in a sustained way.

Conditioning Your Mind to Focus
I used the term “conditioning” on purpose because training your mind in this way is very much a workout. The term “mind pushup” was introduced in the last post as a Black Belt Guide application and it refers to a very specific basic technique you can apply to physically focus your mind. This is something I developed over years of martial arts training and I teach it to karate students. It’s a simple training mechanism.

When you apply it to active listening techniques with written follow-up you can train yourself for sustained focus.

Active Listening
The active listening process is simply intent to listen for meaning when others are speaking such as in a:

  • Presentation;
  • Lecture;
  • Business meeting;
  • one on one conversation with another person

A good definition of it can be found here. It takes work to actively listen as your mind is the major barrier to hearing everything that is said. Your mind wants to do what it does best: think, process, respond, counter an argument, whatever. But you need it to concentrate. It is a literal interpretation of the Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang.

Listening deteriorates even more because your eyes absorb visual sources of information, disrupting concentration. That’s a stimulated environment and it interferes with sustained focus. Relating this to a martial arts perspective, you never really want to look at your opponents eyes during combat. It’s a distraction and causes your mind to wonder, even if just momentarily. You basically look at their head without looking directly at their eyes. The basic focus technique counters this problem. There is a whole pile of Zen meditation that is part of developing this type of focus but we won’t cover that here. The technique below is something anyone can do and you’ll get practical results from it.

Use Active Listening to Build Concentration and Sustained Focus
Fortunately there are no kicks, punches or golf or tennis balls to hit to improve this. The use of active listening is a substitute for physical training techniques to build mind focus. To develop active listening you need to be in situations where a fairly large amount of information is discussed, or presented. Business meetings, a lecture, a long conversation with a friend, or even watching a movie are all good for this.

  1. Listen to everything that is said in the exchange;
  2. Use the basic focus technique to keep your focus and improve your ability to concentrate. If possible pick a point other than someone’s eyes . I realize it is not possible to do this in a conversation or some meetings but where possible it is preferable. Your mind can concentrate more easily if you can avoid eye contact;
  3. Take small notes during the information exchange (unless it is a personal conversation). The notes are cues to help you remember what was said;
  4. When the exchange is done write down every thing you can from memory. This part of the exercise forces you to concentrate even though it occurs after the exchange. And yes, you will be using the basic focus technique while you perform this step.
  • Write down all the major concepts that were discussed in detail. Write as much as you can.
  • If you taught a class and a question and answer session unfolded write down all the questions asked and the answers provided.
  • Try and write all the information down from the exchange no longer than 24 hours after it occurred.
  • If you are having difficulty remembering everything because your mind starts to wonder, use the basic focus technique to regain your mind focus.

The basic formula is:  Focus > Actively Listen > Document for Concentration

It is amazing how much your mind is forced to focus on exact details and not wonder when you do this. I can’t tell you the number of people who think I have a photographic memory (I don’t and actually find my mind to be particularly weak versus other people I know) when I provide a trip report for a business meeting as an example.

Quick side note: It’s a very Western concept to constantly engage others with the eyes. It shows confidence, power and alertness. But it’s not always needed all the time. When I go into business meetings I am in full blown “combat” mode, meaning I am alert and engaged. But I also focus my eyes off of specific people for periods of time to keep my focus so I can actively listen in a sustained manner.

I’d enjoy hearing your challenges in keeping focused and how you get yourself back on track. Let me know how this set of techniques works for you. Worst case you’ll have detailed notes to fall back on – never a bad thing in business or school settings.

Photo credit courtesy of Thomas Hawk

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