My yoga class this morning opened with a thoughtful proposal from the instructor, a suggestion to devote today's practice to our teachers. These teachers could be anyone -- perceptive parent, sage adviser, your Siamese cat -- any sentient being who has taught you something which made an important difference in your life.
I quickly realized that mine were my two children. My kids have taught me many things, lots of them larger than my expanding litany of innovative stain removal techniques.
Big things like humility for example, which really sank in that time Hayden tugged on my pants so hard while I was holding her new baby sister that she pulled them down in the middle of a crowded restaurant (I’ve since bought a belt), and flexibility – I now know that firm plans are most often just an illusion. Then there’s patience -- still working on that one, but most importantly of all, I’ve learned to strengthen my focus.
The ability to focus and self-manage is something generally not taught in school, but is actually critical to success in most aspects of life. Most of us are raised in a culture fabricated by rules and instructions doled incessantly by teachers, our parents, other people’s parents, our employers.
Throughout most of our adolescence, we work to a schedule set by someone else. When eventually we need to manage our own time in pursuit of activities other than recreation, a to-do list for instance, we often struggle, distracted by all the other demands that constantly seem to beseech us.
When I noticed this in my own life, I labeled it adult ADHD, since to me everything seems more manageable when labeled. Once appropriately diagnosed, I began to research effective coping strategies for dealing with this problem.
I eventually came to realize this is something many of us struggle with, whether we’re managing kids, careers or even the expanding communications options ceaselessly being unleashed, we can all use a little help focusing. I recently read an interview with Diane Sawyer where she was asked the secret to her success. Her response was simple, "I think the one lesson I've learned is there is no substitute for paying attention."
So whatever your goals look like, from large scale projects to the dozens of tasks associated with managing a busy to-do list, here are some tips to help you stay on track along the way:
1. Find time to meditate. It may seem counter-intuitive to add something more to an already full schedule, but when you start your day off with as little as ten minutes of meditation and Pranayama breathing you establish an internal sense of balance and calm. If you have a yoga practice, it’s a great way to cultivate that sense of mindfulness that you can return to anytime during the day that the going gets rough. When stressful thoughts start distracting, just return to your breath and restore your balance.
2. Feed your body, fuel your mind -- starting with breakfast. Studies show that healthy breakfast of high-quality carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats is essential for optimal mental clarity. In fact, researchers have found that skipping breakfast results in impaired memory and increased fatigue that lasts right up until you start noshing, so why wait?
3. Plan ahead. Keep a schedule in any format that works best for you, and pencil in all the agenda items on your weekly list, including things like grocery shopping or paying bills. While many of these tasks don’t require such careful planning, if they’re written down, they’re less on your mind when they’re on paper or a screen. You can always shift tasks around as the week unfolds, but at least you’re looking at the bigger picture before adding more to-dos into an already full schedule, which leads to my next suggestion…
4. Learn to say no. Over-scheduling is a sure way to stress, and anxiety, which completely undermines organization. Don’t commit to anything you’re not sure you can fit in. Remember, everything always takes longer than you think it will, so if you’re not sure you’ll have time for one more activity, work or play, you probably don’t.
5. Break large projects down into bite-sized tasks. Anything can become overwhelming when pondered in its entirety, but breaking it down into manageable pieces is less intimidating. Once you get started, it’s just a matter of time before you’ll work your way through to completion.
6. Reduce the distractions. Allocate time in your schedule for those activities that require focus and during that time, shut down your email, turn off your phone and remove all other distractions that will interrupt your thoughts and your progress. I know it’s challenging, but the results are worth it!
7. Monitor your multitasking. Suggesting you stop multitasking altogether is just silly. We multitask all the time and often it’s manageable and for some of us even essential. But talking on the phone while reading, writing emails or doing anything else that requires your full attention is ineffective and actually creates more anxiety than problem solving. If a task requires your attention, stay with it until you’re finished, then move on.
8. Finally, and my favorite, schedule in down time. According to Entrepreneur magazine, our body needs to intermittent breaks every 90 to 120 minutes throughout your day. The key is not how long a break you take but that you truly change your focus. So disengage from your task or project--get up from your desk and stretch, get a drink of water or take a walk around the block. Some time away to give yourself a chance to refresh will do wonders for your powers of concentration.
So now when things don’t go according to plan – quite common for many of us, I take a step back to breathe, focus on all I have to be grateful for – and simply reschedule.
photo via Margo Love