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This essay is excerpted from Jim Kwik’s new book, Limitless Expanded Edition.
Most of us are working on multiple devices at the same time, often with multiple applications running on each of those devices. We have meetings to attend, e-mails and texts to answer, social media statuses to update, and multiple projects in play. Yet, precisely because of this, it’s more important than ever to find ways to bring calm to your mind.
You might not even realize it, but all the input you’re getting on any given day is causing you a considerable amount of stress. If you’re like many people, you might even think of this as a positive thing, because it means that you’re busy, and by being busy, you’re making a meaningful contribution to the world. While this might be true, it is in spite of this anxiety rather than because of it.
“Anxious thoughts can overwhelm you, making it difficult to make decisions and take action to deal with whatever issue bothers you” writes psychologist Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “Anxiety can also lead to overthinking, which makes you more anxious, which leads to more overthinking, and so on. How can you get out of this vicious cycle? Repressing anxious thoughts won’t work; they will just pop up again, sometimes with more intensity.”
Juliet Funt is the CEO of the consulting firm WhiteSpace at Work. She describes whitespace as “the thinking time, the strategic pause that’s in between the busyness.” When she was on my podcast, Juliet called whitespace “the oxygen that allows everything else to catch fire.”
What both Greenberg and Funt are identifying is the need for all of us to have more time when our minds aren’t cluttered. It’s obvious how doing this will positively affect our mental health. But what’s less obvious is how it will also dramatically improve our focus and our productivity.
Some interesting studies in neuroscience underscore this, showing us how distraction is actually changing our brains. One, from University College London, compared the brains of heavy media multitaskers with those of light media multitaskers and found that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is involved in focus, was smaller among the former group. Conversely, a study at the Max Planck Institute found that, among people going through training exercises to increase attention, their ACCs grew thicker.
And distractions can be a serious time sink. A study from University of California, Irvine, shows how distractions can really disrupt your day. “You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were,” said Gloria Mark, lead author of the study. “We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news—it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.” That’s more than 20 minutes every time you’re distracted—and how often are you distracted every day?
Tools like meditation, yoga, and certain martial arts can be tremendously valuable in helping you calm your busy mind. But if you’re in the middle of the day and can’t afford to get away for more than a few minutes, there are still some things you can do. Three important ones are:
Taking deep cleansing breaths is valuable whenever you need to re-center yourself. Holistic health expert Andrew Weil, M.D., developed a breathing tool that he calls the 4–7–8 Method. It works like this:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of 8.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
2. Do Something That’s Causing You Stress
Things weighing on our minds are going to continue weighing on our minds until we deal with them. If you’re having trouble focusing or if your mind is operating on a dozen planes at the same time, it’s very possible the reason this is happening is because there’s something that you need to do that you’ve been avoiding doing. If that’s the case, do a little 4–7–8 breathing, deal with the stressful task, and then you can get back to everything else you want to do with increased focus.
3. Schedule Time for Distractions
It might be a challenge for you to turn off your phone and your e-mail when you need to focus, but if you can convince yourself to do these things, great. They’re relatively easy to do. What’s likely to be considerably harder is to avoid letting worries and obligations get in the way of whatever you’re trying to accomplish in that moment.
There’s a reason you’re seeing these things as worries or obligations, and that makes them much harder to push out of your mind. Addressing one of your concerns head-on, as we just discussed, is one way to deal with this, but there are going to be situations where that’s simply not possible. Instead, what if you set aside a specific time in your schedule to move these worries and obligations to the forefront of your mind? Simply saying, “I’ll worry about that later” isn’t likely to keep that worry from creeping back 20 minutes from now. But saying, “I’ll worry about that at 4:15” very well might.
Excerpted from LIMITLESS EXPANDED EDITION by Jim Kwik published by Hay House, Inc. Copyright © 2023.