Concentration basics #2: Micro-tasking


This video is part of a series. | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 (summary)
​Get the free manual for the series, the Concentration Basics Quick Start Training Guide (pdf).

Video summary

One of the most frequent tropes in self-development and productivity culture is “focus on the process, not the end result”, or, more poetically, ”the way is the goal”.

It’s a classic for good reason. Simply put, any thought or even subconscious attachment to the goal will act as a distraction from the activity that leads you to it.

As long as a part of you is occupied with the end result, you're not fully engaged with the process, so you can't be at your best. That makes sense, in general.

But once you get more specific and practical, you may find the dynamics aren't so clear. How exactly do you transfer attention from the goal to the process that leads to it?

A question of time

I have found that this focus-on-the-process principle is closely related to an even more profound one, which is that of "presence”: being fully present in the moment. Despite sounding so vague, this latter principle is actually much easier to re-define as a practical technique, because it involves an actual measurable resource: time.

Two popular techniques are relevant here: chunking and time-boxing.

Chunking means dividing a bigger task into several more manageable sub-tasks.

Time-boxing means allocating a fixed time period, called a time box, to a planned activity. Usually, time-boxing also involves alternating precisely defined periods of work time to precisely defined shorter periods of rest.

The two are often combined by dividing a project into smaller steps or subtasks, and then using time-boxes to complete each one of them in turn.

How does this help?

Both these techniques are about clarifying limits, which helps greatly with relaxation and exclusivity, those key elements of concentration. More specifically, reducing the extent of your commitment both in terms of the task itself and the time spent on it will:

  • prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed
  • prevent tension and performance anxiety
  • help you let go of any task you cannot work on right now
  • give you a sense of achievement every time you complete a subtask or time-box, which creates a positive momentum

Now just make it smaller!

These techniques are well-known and widely employed. What is generally not talked about is that you can apply these same exact principles on the much smaller scale of moment-by-moment mental mechanics.

The best way to “get” this intuitively is to perform this simple experiment.

EXPERIMENT: 1 breath 50 times

Goal: understand micro-tasking intuitively.

  1. Try to centralize/funnel on the breath continuously counting up to 50 breaths. If you lose count, start again, but no more than once. If you fail twice, the first step is done, you go to step 2. Take a 5-10 minute break.
  2. Start funneling and counting breaths again.
    This time, set the limit at 10 breaths. Funnel on the sensations of breath around your nostrils for ten breathing cycles. Then do the same four more times.

    Every time, you reset the count to 10. So you count from 1 to 10 for five times in total. If you lose count, start again, but no more than twice. If you lose count more than twice, go to step 3.

    But first, notice the difference between step 1 and 2: notice how counting to 10 felt compared to counting to 50.

    And take another 10 minute break.

  3. Set the limit at one single breath. In other words, pretend that every breath is going to be the only one you will have to centralize on.
  4. Most importantly, every time, you reset the whole thing; every time, you start the exercise fresh in your mind. You are always just starting, and always immediately finishing.

    Work on one single breath, but do it 50 times in a row.

If you learn to methodically isolate tiny, super-short tasks and string them together this way, you can actually achieve presence in the moment much more quickly and be entirely focused on the process. This is what I call micro-tasking.

You can apply micro-tasking in almost every activity you can think of, and it will 

  • lower your stress levels
  • improve your concentration and performance significantly
  • help mental toughness and resilience
  • make you feel much more confident and in control
  • foster the flow state and that feeling of “being completely present here and now”

Keeping it real

Of course, the tasks we deal with in work and life are not usually as repetitive and clear cut as a sequence of breaths. This is a radical, strict, absolute version of micro-tasking that is not often applicable outside of a training environment. It’s the equivalent of a speed bag or target practice.

However, micro-tasking doesn’t need to be strict to be effective. If you simply practice on the breath for 5-10 minutes a day as explained below, and you familiarize yourself with the feelings of micro-tasking, you will gradually develop the power to re-connect to those feelings while you execute other, more articulated tasks.

Just go back with your mind to when you micro-task the breaths, and you’ll get it, intuitively. You will start focusing on the smallest task you can recognize in front of you and everything will almost instantly become simpler, easier and less stressful.

Want to get there quicker?

A good way to do that is to practice micro-tasking on simple everyday activities. Doing the dishes would work something like this:

  • I’m turning on the tap. 
  • I’m putting on my gloves.
  • I’m putting dish-soap on the sponge.
  • I’m putting the dishes in the sink.
  • I’m washing this fork.
  • I’m washing this spoon.
  • I’m washing this glass.
  • I’m putting the glass in the rack.
  • I’m scrubbing the pot.

Just like with the breaths, you pretend that every little bit is the only one you will have to take care of, the only one there is.

This kind of thing can act as a bridge between the “radical micro-tasking” of a breath sequence and the more complex nature of the tasks we find in many jobs or other activities.

Note that to get the best effect, the micro-tasks can’t be neither too big nor too small:

You have to stay within the “green zone” where the tasks feel easiest.
Watch the video for a more in-depth analysis.

Key takeaways

  • 1
    To make it easier to stick to a commitment, give it a clear and near temporal boundary.
  • 2
    You can apply this principle on a surprisingly small scale to encourage the flow state, that feeling of “being present in the moment” that comes with a sense of calm confidence, control and improved effectiveness.
  • 3
    Looking at the world through “a small window” will not only improve your concentration and mental stamina, but also lower your stress levels and help you be more resilient.

EXERCISE: Micro-tasking single breaths

Goal: learning to isolate very small chunks of activity and treating them as tasks in themselves. "Resetting" the task every time will immediately lower the perceived workload and/or difficulty of the work.

  1. Set the timer to 5-10 minutes.
  2. Point your attention to the sensations in and around your nostrils and intend to stay on them for the duration of the next breathing cycle.
  3. Breathe in, and breathe out, letting go of every non-target as completely as you can, including breaths that came before and will come after. Pretend it’s the only breath you are going to focus on.
  4. Reset the process seamlessly with every breath.

    When you become aware of drifting, give yourself a quick nod of approval and enter the cycle again.

You know you have got micro-tasking right when you can centralize on the sensations of your breath for a few minutes, and it still feels as easy and as light as centralizing on a single breath for the whole time


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