Concentration basics #3: Intent planting

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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

Centralization and micro-tasking are ways to direct your attention more consciously and less wastefully. They are easy enough to learn, and they save you a lot of energy.

But now that you have learned how to focus through relaxation, rather than tension, you still need to learn how to sustain that state for longer periods. It’s one thing to centralize on a few breaths, it’s quite another to focus on a boring but necessary task for hours.

You can’t control it…

While we can direct our attention deliberately for short spans of time, the part of the mind that can potentially sustain attention for more than a few seconds works on an unconscious level.

There is an unconscious “attention management process” that constantly weighs the importance, interest and urgency of whatever we are currently focusing on against other possible objects of attention, both in our physical environment, and in our psychological environment.

As long as an object is deemed important or interesting enough, our attention stays on it.

But as soon as something else is judged more important or interesting, our attention moves to that. From the point of view of our consciously defined goal, this movement is what we call a distraction. Distractions are involuntary and inevitable.

…but you CAN influence it.

The unconscious process does not respond to direct commands, but it does take our intent into account. If you send it a consistent, clear message to sustain focus on a given object, it will gradually adapt to that goal.

Distractions will still happen of course, especially in the beginning, but your attention will grow more and more stable as the unconscious process adjusts to the new information.

This is how the training works

  1. You plant the intent to hold your focus on the task.
  2. At some point, you automatically and inevitably get distracted.
  3. But because you have planted your intent to sustain your attention, the unconscious process soon notifies you that you have wandered off.
  4. At that point, you return to the original object and once again plant the seed of your intent, to keep your focus on the target activity.
  5. And the cycle starts over.

Repeating this over and over again will inevitably grow your ability to sustain your attention on any given target. Specifically, there are two factors in this process that will be improved upon:

1. the delay between the distractions and renewed awareness will grow shorter and shorter, and
2. your ability to actually return to the task, which involves a small act of self-discipline, will grow stronger, more consistent.

Point 1 is addressed here, point 2 will be explored later in this series.

Reminder: trying “harder” is counterproductive.

The naive, instinctive way most of us try to improve our concentration when we don’t know better is by limiting the mind’s movements: we try to “lock down” the object, or “hold” our mind in place.

This generates subconscious physical tension. Tension numbs our mind, which makes distractions more likely and hard to pull away from. Distractions feel like failures and signs of our weakness. This leads to overcompensation (further increase of tension), which of course feeds the vicious circle.

This is how we try to get results when we are unable to see a clear path, we just push harder in the general direction of results. In the case of attention skills, this approach leads to high stress levels, burnout, health problems, and ultimately failure.

The right way to train your attention to become more exclusive and stable does the opposite of what I just described. It feels easy and energizing, it feels like a fun game and will lower your stress levels and improve your mental stamina and self confidence.

EXERCISE: Adding intent to micro-tasking

Goal: learn to make concentration more consistent and long-lasting.


If you’ve experimented with micro-tasking on the breath from the previous video, you will have noticed that although your focus feels much easier and more relaxed, you can still get distracted quite easily. And that’s where intent planting comes in.

Micro-tasking is not just a way to be more fully present, to sharpen your focus in the moment, it also provides us with the perfect structure to plant our intent very frequently and reprogram our unconscious process as fast as possible.

All you have to do is simply add a little spark, a little jolt of intent at the beginning of every micro-task:

  1. Intend to focus on the next one breath exclusively for its whole duration.
  2. Relax into that one breath, letting go of everything else, like you learned in video 1 (“funneling”).

You do it for every breath in the sequence, over and over again until the timer rings, and that’s all.

PLEASE NOTE:

This may seem almost too simple, but you are actually planting your intent a hundred times more frequently and consistently than if you just “tried to concentrate” on the breath for the same amount of time.

Once you find your rhythm, your focus will immediately start staying with the breath longer and longer during the exercise.

If you train like this consistently, you will find that staying focused on an activity will become easier and easier; distractions will become less and less frequent, and awareness of drifting will come sooner and sooner.

“This doesn’t seem practical for real-life tasks”.

That’s because it isn’t, at least not in this “pure” form.

This is very structured practice. It's not meant to be applied in real life tasks as is, at least not consciously, and not at all times. Real-life tasks are not sequences of identical simple acts like breaths, real-life opponents don’t behave like heavy punching bags, and paper targets don’t run around (and don’t shoot back). And yet, we can use these tools for effective practice.

Do these behave anything like real opponents?

As far as micro-tasking goes, the idea is to practice this on simpler tasks in a controlled environment, until your mind learns to operate this way subconsciously, which results in the state of dynamic, relaxed, responsive focus we sometimes call flow.

In the next part of the series, I will address the single biggest mistake people make when they start training their attention skills, why that can ruin their efforts and obviously how to fix it.

Key takeaways

  • 1
    The mental process that can sustain attention beyond a few seconds is mostly unconscious: it cannot be controlled directly, but it can be influenced through intent.
  • 2
    Therefore, learning to sustain attention requires a consistent application of intent.
  • 3
    The unconscious process does not respond to “strength of will” but rather to clear, consistent, frequent messages.
  • 4
    Micro-tasking provides with an excellent structure to inject intent into the unconscious process frequently and consistently: add a spark of clear intent at the beginning of every micro-task, and the unconscious process will adapt rapidly.

FULL VIDEO TRANSCRIPT

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