In part 1 and 2 of this series, you learned how to generate a state of relaxed, exclusive attention that allows you to express your potential more fully. This video will show you how to sustain that highly effective state for as long as you need. Let's dive right into it.
With centralization and micro-tasking, you’ve learned how to direct your attention more consciously and less wastefully, so that you can potentially sustain it for longer. But that's only a potential: being able to centralize on a few micro-tasks in a row doesn't mean you can consciously direct your attention on the much longer path that leads to your goal, even a very short term goal, like practicing a musical instrument for an hour, and things of that nature.
This is what happens when you try to focus: you stay on the task for a little while, but in a few minutes, or even seconds, another object pops up in your mind: you forgot to take out the trash, a car has stopped in front of the house, your leg tingles. If you move your focus to any of these new objects, the process can be repeated: another object pops up.
The leg tingles because this position is not the best for you, should you try another one? What was the name of the one with the chair? Maybe you should have chosen a different book. But you know you always buy too many books that you don't read. You really should be more disciplined. John is more disciplined. Yeah but he's also not much fun to be around, is he?
And before you know it, a chain of new thoughts has carried you far away from your intended focus. Your attention is not directed anymore, it's drifting.
Giving a direction to our attention and relaxing into small steps on the path is easy enough; sustaining that direction, much less so.
That's because, while we can direct our attention deliberately, we can point it towards a certain object, the part of the mind that can potentially sustain attention for more than a few seconds works on an unconscious level. We don’t consciously control it the way we control our physical movements.
Instead, there is an unconscious 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 our unconscious process judges something else to be more important or interesting, our attention moves to that.
This is the mechanism underlying “distractions” and it works automatically.
Distractions are, almost by definition, involuntary. They just happen. If they weren’t involuntary, we could just make a conscious decision to stay focused on a given task and we would. But we can’t and we don’t. That is, unless we train for it.
But how do you train an unconscious process?
Well, the thing is, any information that enters consciousness is also communicated to the unconscious process. And since we can formulate conscious thoughts and intentions, we have a way to influence this unconscious process indirectly. Again, we don’t have direct control over it, but we do have indirect influence. If you formulate a conscious intent to stabilize your focus on a certain object or task, the unconscious process takes this new piece of information into account as well, and adjusts the screening and selection process accordingly.
It’s a bit like learning to throw knives. You can’t just make a decision to make a perfect throw and plant the knife smack dab at the center of the target, like you make a decision to put more salt on your steak. Throwing a knife with that degree of accuracy involves a lot of subtle adjustments in your hand-eye coordination, which are unconscious and involuntary. You may intend to hit the board in a perfect throw, but unless you have trained a lot, your unconscious process just doesn’t have the required information to give you that result yet.
So what do you do?
Well, you simply hold the intent to throw the knife accurately, and you do it over and over again. You can also learn the theory and make conscious adjustments, of course, but then, you still have to go through this process:
1. You intend to throw the knife accurately
2. You execute the throw
3. This gives your unconscious process new information that can it can use to make adjustments in the next throw
And you repeat this cycle over and over again until the unconscious process has learned to manifest your intention accurately.
Learning to sustain your attention works in a very similar way.
1. You intend to keep your attention on a given object.
2. You focus on that object for however long it lasts before a distraction occurs.
3. This gives your unconscious process new information that can it can use to make adjustments for the next focusing period.
An important difference is that any mistakes you do when throwing a knife will be immediately obvious, whereas if you get distracted and your mind wanders off the target, by definition your attention is elsewhere and you’re not aware of it.
At some point however, the awareness that you wandered off target will pop up in your consciousness, and a very important part of this training process is that you return your attention to the target object, or task. This, too, is a clear message to the unconscious process that the target you consciously define gets priority.
And this is the basic theory of training for sustained attention.
We can’t control the unconscious process, but we can certainly influence it enough that we can cultivate certain abilities. The fact that our control over this process is only partial and the results are delayed is why I call this mechanism intent planting.
You cannot force your seeds to sprout, and your crops to grow. You can only prepare the soil, plant your seeds, water them appropriately, and patiently trust the process of growth to slowly and naturally take place.
The same goes for training an unconscious process, and certainly the process that will allow you to sustain attention for longer and longer. Stabilizing attention is not something you can make happen right this moment, like you can make a single instance of centralization or micro-tasking happen after a few tries, it’s something you have limited control over and you have cultivate over time.
So this is the complete model of sustained attention training:
- You plant the intent to hold your focus on the task, and you start working
- at some point, you automatically and inevitably get distracted
- but because you have planted your intent to sustain your attention, the unconscious process soon notifies you that you have wandered off
- 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
- and the cycle starts over
Repeating this over and over again will inevitably grow your ability to sustain your attention. Specifically, there are two factors in this process that will be improved upon:
First, the delay between the distractions and renewed awareness will grow shorter and shorter, and second, your ability to actually return to the task, which involves a small act of self-discipline, will grow stronger, more consistent.
So, now that you know the basic mechanism, let’s see how we can leverage it to stabilize our attention as quickly as possible. I'll show you how to reduce and eventually eliminate the delay in this video and the next, and focus on the return movement in the one after that.
First of all, let's clarify our goal. The idea here is to plant our seeds of intent to sustain exclusive, relaxed attention so thoroughly, so consistently, that the unconscious mind eventually "gets" it and adjusts this screening process accordingly. Ideally, we want to be able to set our attention on a task and focus on it exclusively for as long as we wish without any kind of stress or strain… within reason.
Just like we walk. Or drive. If you can drive, sustaining the direction of your vehicle doesn’t take any particular effort, right?
Just like you don’t want to have to think about performing the act of driving while you are, say, looking for a certain address, you ideally don’t want to worry about concentrating while you are trying to complete a certain task. You want concentration to be ingrained, automatic, subconscious. You want it to just happen naturally.
And this may seem like an almost impossible goal to you if you're just starting, but please remember, there was a time when you couldn’t drive, and before that, there was a time when you couldn’t walk either. Being able to move around on two feet is a matter of course to you now, but there was a time in your life when you had to move around crawling on all fours, and it took years of practice before you could learn to move like you do now.
And yet, you got there. You planted that intent with such persistence that your brain and nervous system formed all the right pathways to allow you to walk erect. It was harder in the beginning, but progress got easier and faster afterwards. If you're just now starting to train your attention, you're still crawling or stumbling, but believe me: you can learn to walk, and much more than that. And it won't take years either.
But we have to get there gradually. A small child learning to walk is highly motivated, and will be planting a lot of those intent seeds, if you’ve ever seen a child learning to move around and then walk, it’s like they throw ten thousand tiny mental knives every single day. They feed new information to their unconscious process very frequently, very insistently.
Which is exactly what we're gonna do.
Before I continue, I should say there’s a wrong way to do this, and a right way.
The wrong way to do it is slow, hard, and painful, the right way is fast, easy and painless.
Unfortunately, until we learn what I’ve been showing you in this series, we are most likely to take the wrong way, especially in today’s typical work or study environment. The wrong way is of course, once again, the way of disorganized excessive tension that I discussed in part one of this series.
You try to “lock down” the object of attention.
You try to hold your mind in place. This generates subconscious physical tension, which makes you number, your attention more brittle, as it were, and distractions more likely in the long run.
When you become aware you get distracted, you feel like you’re failing in your intent.
Your self-confidence and your expectations, your morale takes a hit. So you berate yourself, you stress out, you try to make more of an effort, and you tense up even more, because that is how we try to get results when we’re unable to see a clear path, we just push harder in the general direction of results. Whatever we’re trying to do, we just try “harder”.
This is the typical approach of someone who is highly motivated, but essentially clueless about the way attention works, and overcompensates this cluelessness by simply pushing hard. This is what I did for years and I can tell you with 100% confidence it leads to high stress levels, burnout, health problems, and ultimately failure.
It’s possible to develop your concentration powers to some degree like this, because, after all, you are planting intent seeds, you are instructing your unconscious process to work towards better focus, but the way you’re doing it is so harmful and counterproductive on other levels that you’re taking two steps forward and…1.9 steps back, and you’re exhausted and miserable on top of it.
It’s like trying to skin an apple with a hammer, and constantly hitting the hand holding the apple. So if you’ve been doing this, please stop immediately and go download the quick start training guide for this series. If you’re watching this as the series is still being published, there won’t be a link yet, but I will make the guide available as soon as I publish the last video.
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.
The training practice you have learned in the previous two videos can be summarized as centralizing or “funneling” into a very small task as if it were the first and the last you will have to complete, and just do this over and over again.
Specifically, the task we have been using for training is experiencing a breathing cycle. Very simple, very basic. You relax your attention into the breath, and you do it one breath at a time, resetting the task every time.
If you’ve experimented with this, 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. Which is about a hundred times easier to do than to explain.
Think about the knives again. Before you throw each knife, you intend to hit the target at the perfect angle. You give your mind an image of your desired result. And then you throw. It’s the same here: you intend to centralize on the next one breath for its whole duration. And then you breathe. This mental image associated to the intention is the spark you need.You do it for every breath in the sequence, over and over again until the timer rings, and that’s all.
This may seem almost too simple, but what you’re doing is 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, but what’s more, the intent to sustain your attention on any task you consciously prioritize will penetrate into your unconscious which will rapidly start making adjustments to enable you to do just that.
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.
As usual, you can find a summary of the video and more specifically the exercise on my website, which is also the place to ask your questions if you really want them answered.
It’s also where, for the time being, you can access my concentration training program for free when you subscribe to my mailing list. Links below.
Now, like I said in the previous video, if you think that processing complex, demanding, real life tasks by consciously reducing them to micro-tasks is impractical and not sustainable, I agree. Micro-tasking is not always possible or appropriate for all tasks, but then, real-life opponents in real situations don’t really behave like heavy punching bags or speed bags, and paper targets don’t run around and don’t shoot back. And yet, we can use these tools for effective practice.
Same thing here.
This is very structured practice. It's not meant to be applied in real life tasks in its strict form, and it’s not meant to be applied 100% consciously, at least not at all times.
The idea is to practice this on simpler tasks, like the breath, 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.
Intent planting in itself, on the other hand, can and should be applied consciously in whichever activity you wish to focus more effectively. Which is as simple as setting the intent to stay focused on a given task as you start, and then again every time you come back from a distraction. This will improve your results quickly as long as you do it right, and you will be very surprised to learn that doing it “right” means avoiding excess tension. Don’t strain, don’t push hard.
Planting your intent is not like pushing weights, where your strength actually does grow with the amount of tension you are able to generate. Influencing the unconscious process does not require you to overcome a force, it only requires you to transmit information accurately and consistently.
It’s pretty much like training and commanding a dog. It’s not like the dog responds any better if you shout your commands at the top of your lungs, or if you flex your arm hard when you point. All the dog needs is to receive the right message: if it can hear you and see you, it will respond. The unconscious process works the same way.
You set your intent briefly and gently, as relaxedly as you can, nice and easy, no need to “push” in any way whatsoever. You just do it very consistently. Like with most things in mental training, if you want it to work faster, don’t increase tension, increase frequency.
And that wraps it up for now.
My next video will be about the single biggest mistake people make when they start training their attention skills, why that can ruin their efforts completely, and of course how to fix it.
If you are enjoying this series, please share, like and subscribe, and most importantly, let me know what you think. Thanks for watching, and I'll see you in the next video.