If I had to pick one learned skill that has served me the best in my career, it would be learning to grab my mind by the scruff of the neck and drag it back to the task at hand.
The ability to give focused attention to anything is a skill which is built up by practice, and I think all successful people develop a modicum of this ability simply by practicing their craft. I remember enjoying advanced math and physics classes in college or large programming projects simply because they could make your head hurt as they challenge your ability to focus hard enough to understand and solve them.
It was with interest, therefore, that I read “Stress Is Not Your Enemy” by Tony Schwartz on the Harvard Business Review Blog:
The principle is simple, but not entirely intuitive. The harder you push yourself, the more you signal your body to grow. It’s called supercompensation, and the growth actually occurs during recovery. The limiting factor is mostly your tolerance for discomfort.
Think for a moment about attention. Absorbed focused lies at the heart of great performance. Unfortunately, our minds have minds of their own — they flit from thought to thought. It’s also more difficult than ever to stay focused in this digital age. Never before have we had to deal with so many seductive distractions.
Training your mind operates by the same principle as training your body. By focusing on one thing for a defined period of time — say by counting your breath, or working at a demanding task, or even reading a difficult book — you’re subjecting your attention to stress.
As your mind wanders, the challenge is to return your focus to the breath, or the task, or the book. Effectively, you’re training control of your attention. The more intensely you practice, even for short increments of time, the stronger you’ll get.
My purpose in blogging about this is to tell young people that pushing yourself is an essential part of their development. You increase not only in concentration and mental power, but you also increase in the grit required to continue pushing yourself.
And my second purpose is to remind those of us who are older that continuing to push ourselves is the path toward continued fitness. Without continuing to stress yourself in retirement, you will atrophy and die younger. Part of our retirement counseling includes asking about success and significance in retirement. Retirees have to continue to push themselves mentally and physically in order to stay mentally and physically fit. It is easy to plan financially for a retirement of relaxation because a sedentary lifestyle in retirement won’t be a long one.
So lean into activities that stretch your mental and physical abilities, and if needed join a class or get a coach to help push you in the process.