Want to know what Steve Jobs thought was the ultimate key in achieving success?
“Focus and simplicity… once you get there, you can move mountains.”—Steve Jobs
And this belief is even more important today than it was years ago. At your fingertips is a literal world of information and entertainment. So, it’s no wonder we all have such wandering minds nowadays.
Thanks to the internet and smartphones, attention is practically a currency we should be more budget-minded about. In fact, a person who can stay focused is not only more likely to get more done but also be more satisfied at the end of the day because of it.
Going further, a person who’s focused will more easily achieve their goals—anything from losing 20 pounds to getting a promotion at work is within the reach of this type of person.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Wandering Mind?
- What Causes a Wandering Mind?
- Is It Bad to Have a Wandering Mind?
- How To Control a Wandering Mind?
- 1. Find Your Totem
- 2. Promise a Reward
- 3. Enter the State of Flow
- 4. Make It Stupid Easy for Your Wandering Mind
- 5. Empty Your Mind With Journaling
- 6. Use the "Just 5 Minutes" Method
- 7. Recite a Focus Mantra
- 8. Use the "Multi-Yawn" Approach
- 9. Find an Easy Win
- 10. Create a "Wins" List
- 11. Add Stakes to the Mix
- Bottom Line
- More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus
What Is a Wandering Mind?
Have you ever sat down to think about a specific subject or relax for a period of time? When you do this next time, you need to watch your mind. A wandering mind, as the name suggests, flits around like a fly.
It keeps asking questions, thinking, worrying creating problems, imagining, and coming up with effective solutions. This not only happens while you are relaxing but also while driving, eating, or cooking.
A wandering mind is a hotbed of negative and vain thoughts. A Harvard study reveals that wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness.
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” – Killingsworth and Gilbert, Psychologists of Harvard University
A wandering mind makes it harder for you to focus and deal with issues effectively. It will also prevent you from completing important tasks by focusing on a task unrelated to the important ones, and falling asleep. Other common names of mind wandering are daydreaming flights of fancy or fantasy.
What Causes a Wandering Mind?
While the exact cause of mind wandering hasn’t been understood, research studies in laboratory settings have shown that there is a network of neurons that have been linked to mind wandering. This network interacts with some regions of the cortex which deal with behavior and emotions.
This network is usually active when a person is at rest or working on tasks that don’t require you to pay attention. Changes in this network’s default mode have been linked to changes in brain activity and a wide range of mental diseases such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Is It Bad to Have a Wandering Mind?
Having a wandering mind harms your productivity and performance in different ways. Plus, it affects your quality of life. Here are a few reasons compiled by cognitive science that suggest that mind-wandering is bad for you:
- Lack of awareness: When you are preoccupied with your thoughts, it’s difficult to be aware of your environment. This usually leads to accidents like banging into people or objects, falling, and ignoring traffic signs. Lack of awareness is one of the leading causes of accidents on most roads.
- Failure to comprehend: An employee or student may fail to understand what’s being explained to them. And this will lead to huge errors. A wandering mind makes it harder for someone to follow their train of thought or read and listen in their day-to-day activities.
- Poor focus: A wandering mind reduces your capacity to focus on important tasks. And this can be interpreted as a lack of interest in being uninvolved in tasks. It also makes it harder for you to stick on time-consuming, tedious or boring tasks. And when you work on a task at random times, you’ll end up making careless mistakes.
- Depression: One of the common consequences of a wandering mind is anxiety and depression.
How To Control a Wandering Mind?
Here are 10 ways to tame and refocus your mind to get more things done.
1. Find Your Totem
Remember the totem in the movie, Inception? It’s an item that reminded people they weren’t in a dream when they touched it, and it was able to keep them grounded in reality.
You can replicate this idea when it comes to staying focused as well. All you’ve to got to do is find something to be your “focus totem,” and it’ll remind you that you should stop daydreaming and get back to work. Ideally, it’s something you can see and touch.
In the movie, a chess piece and a spinning top were used—both are good ideas. You could also use a picture of your family, a mini trophy, or even wear a ring to focus your mind as well. (In fact, a green lantern ring might be kind of cool for this.)
2. Promise a Reward
Incentives are an obvious way to go. Having gold at the end of any journey makes you want to press forward just for the sweet results. In general, rewards should correlate to the difficulty/length of the work.
- Finish a quick house chore = a piece of chocolate
- Complete an annoying administrative task = 10 minutes of Youtube
- A successful day of being in the state of flow = a whole movie on Netflix
Pretty simple stuff, right? But you’d be surprised how often you forget to reward yourself for doing solid work on the regular.
3. Enter the State of Flow
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a notable psychologist in positive psychology, suggests the idea of state of flow by saying that when someone is extremely concentrated on a specific activity, one’s mind is fully occupied because the human nervous system is incapable of processing too much information.  Entering the flow state prevents your mind from wandering and is one of the ways to achieve a sustained feeling of happiness.
Let’s say you are a musician composing a piece of music. It is not hard to imagine that your mind will be fully occupied with musical notes, leaving you with little room to even think about what to eat for lunch. Within the State of Flow, most of our worries and concerns take the back burner as we are living in the present moment.
Entering the state of flow is like riding a bike:
Pick a Route You Enjoy
When you ride a bike, your journey becomes more enjoyable if you pick the routes you like. To enter the state of flow, you should also find one interesting thing in the task you’re going to work on. It is not uncommon for people who get their hands dirty immediately without realizing the fascinating parts of whatever they do. It is very unlikely that they can enter the state of flow without seeing something intriguing.
Spare Time To Warm Up
Everything takes time, riding a bike and entering the state of flow also take time. For example, before riding a bike you may do 15 minutes of warm up exercises and stretching to get your body ready to go. Your mind is similar. It needs some time to get into the state, and it takes even longer for you to be fully immersed, so you need to be patient. You might not be able to enter the state of flow in the first few minutes but you have to wait for a bit longer until your mind is warmed up. But once you have entered the state of flow, you won’t even notice the passage of time.
Keep the Wheels Rolling Till the End
You can’t stop to keep the wheels rolling. When you stop applying force, the bike will eventually stop and you can’t go on with your journey. Entering the state of flow means you shouldn’t be stopping in the middle as well. You need to be clear on what you want to achieve and know what you are working for, like you should know your direction and destination while riding a bike. Losing direction makes us distracted by other things easily, which makes it quite impossible for us to get into the zone.
Entering the state of flow, or in other words, being mindful is the first step to the road of true happiness. Happiness doesn’t come from the good old days you once had, the reality that you are currently in, or the golden future that you have been dreaming about. Happiness is a state of mind.
4. Make It Stupid Easy for Your Wandering Mind
I don’t know about you, but if I perceive my work to require more effort than I care to use, I’m instantly turned off. This then leads to distraction and procrastination. But you can offset this by breaking a difficult task into a bite-sized piece.
Case in point, what seems easier: 30 pushups or 3 pushups?
It’s obvious, but sometimes our brains need to be “convinced” we’re only doing a small amount of work to get things going.
But here’s something cool about this tactic: You can (and most likely will) keep going past your stupid easy benchmark. You don’t have to, but my experience tells me once you get going like this, it’s easy to go beyond your bare minimum goal.
5. Empty Your Mind With Journaling
Sometimes, there’s too much stuff floating around in your brain that is making your mind wander. In that case, it can help to spill everything in your head onto a journal to free up some space. You can use a pen and pad for this or something digital like Evernote.
There are two basic ways to go about it:
- Freestyle – where you just write whatever randomly flows through your brain without thinking or pausing. This is great if you’ve got a million different ideas racing through your brain.
- Focused – where you create prompts or an outline to streamline your thinking and you just respond to the questions or format. This is best when you want to grasp a certain topic.
6. Use the “Just 5 Minutes” Method
Try telling yourself that you’ll work for “just 5 minutes” and then you can stop. You’ll find that the task feels far easier to handle. And like the “stupid easy” method, this tricks your brain into thinking the task is lower effort than it really is. After all, 5 minutes for even the worst task is psychologically manageable for any person out there.
The key is to honestly allow yourself to stop at 5 minutes—no matter what. That’s what allows your brain to accept the method as legit and also lets it overcome the mental hurdle that makes your brain want to wander around and focus on anything but your task.
7. Recite a Focus Mantra
I like to think of mantras as a totem you can take with you anywhere you go. They serve the same purpose—reminding you to stay focused—but can be done anywhere and anytime.
I find the most powerful type of mantra to be based on reality. I learned this approach from Dr. Jon Fader—a performance coach who was on “Good Morning America”—and his book Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life. He calls this “objective optimism.”
Basically, you create a mantra that’s based on personal success in your life. That way, the mantra isn’t just a fluffy positivity statement, there’s also the weight of real-life success giving it power
- If you’re struggling to make yourself go to the gym but have technically been there many times already, you could say, “just another day of heading to the gym—easy.”
- If you’re suffering from impostor-syndrome after accepting a promotion, just say, “I’m here for a reason” to remind yourself that your efforts were recognized by others and are the real deal.
- If you’re nervous about an upcoming sports competition but have trained diligently for it, you could say, “I’ve done all the work possible” to remind yourself that your earlier efforts have created the best version of you for the event.
As you can see, the most powerful mantras are evidence-based and positive. So, just find proof of relevant success in your life and transform it into a motivating mantra.
8. Use the “Multi-Yawn” Approach
One of the best ways to be distracted is to be tired. And sometimes, you’ll be tired in such a way that you’re “sort of” working but not realize that you’re actually constantly distracted.
If you can notice when you do this, one thing I like to do is crank out as many big, satisfying yawns as possible. Olympic athletes sometimes do this before their big events. It calms them down and helps them perform better in the process. And it works just as well for us regular folks. I find it has a similar effect to taking a good nap (and actually works best in unison), so you can imagine how effective this can be.
9. Find an Easy Win
Nothing feels good like winning. So, it can help to find a few simple tasks you can do with little effort and just get them done immediately. This will create momentum and propel your productivity forward. The feeling of success will lock your focus in on the task at hand and refocus your wandering mind. Use this when you feel “resistance” to getting your work started.
10. Create a “Wins” List
Feeling like a capable person who can win at life is motivating in and of itself. In light of this fact, it can help to have an ongoing “wins” list to prove you’re an able person.
Just keep track of all your daily wins—big and small. And whenever your focus starts to wane, give that list a peek and remind yourself that you’re more capable than you realize.
11. Add Stakes to the Mix
If you were to lose $20 if you failed to complete a task, would you be more focused on completing it? Of course!
Try and find ways to put something on the line when it comes to completing your tasks, and you’ll find your focus, motivation, and ability to things done to be higher than ever before.
For example, if you’re at work, you could involve a co-worker by saying you’ll buy their food if you don’t complete a task before lunchtime rolls around. At home, you could say you’ll also mow the lawn if you don’t remember to wash the dishes before the day is over. Or you could just use something like Beeminder or TaskRatchet, which actually charges you cash for failing to complete a task or goal on time. (It’s scary but effective)
All are viable methods, so just give one of them a shot.
Of the many methods of winning at life out there, focusing is definitely a top-three contender. You can’t get anything you want in life if you don’t buckle down and get your work done—a wandering mind won’t create success.
But with these 10 focus tips, you’ll be ahead of the competition and be closer to a fitter body, higher income, and a flat-out better life than before.
More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus
- How to Increase Mental Focus And Stay Sharp (Your Ultimate Guide)
- How to Quickly Calm Your Mind and Refocus When You’re Stressed
- How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus
Featured photo credit: Clay Banks via unsplash.com
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