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Mental Calibration: 5 Steps to Focus Better and Maintain Perspective

Mental Calibration: 5 Steps to Focus Better and Maintain Perspective

Ever feel like your neurons are stuck in a negative feedback loop? You’re obsessed with a relationship gone wrong, or stuck in an endless argument with your best friend, or you can’t stop thinking about that video game you spend too much time playing. Spiraling thoughts sap away productivity. You know you should stop, but like a bathroom scale that keeps pointing to 5 instead of 0, you can’t seem to get your thoughts in balance. Time to pull back, slow down and recalibrate your neurons. Here’s how:

1. Begin Each Day with the Things that Matter Most

Life is frantic. It’s easy to get caught up in a flurry of email, errands, hobbies and arguments… so much so that you collapse into an exhausted heap on your bed at the end of the day. Wrung out, worn out, you stare toward the ceiling as your thoughts spiral in guilty cycles. There’s so much you didn’t get done.

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It’s a common pattern, but it’s not one you have to stay trapped in. Make an effort to start each day with the things that matter most to you. You’ll still have a huge list of uncompleted tasks by nightfall, but you’ll feel better if you’re confident that what you did instead was more important.

2. Remind Yourself of Your Priorities

Doing the “things that matter most” is all well and good – but it requires actually knowing what your priorities are.

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The human brain is oddly distractible. Start playing a computer game, and within a few minutes, the scoreboard in the upper right corner becomes more important than the paperwork your boss is waiting for. Start weeding the flower beds, and that last, annoying little dandelion sprout can crowd out the needs of your family or children. Bit by bit, over days and weeks, these tiny maladjustments can add up to a severe distortion in our perceptions.

Take time each day, preferably in the morning, to remind your brain of your priorities. This may involve listening to a song by your favorite artist, reading scriptures specific to your religion, writing in a journal or pondering an inspirational quote from the previous century. Whatever helps you drag your brain back into a clear focus on your priorities – spend time doing it.

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3. Seek Opportunities for Growth

A tree that is growing will move instinctively toward the light. It will dig roots that hold it firm against storms. It will adjust to changing conditions and compensate for shifting cliff faces.

A human being who is growing can do many of the same things. Seek opportunities to improve your abilities. Take a class. Read a book. Make an effort to improve your interactions at work or at home. At all costs, resist the temptation to stagnate.

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4. Attend to the Physical

You brain is connected to the rest of your body. If you want it to function properly, you’re going to have to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Exercise daily. Learn which foods clear your mind, and which leave you muzzy-headed. Pay attention to your body’s response to sunlight, fresh air and freedom from constant, oppressive background noises. Everyone’s body is different, so the best way to discover what yours needs is through trial and error.

5. Surround Yourself with Focused, Confident People

We tend to become more like the people we spend time with. Seek out friendships and business contacts that build you up. Avoid social groups that make you feel uncomfortable, looked down upon or incompetent. Learn to trust your own inner compass. Cultivate the company of people who accept you for who you are and inspire you to improve.

Featured photo credit: marykbaird via morguefile.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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