3 steps to training attention on more positive matters

Updated / Saturday, 30 May 2020 08:01

Long jumper Shane Howard remains focused at home on family farm

By Tony Óg Regan

In this week's column, I want to share with you three essential skills to train our attention, energy, and positivity to be at your personal best in your personal, professional and sporting pursuits.

Skill 1
Unplug to recharge

Modern environments and modern living, with their traffic, noise, devices and technology, have caused us to become more distracted.

Our attention spans have become smaller we are consuming up to 174 newspapers a day through scrolling on our phones. We are spending on average three hours per day, 21 hours per week, 84 hours per month and 1,000 hours per year on our phones.

Yet we complain we have not enough time and too little energy. The danger of technology over-consumption is only starting to surface in research. We are potentially seeing higher levels of anxiety and depression in ourselves and in society than ever before.

When consuming all this information our brain is our recording device and with this overload of information it is struggling to differentiate what is helpful or unhelpful to our mind and bodies.

The anticipation of getting a 'like' or seeing new information produces a dopamine hit (feeling of pleasure and satisfaction). The mind and body start to crave these reward hits and we are becoming addicted to this short-term instant gratification hit throughout the day.

Some other negative sides of social media are it can lead us to compare of our lives to others, judgement of what we have achieved or look like, which can have effects on our self esteem and self-worth as people.

When we are scrolling, we are consciously and unconsciously taking in information that might be driving up our stress response. Our subconscious mind, which we operate from 95% of the time, cannot tell whether what I am reading, watching, or hearing is fake or true.

This information does influence our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions. We can feel stressed, angry, irritated by information we are absorbing unknown to ourselves.

We may start to withdraw into ourselves, we may feel lonely or isolated or unloved at times. This can drive us into the stress response, producing a hormone called cortisol, which over a period can cause damage to our immune system and health.

Over-consumption of negative sources of information are like junk food for the mind and brain.


Skill 2
Growing our attention muscle – create space in our mind

From research, the ability to focus our attention on one thing has drifted from 12-13 seconds at the start of the century, to 8-9 seconds in 2013 and I am predicting it could be as low as 4-5 seconds now.

From my observations of top performers, I do not see Seamie Callanan, Michael Jordan or Serena Williams having a cup of coffee, eating a pastry, being on their phone, looking at their laptop and watching TV before or during their performances.

They realise that to reach the highest levels of performance in mind and body they need to reach a level of focus and flow that a lot of society do not actually practice at all.

High performance in the moment is being free from thoughts and distractions. A place where we are totally absorbed in the task right now, that requires a certain level of challenge above our current skill capacity, that we are present in this moment with no reference to the past or future thoughts.

The skill of being totally present.

A picture of focus: Serena Williams

We can train ourselves to be in this place on a consistent basis. I believe we move on a continuum of negative-mind, neutral-mind, positive-mind, to free-mind - where we are free from thought and distraction and expressing our fullest energy, attention, and potential.

This free-mind is a trainable skill we must develop and harness to reach consistent high performance.

How can I practice this?

There are numerous meditation apps and practices we can do to grow our attention muscle and be more present in the moment.

Other ways we can train a more mindful approach include feeling the sensation of the water in the shower or in the sea, the breeze against our face when outdoors, the taste of our food, the heat from the sun on our bodies, the sensation of our feet when walking through nature. How can you anchor some of these rituals now to your daily routines?

By creating these gaps in our thoughts at different intervals throughout the day we get to experience 'free-mind’ and being in the present moment more consistently.

Skill 3
Attitude of appreciation and gratitude

I am very grateful for the life I have right now this morning, I realise there are people in the world who have no home to self-isolate in, no running water to practice personal hygiene, no food to eat, no clothes to wear.

There are people in this country who due to accidents or illness cannot move or exercise, cannot cook or drive, read or write, talk, or hear.

It is important to realise that some of our worries can be very small in the grand scheme of things. To cultivate more joy, positivity and happiness in our lives it is important we stop and savour what is good about our life experiences and circumstances.

Take time out each day to appreciate your life by writing out what is going well today and what you are grateful for is a fantastic way to cultivate more positive emotions in us and in others by the energy we bring to our experiences and interactions with others.

Every cell in our bodies is energy when our inner state is full of joy, love, compassion and kindness for ourselves and others - this is the energy we radiate out to others.

We can raise the mood of ourselves, our communities, and the world. When we practice writing, imagining, and feeling what we appreciate and are grateful for each day we are firing our brain patterns to recognise these experiences more and to search our environment for these experiences and interactions.

Take five minutes each night to cultivate these positive emotions and see your brain start to change from a ‘negativity bias’ to a ‘positive outlook’. Notice how the feelings and experiences in daily life start to shift for you.