Awake at the Wheel

Exploring the intersection between work, play, and the creative process.

7 Ways to Enhance Focus, Creativity, Productivity and Performance

7 ways to improve focus, creativity, productivity and performance.

Back in my corporate lawyer days, there was one guy who everyone hated.

Not because he was mean or underhanded or cut-throat. He was actually quite nice and always willing to help. People hated him because he was good. Superstar good.

While everyone else fretted and froze under the dizzying pace and pressure of the job, he seemed to always keep it together, to thrive and even come alive as the fire got hotter.

He wasn’t an adrenaline junkie or cowboy. He was actually a pretty level-headed guy. But he just seemed to process things faster, do things differently and see things everyone else missed. And that gave him an edge. An edge everyone else wished they had.

I used to wonder what he was doing differently. Whether he was just wired that way. Maybe it was genetic. Or perhaps there was something else going on. All I knew is I wanted an answer.

Because if it wasn’t genetic, if it was something that could be learned, I wanted to know.

I never figured it out before I left the law. But I also never gave up the quest, because I began to see this phenomenon across all professions and all industries. A handful of seemingly bright, but regular people regularly dusted everyone around them. And, it wouldn't be long until my experience as an entrepreneur in the lifestyle and wellness industry and my exposure to certain Eastern-derived practices began to fill in the gaps.

Turns out, there are a handful of things most super-performers do different that underlie or, at least substantially accelerate their success.

Time for Mindset Domination Strategy #2.

In part 1 of this series, we introduced the first of three little-known practices that turbo-charge your creativity, productivity and develop breakout problem-solving ability—Building In Space. We showed how completely removing yourself from the creative or problem solving process can often be the fastest path to an innovative, revolutionary solution.

Now, it’s time to add to our arsenal with strategy #2 - – Attentional Training

There’s one very special thing that many do, religiously, that really helps push them over the edge from good to professional super-power good. And while many do it intentionally, far more don’t even realize they do it. Or, they don’t realize how or why it works or how critical it is to their success.

I wonder when the last time you felt any of these was?

  • Stressed,
  • Anxious,
  • Tired,
  • Unfocused,
  • Depressed,
  • Moody or
  • Burned-out.

Reality is, everyone experiences these on some level virtually every day, but your ability to handle, quickly recover from and master these states so often makes the difference between worker-bee and executive suite in the high stakes world of business. Think about it, what is the corollary to the above states?

  • Calm
  • Content
  • Energized
  • Highly-focused
  • Upbeat
  • Even-keeled and
  • Optimistic

There is a simple daily practice that has the ability to not only make the dramatic changes in mindset and operating state noted above, but alter your “attentional” abilities to literally allow you to see things others miss.

This hugely-beneficial daily practice is called Attentional Training (AT) and it comes in many formats, both active and seated (heck, even lying down). Regardless of how it pursed, though, the critical elements always include the cultivation of high-levels of sustained focus that are required either by instruction or by the intrinsic nature of the activity.

How powerful is this practice?

Done right, AT induces a psycho-physiological state where your heart-rate, blood pressure and levels of stressor hormones all drop precipitously, while your attention becomes highly-focused. And, inducing this state on a regular basis not only helps your mindset, it dramatically lowers your risk for heart-disease, diabetes, and various other life-limiting conditions. It helps you sleep deeper, longer and wake fewer times at night and it can lower anxiety, stress and depression. That’s where the focus has been in most of the research.

More recently, though, we’ve discovered these practices have a monumental impact on professional performance.

Back in 2007, a team of researchers from China and the University of Oregon reported a study that showed improvements in a person's attention and response to stress after only 5-days of practicing their specialized IBMT protocol (more on this later). The lead investigator’s wrote, “after training the experimental group showed less cortisol release, indicating a greater improvement stress regulation. The experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than was the case in the control group.”

Other studies back up these conclusions and one fascinating study reported in Live Science even revealed improvement in what has been termed “attentional blink” after 3-months of a more intensive form of training.

How to see what everyone else misses...

Apparently when we’re shown two images in rapid succession, most of us don’t see the second image, because we are busy processing the first. It’s almost as if we had blinked. That means, all day long, we are literally not seeing things that are right in front of us. In fact, most of the time, we don't even see a good part of the first image. Don't believe me?

Take a look back at the photo of the monkeys above and see if there's something, oh, just a bit unusual about the one on the left.

Researchers studying a very intensive form of AT called insight meditation discovered that, after three months of training, people were able to see far more of the “second” images than those who were not similarly trained.

With Attentional Training, they could literally see what everyone around them missed.

I wonder how much of an edge that would give you in business and life?

The C-Suite climbs on board

Constantly driven to be better at what they do, the mounting research has led more and more C-suite leaders and thinkers to engage in this practice.

According to an article in Fortune Magazine:

Devotees include junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Mike Milken; Bill George, the former Medtronic CEO; ad industry mogul Renetta McCann; and NBA coach Phil Jackson. Silicon Valley is full of meditators, such as Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, and Larry Brilliant, head of Google's philanthropic efforts. Naturally, a crew of Google employees has organized twice-weekly open meditation hours, at which it has hosted Tibetan monks and a team of mind-science researchers….Particularly hard-core is Bob Shapiro, the former CEO of Monsanto, who has done three ten-day silent retreats and is considering a 30-day tour.

In that same article, bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and master business networker, Keith Ferrazzi, reveals the key to connecting is “not being an asshole” and cites the most effective path to be AT.

It works, whether you want it to or not

Well, that sounds interesting, comes the reply, but I don’t go for that namby-pamby mindset voodoo crap. Plus, I can tell you that most of the people I know with that magical professional edge don’t do all of the things mentioned above.

Maybe not, at least in the formalized way I just laid out. But, here’s the interesting thing—though few people have a dedicated AT practice, many super-performers actually do bring the critical elements of this practice into their lives every day without even knowing it. And, it’s those unwitting AT practitioners who tend to lead the professional pack. As you pour through the variety of ways to access the AT state below, this will become much clearer.

Okay, so that’s the what, now let’s get into the how…

AT takes many forms and, different approaches tend to work better with different people. So, here are 7 different approaches, each studied and considered to be highly-effective.

  • Active-AT – This I how the vast majority of business super-performers get their AT in. In fact, many of us invoke the major elements of AT during specific types of sports, serious hobbies like painting, composing or playing music, knitting or outdoor activities without even realizing it. Look for activities that either: (a) by their intrinsic nature, require an intense state of concentration for an extended period of time, or (b) are repetitive and deliberate, allowing you melt into that elusive “zone” state. So, trail-running, which requires intense observation, concentration and adjustment would be example of the first, while track running would be an example of the second. The point is, the right kind of physical activity can induce the relaxation-response state. And, over time that psycho-physiological training filters past health to business performance. Ask any top-level executive who runs every day and they’ll tell you. It’s not just about fitness, but about the effect on mindset and creation of the “edge.”
  • Insight Training/Meditation – this is the technique that was studied with regard to reducing the attentional blink. It is a specialized form of meditation/AT that grows out of Buddhism (though you do not need to be a Buddhist to practice or benefit from it) and is highly effective at delivering a wide range of benefits. But the training can be fairly intensive, even requiring 10 hours a day for weeks at a time. So, though it is incredibly powerful, for most, it is not an easily accessible first-step. Interestingly, though, it appears similar benefits are derived from the other forms of AT and, upon further study, the reduction in attentional blink may, in fact, be a benefit of most sustained AT practices. Future research will tell. Insight resources include:
  • Biofeedback – Biofeedback has been around for decades and has been well-studied as a form of stress-management and state-change. It is a great tool for those more “science” oriented who want immediate, objective feedback. There are many approaches, but, generally, you use a simple machine that reads various biological markers, like pulse, galvanic skin response, temperature, and then direct your focus on changing those markers to bring them into a target range. Biofeedback machines and audio program are now very inexpensive and can be learned and used at home. Some resources include:
    • Stress Eraser - very cool, iPod-size, high-tech biofeedback device
    • BioMedical.com - online clearinghouse for devices, information and audio/video
  • Classical meditation – A vast array of approaches to meditation abound, with the similar element of requiring you to train your attention on anything from your breath to a prayer, phrase, candle-flame, set of numbers and more. While highly-effective over time, many people find it extremely challenging to keep focus, get frustrated and give up on a practice that could have become hugely impactful. Reality is, it takes a long time before you feel any level of mastery and impact with this approach, which makes it important to find a technique, tool or teacher that really resonates with and supports your quest. Some resources include:
  • Psychoacoustics - In the 1970s, neuroscientists developed a technology that delivered slightly different, often inaudible tones into each ear simultaneously and found that by manipulating the frequency different between these tones, they were able to entrain brain waves in specific states. It was hailed by many as meditation for those who couldn't meditate, because it seemed to work without the participant having to maintain a rigid point of focus. Since then, A number of researchers have build goal-specific audio programs and tools around this technology in an effort to allow more people to use these tools. Resources include:
  • Integrative body mind training (IBMT) - This is the form of AT that was used in the University Oregon study discussed above. You can learn more about the science and the practice at Dr. Yi Yuan's website. It seems to offer all of the benefits of AT, but three unique features may, in fact, lead this to become amongst the fastest adopted and most widely form of AT to hit the U.S. in a long time.
    • One, it does not require rigid focusing of the mind on one thing for an extended period of time, a practice that most people find extremely difficult.
    • Two, it appears the benefits can be experienced extremely quickly, in as little as 5-days, and
    • Three, the practice can be done fairly quickly, allowing almost anyone to fit it into their day.

Wanna jump right in today?

Here’s a simple technique and to get you started with a very basic, accessible 10-minute daily seated practice.

  1. Find a quiet place
  2. Sit in a comfortable upright position with your hands on your knees
  3. Close your eyes and take 10 breaths, letting your exhale get longer and longe with each one
  4. Starting at a very gentle pace, begin to count backwards from 100 by threes, saying each number softly or just sub-lingualizing them with every inhale and exhale. So, for example, inhale and think and say 100, exhale, think and say 97, inhale, think and say 94 and so on. If you get a number wrong, just let it go, say the right one and move one.
  5. When this becomes easy or a few days or week in, pick up the pace a little bit until it becomes easy again. Then, bump the top number by 25 and keep practicing and bumping pace until it gets easy again. Keep at this until the whole practice takes about 20-minutes and give it a few weeks.
  6. Let go of any expectations and see what unfolds...we're all meant to suck at it in the beginning!

There are so many ways to explore AT and access the states that it creates. And, it is important to note that, while the focus of this article is on the "professional" impact of these practice, there is also a very clear and profound impact that reaches deeply into all aspects of your life. That discussion is for a future article.

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Jonathan Fields is the author of Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love.  He writes and speaks on meaningful work, entrepreneurship, peak performance and creativity at JonathanFields.com and is a twitter heavy-user at @jonathanfields


Jonathan Fields is an attorney turned lifestyle-entrepreneur, speaker, and author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance.

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