Is it possible to break through the noise to reduce stress and become more focused?
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Sometimes we seem magically able to give our full attention to the activity that we are doing. Creatives call this being in the ‘zone.’
Whether it is writing an email or playing in a tennis match it has our full focus, our mind does not wander and we look up to see that a considerable amount of time has passed. It is in this state that we perform at our best.
In terms of the human condition, however, it is rare. Scientists believe that we have between 20,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day and only about 5% of these thoughts are spent on the task in hand. The rest is Noise.
So what is this Noise that fills up so much of our mind and our time? Past Noise is the universal tendency to dwell on the past and to replay situations in our mind that cannot be changed.
It often results in the negative emotions we felt in the past being re-experienced. This is different to calm, balanced reflection assessing and learning the lessons from what has gone before. In fact it is often said that successful people consider their failures fully but quickly, and then move on to the course-correct. They will tend to dwell on past successes rather than failures.
Future Noise, you won’t be surprised to know, is the vast amount of time we spend worrying about the future, or more accurately possible potential futures.
There’s a lovely quote from mark Twain which we can probably all relate to – ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’ We imagine each of these potential futures in minute detail, constructing little mental movies in our mind.
In extreme cases worrying about the past leads to depression and worrying about the future leads to anxiety. It is easy to get lost in the thoughts around Past and Future Noise, to be drawn down a spiral of automatic negative thoughts, with one negative thought leading to the next.
In the Mind Fitness programme Andy and I call these automatic negative thoughts ANTS. It is important to know how to keep the ANTS at bay.
Mindfulness has been proven to substantially quieten the Noise that crowds and clutters our mind. It brings our attention to the present moment in order to experience life more clearly and more fully. In the ‘zone’ we are, of course, operating in the ‘Now.’
This is a quick exercise that will halt the spiral. It is the mnemonic of now, so it’s very easy to remember.
N – Notice – just glance around and notice one thing that you can see.
O – Observe – bring close attention to the object that you have chosen, Observe it in detail.
W – Wonder – bring a spirit of curiosity to the object. A negative thought cannot co-exist with positive engaged interest.
Another very common type of Noise is Negative Self-Talk. It is the things we tell ourselves we cannot do. Most of us have a fair few that we can bring to mind without too much difficulty. I’m not the sort of person who can learn a language / understand tech / do maths / meditate. The list is endless.
Our self-criticism can also be intensely personal and judgemental; we say things to ourselves we would never say to anyone else. For some this negative self-talk can be like living with a gremlin, always ready to leap out and attack.
For a week or so keep a notebook and write down the negative self-talk that comes into your mind. Some of it will probably surprise you. Beside each negative phrase, write the opposite, the positive equivalent. ‘I am great at maths’ ‘I find learning languages easily.’ Don’t worry if you don’t yet believe it, still write it down.
After a week or so pick a few that you would really like to change and develop a Positive Affirmation for each of these. This is a sentence that you can repeat each day. It works best if it is present tense ‘I am good with spiders’ rather than ‘I will be ..’ and avoid a double negative as in ‘I am not afraid of spiders.’
There is also some research showing that it works best if you say the Affirmation out loud, so do this if you can. We change our mindset by building new neural pathways related to our new thoughts and beliefs; it takes about six weeks for the new pathway to become the stronger route, (our brain always takes the route of least resistance) so give this time to work.
Clearing your mind of some of the clutter and noise will bring down your base level of stress and improve your concentration and overall performance. It will also give you back a considerable amount of time each day as you avoid the spirals and rabbit holes that have become so much part of our busy stressful lives.
Unlock You by Andy Barker and Beth Wood is out now, published by Pearson, priced £12.99.