When I think about strategies for better living, I consider the rule of E: efficiency, effectiveness and essentialism. Recently, I have been on a kick about cultivating deep focus. In the age of social media and modern technology, we have lost the ability to focus, which is why I have made it my aim to be more mindful.
“Mindfulness” is a hot topic these days, and while more and more people are reading about it, its popularity has paradoxically rendered it devoid of meaning. Tim Ferriss defines “mindfulness” as a present-state awareness that helps you to be non-reactive. That’s a good definition, so let’s go with it. Being non-reactive is essential for deep focus in a world in which we are constantly beleaguered by inputs that distract us, sap our mental energy, and decrease our intellectual output.
Speaking of focus and intellectual output, I have also been on a pretty big reading kick recently. A world-class expert will work for 30 years to figure something out, completely devoting her entire life to one particular question — and you can get all of her knowledge on that subject in a 200-page book that can be read in a weekend. And all for $10-to-$15; that is a pretty good deal.
That is, of course, if you can focus, which brings us full circle back to mindfulness. If you want to read a lot, you have to cultivate “a present state awareness that helps you be non-reactive” so that you can actually pay attention to the lines on the page and not your iPhone.
I do not view reading as a leisure activity. It is serious work — deep work crucial to the success of my business — and it takes effort.
Recently, I have committed to 2 practices that have synergistically helped me focus more deeply (effective), read more efficiently and be more mindful (essential).
Short-Term Skill: How to increase your reading speed by 2x
Here is how you get a lot of reading done very quickly.
Buy the regular book (hardcover or paperback) and then get the unabridged audio version on Audible. Sit down, open the physical book and simultaneously crank the speed up to 2x or even 2.5x on Audible.
Follow along the words with your finger or a pen. You will sap up all the critical information without missing a beat because it is like force-feeding your brain — and you will finish the book in half the time or less. Highly efficient, if you ask me!
I usually start with 1.5x for a few chapters to train my mind and eyes to keep up with the quick pace. It is the same as using a treadmill: high-intensity interval training for the mind. Start slow, get fast gradually, then do “sprints.” I will do 15 minute chunks at a very fast pace, then reduce the speed for a while to give myself a cognitive break before getting back to it.
This is especially useful for times when you just need to “get through” a book because it has vital info, like business/marketing/money book. It is how I got through Tony Robbins’ new behemoth in 3 days, for example.
Another ancillary benefit is that it gets you super focused on what is being said because you are using not just 1, but 2 senses (sight and sound) to absorb the material as you follow along. There is no room for distraction! That is what we call hyper-focused, and it is awesome.
Long-Term Skill: How to quiet your mind (and be more mindful)
Meditation is the practice to be more mindful. On a practical level, I like to explain meditating as taking a dedicated amount of time to focus on your breath and acknowledge thoughts as they come. Instead of “boom! blank mind! yes!” the mission is to channel your focus on connecting with the breath as it fills and empties from the lungs. When a thought comes by (and trust me, you will have many thoughts while meditating), simply say, “I just had that thought. Interesting. I am now going to go back to focusing on my breathing.”
Just as we are bombarded with a million texts, pings and stimulations coming at us — giving attention to distractions we had no intention of ever consuming — we are equally consumed by our own thoughts. We often give each of them equal attention and consideration, which breathes life into an endless wave of new and often unconstructive thoughts. And the cycle repeats.
Meditation allows you to see each thought for what it is — a make believe object — and gives you the perspective and training to look beyond it.
Moments of blank mind and pure bliss just start to happen and the frequency will increase over time with more practice. Most importantly, you slow down your mind, connect with self and improve overall self-awareness.
Here is how I started: Find a relaxing chair or couch and sit at its edge. Close your eyes and commit to taking 100 breaths. Deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Count them aloud in your head. The numbers will be mesmerizing in a way and will help anchor your thoughts from going all over the place. It will take about 10 minutes to get through one session. That is it.
Believe me, it is hard to just sit and do “nothing.” Simple relaxation can cause anxiety. There is a trigger in the human brain that goes off when it feels like we are not “doing” enough. After all, the brain is designed to solve problems, first and foremost.
When the brain has nothing to solve, that absence itself becomes the problem.
So in a sense, meditation is solving the biggest problem of all: just teaching us how to be. It is the hardest thing you will ever do, and it is also the simplest thing in the world.
Meditation is the eternal retreat. Even when things get tough, you can always find that “space within” as Michael Neill would call it. But just like driving to a physical location, you have to make many trips there before you can find your way without a map. And if you do not go there often enough, you will forget the route. Thus, the value of consistency is in the practice.
Image credit: CC by BMiz