Blog Archives

A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

iStock_000002128470XSmall

I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established. 

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again. 

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

 After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

 Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.  


Harnessing Radical Acceptance & “I Want” Power to Enhance Self-Control

APA-BlogDayBadge-2014The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that persuades you to get up to meditate and exercise when you feel like staying in bed, helps you to resist the extra helping of dessert, and motivates you to start working on the project that you feel like putting off until tomorrow.  According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University,  the main purpose of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards choosing to do “the harder thing.” 

Kelly McGonigal describes the three regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in motivating us to make the harder choices as specializing in “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. The region near the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex handles “I will” power. It helps you start and stick to boring, difficult or stressful tasks. The right side of the prefrontal cortex specializes in “I won’t” power, helping you resist urges.  The third region, in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, focuses on your desires, goals and priorities and helps you decide what you really want in life, then set the intention to pursue it.  

I am getting much better at “I won’t” power.  I am much more able to resist unhealthy food choices than I used to be and I am successfully losing weight. I have made a lot of progress with “I will” power, as demonstrated by my efforts to add daily meditation and exercise to my routine.  When I do concentration meditation focusing on lengthening the breath in the morning I am much more likely to choose to exercise that day.  I did it 5 days in a row one week and then 3 times the following week. However, it is still very easy for me to fall out of the habit. 

The good news is that I am motivating myself to get back on the horse much sooner than ever before.  Partly this is because I am not judging my lapses in discipline as failures.  I am practicing what Sharon Salzberg refers to as “stealth meditation,” incorporating mindfulness into my day, not just during formal meditation practice. One form of stealth meditation is practicing radical acceptance and self-compassion over and over again when I have setbacks in my efforts towards achieving my goals. That helps me get back on track faster.  The other thing that is helping me get back on track is that I am investing a lot of “I want” power into this endeavor.  I have made a commitment to keep working on developing healthy self-care habits and I am quite persistent when I am determined to accomplish a particular goal. 

In what ways do you use “I will” power, “I won’t” power, and “I want” power? Which of these forms of willpower are challenging for you? What do you do to try to overcome these challenges? Please share your thoughts  in the comments section below.

For information about Mental Health Blog Day and to read other contributor’s posts, follow this link:  http://ow.ly/wSKlZ 

 

If you are interested in reading more about Kelly McGonigal and “The Willpower Instinct,” you can read the following posts:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

For more information about Sharon Salzberg’s meditation strategies, you can read:

Seeking the Middle Way

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness


Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

iStock_000002128470XSmallBalance continues to elude me.  My private practice became busier than usual in the weeks before Passover, when my personal life also requires more of my time, so there was no time for writing and this blog was neglected.  Not only that, but it also complicated my attempts to get back on track with my efforts to add exercise to my balancing act.  I had successfully moved past the obstacles I wrote about last month and was back to meditating every day and exercising 4 times per week. That lasted two weeks and then I got so preoccupied with work and family obligations that it fell apart again.  I am back on track with the meditation but the exercise is still a challenge.

I returned to Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, for additional inspiration. She mentions that daily breath focus meditation can teach the mind how to handle inner distractions, such as cravings, worries and desires, as well as outer distractions, such as sights, sounds and smells.

I realized that I had gotten away from basics in my meditation practice. I have been focusing more on guided compassion and reflection meditations,  and wasn’t taking time to focus on the breath.  So I am getting back to basics. 

Kelly McGonigal also describes the benefits of slowing down our breathing to 4-6 breaths per minute, 10-15 seconds per breath.  Slower breathing improves heart rate variability (the moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat variations in heart rate) and  activates the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in self-regulation). This helps shift the brain from stress mode to self-control mode. According to McGonigal, a few minutes of slowed breathing can give the willpower reserve a boost, helping us to feel “calm, in control and capable of handling cravings or challenges.” 

Here are the steps Kelly McGonigal describes in her book:

  1. Time yourself to see how many breaths you normally take  in a minute.
  2. Begin to slow down your breathing, without holding your breath.
  3. Focus on exhaling slowly by pursing your lips and blowing out gently and completely.  Exhaling in this way will also enable you to breathe in more  deeply.
  4. After a few minutes of breathing this way, time yourself  again to see how many breaths you are now taking in a minute.  Heart rate variability starts to increase once you get below 12 breaths per minute and continues to improve steadily as your breathing gets slower.
  5. Daily practice will help you to slow down your breathing even more, which will maximize heart rate variability, pre-frontal cortex activation and the ability to handle self-control challenges. 

My plan is to start my mornings with a form of breath meditation that focuses on lengthening the breath, to help me choose to exercise.  The initial results are promising.  On the first morning I did the breath meditation I not only went to the gym, but I also chose a healthier breakfast than I felt like eating and resisted the urge to procrastinate. The next day I exercised again and had other similar improvements.I will keep you posted and let you know how it works out.  :-)

Please add your comments below and share this post on twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites. 

You also might be interested in reading:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self for more about “The Willpower Instinct.”

 What is an Interoceptive Body Scan Meditation? for more about heart rate variability.

 

 


The Greatest Love of All

The greatest love of all
     Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
     Inside of me
                                                  The greatest love of all
                                                       Is easy to achieve
                                                  Learning to love yourself
                                                       It is the greatest love of all

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe song, The Greatest Love of All, has a lot of meaning for me.   I resonate with its lyrics on a deep level.  And I love to sing.  Singing is one way I express myself.  I have fond memories of belting out the words of this song, with great feeling, with a close friend. It was a very empowering experience.

Singing can also be a form of meditation for me.  I choose a song that speaks to me and sing it mindfully, several times in a row, while reflecting on its meaning and how it impacts me and my life.  On several occasions, I have meditated on this particular song.  One thing that I have reflected about is that learning to love myself was not “easy to achieve.”  It was a journey that involved many years of therapy and other growth work. But once I reached that destination, I discovered how powerful self-love can be. 

I’m not saying that I am perfect at it.   I still have occasional doubts.  During the Real Happiness Meditation Challenge  this month, I discovered that these moments of doubt are more easily overcome with regular meditation practice.  I came to appreciate that mindfulness of emotions, letting go of emotions and thoughts, lovingkindness meditation, and shifting the balance to more frequent mindful noting of the  positive, were a powerful combination of practices that have already helped me to strengthen my self-awareness, self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-regulation, and self-love.

It has been two months since I began to develop my daily meditation habit. Now, even when I falter for a day or two, I easily get back on track.  It no longer feels like an effort to meditate daily. It feels like a part of me. 


Realistic Optimism is Key to Success

It was more difficult to maintain my meditation practice this week.  I did fine until Thursday when I was running late for work and didn’t get a chance to meditate until the afternoon.  Then Friday I had to leave early for an all day symposium and didn’t get up early enough to meditate before I left. To my credit, I set the intention to meditate that night, but then had company until late and only did a few minutes of meditation before I fell asleep.  The following morning I almost forgot to meditate.  Only two days’ disruption to my meditation schedule and already I was slipping.  How easy it is to lose momentum!

Today, I had an early appointment again.  This time I made a commitment to make sure that I had enough time to meditate before I left. I am happy to report that I succeeded!

iStock_000002128470XSmallSo, the good news is that I got right back on track. The glass is more than half full. I meditated 6 out of 7 days this week. 

I used to get down on myself when I fell short of a  goal and tended to see the glass as half empty, so I doubted my ability to succeed and it ended up being harder to motivate myself to keep trying. Then I became so accepting of my difficulties that I stopped trying to improve. Even though I saw the glass as half full, it didn’t feel possible to fill the other half, so I accepted the status quo as good enough.  Now, when I fall short of a goal, I try to give myself credit for the steps I have taken towards the goal and recognize where there is room for improvement.  This helps me to be realistic about my accomplishments and obstacles and feel optimistic about my capabilities. Recent research indicates that this type of realistic optimism helps maximize success.

Sophia Chou, an organizational psychology researcher at National Taiwan University, presented her research findings at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in August, 2013. She discovered that realistic optimists have a positive outlook about the future and an accurate perspective about current challenges, They tended to be more successful than idealistic optimists who had positive illusions rather than accurate appraisals of their capabilities or pessimists who were realistic but had negative expectations for the future. Chou found that realistic optimists had more confidence in their self-control and influence over relationships, so they could stay hopeful about the future, even while acknowledging present challenges. For further information on this study: http://www.livescience.com/39128-optimistic-realists-do-best.html.

 Are you a realistic optimist, idealistic optimist, or a pessimist?  How do you think your perspective impacts your ability to achieve your goals? Is there anything you now want to change? What first step can you take to help develop a new perspective?


One Good Habit Leads to Another

Last week I wrote about my intention to take my meditation practice to the next level and make it a daily practice.  I have now successfully finished my second week of daily meditation and I’ve noticed something. Even though I planned to wait to work on being more consistent about exercise so I could dedicate myself to developing one habit at a time, I ended up going to the gym twice this week anyway.  I just felt like doing it.

iStock_000002128470XSmallIn last week’s post, I mentioned research that showed that self-control was like a muscle that can get tired and needs rest.  However,  according to research by Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, participants who exercised self-discipline on a regular basis in regards to one habit,  also  showed  improved willpower with other habits.  So self-control also resembles a muscle in that it strengthens with exercise.

There is another way that I had more practice this week.  I was more distractible a few mornings this week, so I had much more practice bringing my attention back to my meditation over and over again, which gave me a lot more practice in self-discipline.

Even though I successfully exercised twice this week, I am still not committing to exercising regularly yet.  I am going to continue my plan to work on one habit at a time to maximize my success. This raises the question, how long do I need to continue my daily meditation practice before it becomes an automatic habit? 

According to success coach and best-selling author Jack Canfield, it takes 30 days for a new neural pathway to be established. He recommends 30 day experiments to try out new behaviors, and an additional 2-3 months to reinforce them. According to Loretta Breuning, PhD of MeetYourHappyChemicals.com, our brains need 45 days of repetition for a new habit to start feeling normal.  And according to a University College London study, it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become an automatic habit, depending on the complexity of the behavior, among other factors.  Given the above, I decided to give myself two months to develop my meditation habit before I move on to focusing on other goals.

Since the literature does not yet have a consensus about how long it takes to establish a new positive habit, I am curious to know what your experience has been. How long has it taken you to develop a new habit? Has it taken different lengths of time for different types of habits? 


A New Blog for the New Year

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe New Year is a time of reflection and rededication to striving to overcome  bad habits.  In reflecting on my own personal growth journey and the areas that continue to challenge me, I decided it was time to work on it in a more disciplined and structured way.  My old way of approaching things has helped me only so far.  Now I have decided that I need to shift the balance.  Up until now, I emphasized acceptance over change, when it came to personal habits.  I accepted my own difficulty maintaining structure and the need to keep starting over and over again.

This new blog is part of the new plan.

Setting my intentions and committing to them publicly is a way of holding myself accountable and receiving support for my efforts.  I also plan to be more systematic in my approach.  Instead of trying to change several things at once, I am learning from my experience.  What I noticed is that when I focused on being more disciplined about one thing, it became harder to be more disciplined about another thing. Recently, I was going to the gym twice a week and exercising at home other mornings.  When I tried to be more structured in my meditation practice, my exercise routine suffered.  So I intend to focus on one goal at a time and to stick with that goal until it is a more automatic part of my routine before trying to change something else.

There is some research to back up this approach.  In a review by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in the 2000 edition of the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 126, No. 2) entitled, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?”, the authors concluded that the inhibition component of executive functioning relies on a limited, consumable resource, that needs replenishment.  Resisting temptation to indulge in extra sleep or go on the computer instead of meditating in the morning, for example, would make it harder to exert self-control to follow through on exercising.

So once meditating is more of an automatic habit, then it won’t be using up my self-control reserve and I can apply it to become more consistent about exercise.  So far, I have meditated every morning for the past week.  I am off to a good start!

Now the question remains, how long do I need to work on meditation before I can move on to focus on exercise? More on that in next week’s post.

 What intentions are you setting for the new year?  What strategies are you using to try to achieve your goals?