Cognitive deficits — problems with processing information, learning, and remembering — are common in MS, but some practical solutions can help.
“The hardest thing is that Ellen often can’t remember what she’s doing,” Richard Friedman, 42, told his wife’s multiple sclerosis (MS) support group in San Francisco recently. “She’ll leave a pot cooking and never think about it until the smoke alarm goes off. She’ll be talking with you and completely forget what she was saying. It’s hard for both of us.”
Ellen, 45, is a former school teacher.
Ellen’s attention loss is called a “cognitive deficit.” Other cognitive (thinking) deficits include difficulty learning new information and remembering it, slowed processing of information, and problems with planning and organization.
According to a paper published in the October 2018 issue of the Multiple Sclerosis Journal and endorsed by the National Medical Advisory Board of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) as well as the International Multiple Sclerosis Cognition Society, cognitive deficits affect up to 65 percent of people with MS.
As with other symptoms of MS, cognitive deficits can range from very mild to severe. Early and ongoing screening for cognitive changes can help identify problems and the strategies to manage them at home and at work.
Just like physical symptoms of MS, cognitive symptoms result from damage to the myelin covering of nerve fibers in the brain and the nerve fibers themselves. Since the areas of damage are different in different people, the effects on cognition vary from person to person.
Depending on the cognitive symptoms you’re experiencing and their severity, the following suggestions may help you manage your symptoms, minimize their impact on your life, and prevent new symptoms.
Sponsored Advertising Content
From Diagnosis to Finding the Right Treatment for Her: Sara’s Relapsing MS Story
To Stay Focused, Avoid Multitasking
Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, a psychologist and a consultant for the NMSS, says, “In MS, divided attention tasks, or paying attention to more than one thing at a time, are frequently affected.”
To improve your ability to focus on any one task, don’t multitask!
Ellen has learned to apply this rule to avoid burning things. “I stay in the kitchen until everything is finished and turned off,” she says. “Or if I can’t do that, I set a timer to remind me to check in, even if I’m just boiling water.”
When Ellen drives, she says, “I leave the radio off and don’t talk to people. If there are passengers, I ask them to keep quiet. I set my GPS for every trip to remind me where I’m going. I have to keep things simple, but it works.”
Conversations usually go better if the participants are focused on what’s being said. Rosalind Kalb, PhD, a psychologist and a consultant for the NMSS in New York City, recommends “taking conversations into a quiet place, keeping eye contact with people you are talking to, turning off the television, and removing other distracting stimuli.”
Even when you’re not trying to do two or more things at once, noises or activities around you can distract you from your task, and distraction is an attention-killer.
When you need to concentrate on something, consider wearing earplugs to cut out background noise. If possible, take “mind breaks” in a dark, quiet environment when you need to.
Write It Down to Remember It
Louise Fletcher, 61, a librarian from Vallejo, California, has had progressive MS for 20 years. She says her memory is “not good, but I’m very organized.” She keeps little notebooks for different parts of her life. She has books for each child and grandchild, and for shopping, home repair, cleaning, and her art projects. She consults her notebooks regularly and writes everything she needs to remember in the appropriate book.
Fletcher applies her “write it down” practice to cooking, too. She forgets recipes and forgets what she has already done to a dish, so she’s made many copies of her favorite recipes. As she cooks, she crosses off each step in the instructions until she gets everything done.
Other Tips for Managing Cognitive Symptoms
A number of other self-help measures, as well as a couple to discuss with your healthcare provider, can help with other mental tasks if you’re having trouble, the NMSS recommends:
Organizing Your Environment We’re not all natural organizers like Fletcher. But having a place for everything and being consistent in where you put things will make it easier to find what you want.
Paying Attention to Your Mood Depression, which is one of the most common symptoms of MS, can impact your cognition. The National MS Society recommends early and ongoing screening for depression to identify and address significant mood changes.
Relaxing The less stressed you are, the better your focus will be. Try meditating, praying, practicing yoga, petting an animal, or doing relaxation exercises to lower your stress levels. According to the Mayo Clinic, relaxation techniques can reduce fatigue and improve concentration and mood.
Getting Enough Sleep Getting adequate sleep protects your store of energy. Fatigue brings on cognitive problems, so save your hard thinking for more rested times. Take frequent breaks from mental tasks.
Training Your Brain Exercising your mind is an important part of staying healthy with MS, and there’s some evidence, per a study published in July 2018 in the journal Disability and Health Journal, that computer-assisted cognitive training programs may help.
But these programs are not the same as commercially available “brain training” games sold online, some of which may help, and some of which likely do not. The creators of Lumosity, for example, agreed in January 2016 to pay $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges alleging they deceived customers with unfounded claims of reducing or delaying cognitive decline.
On the other hand, a study published in June 2015 in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair that focused on the Nintendo game Brain Age suggested it might improve cognitive function and cognitive fatigue.
Engaging in a variety of noncomputer mental activities, such as reading, playing Scrabble, or doing arithmetic in your head can also help keep your mind healthy.
Seeking Cognitive Rehabilitation Talk to your doctor about seeing a rehabilitation specialist for an evaluation. Depending on the results, you may be referred for treatment to a neuropsychologist, occupational therapist, or speech language pathologist.
Additional reporting by Brian P. Dunleavy.
Short-term memory loss and slowed information processing can be very real issues for people with multiple sclerosis.
During his career as a litigator, Milwaukee-based lawyer Jeffrey Gingold, 55, would often find himself facing a judge and jury with his client’s fate in his hands. “I had to have every bit of the client’s information, the case, and the law on the tip of my tongue at all times,” he says.
But this became somewhat challenging for Gingold because of the multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms he experienced, particularly the cognitive ones.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), as many as half of all people with MS experience problems with learning and remembering information, organizing and problem-solving, and being able to focus their attention.
Gingold, who was diagnosed with MS in his thirties, stopped practicing law in 2001 because of cognitive issues.
“You couldn’t stop a proceeding to say, ‘Let me think about this,'” he says. “I didn’t want my mistakes to endanger someone’s well-being. I stepped away before that could happen.” Gingold has written two books based on his experience: Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis and Mental Sharpening Stones: Manage the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis.
Understanding MS Cognitive Impairment
“This is a very real issue for many people with MS,” says Robert W. Charlson, MD, assistant professor in the departments of neurology and psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center and a psychiatrist with its Multiple Sclerosis Comprehensive Care Center in New York City.
“It is separate from depression, mood issues, and fatigue that can accompany MS and affect concentration. Those conditions can make concentration issues worse, but we are talking about a separate entity in and of itself,” Dr. Charlson says.
MS-related attention problems are also different from more common attention problems, says Nicholas LaRocca, PhD, vice president of health care delivery and policy research at the National MS Society. “What you don’t typically see in MS is a simple inability to focus,” Dr. LaRocca says.
Instead, MS-related attention problems are often related to multitasking or to quickly switching the attention back and forth between competing thoughts or tasks. For example, people with MS can become extremely distracted if someone talks to them while they are doing household chores.
This type of cognitive problem can arise for several reasons, LaRocca says. “Most important is the fact that the ability to process information is often slowed in MS. In addition, due to short-term memory problems, they can lose their train of thought and momentarily forget where they were in a task.”
Exactly why this happens is not fully understood.
“People with MS develop plaques in their brain that interfere with the brain’s ability to communicate with other parts of the brain,” says Norton Winer, MD, division chief of neurology at UH Regional Hospitals’ Richmond Campus in Ohio and assistant clinical professor of neurology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. “We think these connections get knocked out by damage from MS.”
9 Tips for Staying Focused
If you have attention problems associated with MS, try these expert-recommended tips to help stay focused:
Avoid multitasking. Multitasking is especially difficult for people with MS-related attention problems, Dr. Charlson says.
Gingold takes that one step further. “MS wiped out any ability I had to multitask, which can be as simple as having a conversation with several people at the dinner table to as complicated as trying to do something on the computer,” he says. “Instead of trying to do several things at once, make a list of each task you have to do, and complete one at a time.”
Minimize distractions. “Try to create an environment that allows you to be as distraction-free as possible,” says Rosalind Kalb, PhD, vice president of the professional resource center at the NMSS. Find a quiet place to do work, keep eye contact with people you are talking with, and turn off the television and remove other stimulation when you need to focus, Dr. Kalb advises.
Get plenty of sleep. Fatigue impacts your cognitive functioning, so make sure you get sufficient rest. “If you are deprived of sleep, you may have trouble with all sorts of tasks, and obviously attention as well,” LaRocca says. Work with your healthcare team to learn strategies to minimize disruptions in your sleep.
Know your limits. “And don’t test them,” Dr. Winer says. “I tell patients they have a neurologic reserve, so if they are going 500 miles an hour, they should take two steps back to avoid burning out.” Put another way, set aside time to rest and recharge. “In MS, the cognitive cloudiness is telling you that your brain is tired,” Winer says.
Take precautions when driving. “When you are driving a car, you’ve got stimulation coming into every sense,” Kalb says. “A person with MS who has attention problems has real difficulty putting all of that together.” She advises turning off the radio, minimizing any other distractions, and staying focused on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
Choose a “safe” person. “Whether it’s a friend or spouse or grown child, find someone who understands what you are dealing with so when you have a [difficult] moment, you don’t need to explain,” Gingold says. His wife and children, ages 18 and 21, are his safe people.
Exercise. Physical activity may lead to small yet appreciable improvements in cognition, fatigue, depression, and overall quality of life, according to a review article in the September 2015 issue of Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. Talk with your doctor about the most appropriate exercise plan for you, Charlson says.
Consider getting cognitive help. There are cognitive rehabilitation programs that can help improve the ability to focus for people with MS, Charlson says. Participants learn about daily planning and pacing to function better, he says. Ask your neurologist for recommendations.
Treat the MS. “We know that we can help with disease symptoms, decrease relapses, and make the brain scans look better with MS treatment,” Winer says. “It’s been hard to show any effect on the brain or in the preservation of cognitive function, but we think these drugs are helpful for cognition.”
Charlson adds that diagnosing and treating depression in MS can also make a difference and may have spillover benefits into cognitive issues.
Additional reporting by Krisha McCoy.
I get this thing sometimes where my eyes seem like they don’t want to focus and I feel like I have to make a real effort to look at something. If I relax them, they sometimes seem to sort of cross and I see double. It goes away if I make the effort to focus, but it does seem to make my eyes tired.
I have had this off and on before and have generally been ignoring it, but since it’s back again, I’m wondering if it has anything to do with MS. Does anything like this happen to anyone else?
I seem to be going downhill more quickly recently. More spasticity/stiffness. Huge temptation to go to sleep at work and needing naps. More annoying burning paresthesias.
Do you think this could be MS?
Unilateral grey blind spot anyone?
Can’t get diagnosed, so frustrating!
Symptoms of MS but no diagnosis.
Jen and Alex: Thanks for the validation. Sometimes I think I’m just hyper-noticing normal stuff, but it really is making my eyes tired. I’m sorry you guys have to go through this, too. And I’m sorry your neuro doesn’t take this seriously, Alex. I sometimes think if there was some magic way to make neuros live a few days in our shoes, they wouldn’t be so nonchalant about stuff.
I also sometimes find myself feeling as if I’m opening my eyes really wide when I’m trying to look at the computer. Don’t know if that means anything either.
Pastor Dan: I had a vision test and new glasses in December 2007. I think my vision is okay, except for those times when I sort of give into this urge to relax and things go out of focus. I am in a clinical trial so I keep seeing all these ophthalmologists who say they see nothing wrong with my eyes. I also have to do the eye-chart-reading thing and that seems to be stable. I do have some kind of thing where when I follow the doctor’s finger back and forth, my eyes overshoot, but the ophthalmologist said that wasn’t a typical MS finding (although he didn’t say anything about what else might cause that).
My eyes seem to be a little better today (which means I was more productive at work) and I can feel my feet somewhat more so I’m counting it as a good day.
My double vision which started in 2007 started out and then later resolved, in a manner much like you describe, with my left eye drifting and having to force it to come back into focus. I had a pretty major case of diplopia, it cames on over a period of days and then became very severe, ie: off the charts in terms of measurements, within a week or so. This was along with numerous other neurological symptoms (fatigue, numbness, MS hug, etc) that resulted in MS dx within weeks of this attack.
Recovery of my double vision was slow for me, it took over a year and actually I still have some residual damage in my far left lateral gaze, but I’m so used to it now I don’t even notice it. The cause was damage to my 6th cranial nerve from a brainstem lesion. The recovery was attributed in part to some possible remyelination but more likely due to brain plasticity/adaptation, ie: re-wiring of nerves, so to speak. Also a possible INO, although my neuro and my neuro-ophtha disagreed on that point.
As this symptom improved, I noticed where I had previously no control over focusing my eyes back together, I could ‘force’ the double images into one, and they would stay that way for a few seconds and then start drifting again. It was encouraging as I realized then, that I was indeed recovering. It was always worse when I got very fatigued or overheated, and even now when I exercise and when I get normal sleepy at the end of the day, I can lose my focus a little.
Have your MRI’s ever showed anything suspicious on your brainstem? As the nerves that control eye movement are located there (I’m sure you already know this), perhaps this warrants further MRI of your brain?
BTW I know what you mean about your comment re; ‘hyper-noticing.” As that big attack struck me in 2007, which all started out as simply a tingle in my right pinky, every day it was something new, another part of my body, another symptom, at first so minor I felt silly mentioning it. I had such a long list of symptoms to report to my GP in one visit that I felt I must be coming across as a hypochondriac. Good thing she did not treat me as one and took all the information very seriously. I would encourage you to follow up on the vision issue. An ophthalmologist can check for problems with eye movement and should be able to determine if it is likely a neurological issue for which you should be refered.
Keep us posted, and I hope things keep improving as you mentioned today.
Excellent post from doublevision. I have the same problem too, I have had ON twice and a dx of ‘mild MS’ last December currently going through a work up for a more positive dx.
I have had double vision and inability to focus correctly for some time and is a real problem when I am tired or hot.
The left eye drifts outwards and the ophthalmologist dx convergence disorder and tried prisms to correct it but the muscles are too weak to respond and it was painful trying. Mine makes driving impossible somedays as when objects are speeding towards you my eyes cannot stay focused and things go from having a ghost on the image to 2 definite images.
Reading is difficult on these days – there is a computer programme called ‘Read Me Please’ which you can either buy a full copy of or download a free copy – just google it. It has helped me a lot – you copy and paste the text you want to read into it and it reads it to you.
This software along with Dragon naturally speaking has helped me tremendously in the last 2 years.
yes, me too, to some degree as what shoshin states. my VEP cam back normal last week, of which i am thankful.
i have no idea what is causing the eye issues. made an appt with the eye dr at the VA to see about new glasses. maybe they will examine the eyes thoroughly too. the right eye with its dull throbbing pain is still there on & off whether i wear my galsses or not.
as of today, as far as i know, my diagnosis is still “demyelinating disease of the CNS” whatever that means.
i know my brain is signaling to me that my right foot is being picked up but it still hits the floor from time to time. beats me if this is my eyes mis-judging distance or just a lazy leg.
Franchise Your Business
If you’ve spent time around dogs, you know that they tend to be pretty easily distracted. Most of them leap from object to object, their internal dog-monologue probably going something like “Tree! Fence post! SQUIRREL!!”
An especially well-trained dog, however, is able to withstand those distractions, often because they have some sort of job to do. When’s the last time you saw a guide dog succumb to the allure of a dropped french fry, or a herding dog wander idly off to sniff some grass when it was supposed to be keeping sheep in line?
Entrepreneurs similarly vary in their ability to avoid what experts call “shiny object syndrome:” The pull of new strategies, new technology and even new projects that threaten to detract from a founder’s core mission.
It’s a paradox that distractions seem most abundant whenever you’re executing especially successfully on one thing. But are distractions always a bad thing? Much of the advice for entrepreneurs out there emphasizes the need to be flexible. So which is it? Unwavering focus, or enough flexibility to pivot if the occasion calls for it?
Sources of distraction
Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, distractions often present themselves as opportunities. Maybe an important client wants you to develop something slightly different from your current product offering; maybe a major VC is tugging your sleeve with tempting offers to grow your business. These propositions are almost always flattering, and flattery is hard to ignore.
On top of that, you’ve got all sorts of new tech vying for your attention: APIs, cloud services and even the very tools that are meant to keep you focused all have the potential to pull you off course. Keeping an eye on what’s out there is part of your responsibility as a founder, but the line between “awareness” and “distraction” is perilously thin. The same goes for new markets, which can be especially hard to ignore if they’re adjacent to the product you’re offering. What’s a little pivot if it means attracting a whole new client base? Which leads me to my next point.
The “how hard can it be?” trap
Launching a business requires a large degree of optimism. After all, you have to believe you’re going to succeed in the face of overwhelming evidence that you won’t. But too much optimism can also lead to the common affliction of biting off more than you can realistically chew. There’s a reason that Jim Franklin, the former CEO of Sendgrid, calls “How hard can it be?” the five most dangerous words in business.
Misestimating time management isn’t just a pitfall for entrepreneurs. Humans as a whole are notoriously poor at predicting how long tasks will take, to say nothing of our innate inability to effectively multitask. As a bootstrapped founder, I know that dividing my focus from JotForm would be a mistake, because we have to be so much leaner than venture-backed organizations.
Establishing the scope of your business is not a one-and-done project — it’s something you need to keep an eye on at every step of the way. This isn’t to say it’s never right to expand into new territory, but it is a decision that should not be made lightly.
Evaluate the potential
The shiny object that keeps winking out of the corner of your eye isn’t always a sure path to destruction, and a huge part of the entrepreneur’s mindset is noticing opportunities and acting on them accordingly. But that doesn’t mean every opportunity that comes your way is one worth pursuing.
Rather than pulling up your blinders to shield yourself from every potential diversion, be strategic. There’s a difference between chasing a distraction because it seems easier than your original vision and exploring an opportunity that stands to have real value.
The first step to this is to really, deeply familiarize yourself with your vision, advises Aha! founder Brian de Haaff. This exercise will not only help you distill it down to its essence, but it will also help ingrain it in your mind as you explore ways to potentially expand. Then, when opportunities present themselves, you can “use your vision as a lens, rather than a blinder,” he writes. To make sure your team is focused on the same thing you are, remind everyone from time to time what the goal is. That way, any deviations will make sense rather than appearing to come out of the blue.
Of course, doing something new usually involves giving something up. Weigh the cost of what you’re eliminating against potential gains before you take the plunge. How will it impact your team? How about your customers?
Finally, you can apply some of the same tactics to pursuing new projects that you use in organizing your day-to-day schedule. Creating an effective action plan to achieve your goals will keep you from chasing stray shiny objects, as will grouping tasks into a timeline to prevent needless distraction.
Doing a little legwork will help you determine an opportunity’s actual value, versus wasting time on another shiny object that turns out just to be a gum wrapper.
Focus vs. flexibility
It might seem as though these concepts are at odds with each other, but they’re actually complementary. Think, for example, of a bridge. Yes, its essential structure and the locations it connects are fixed. But bridges are designed with a certain amount of flexibility, allowing them to sway, bounce, expand and contract as conditions demand. If they didn’t, their rigidity would cause them to snap.
Being focused is not the same thing as rigidly sticking to a plan regardless of circumstances. Instead, it’s about establishing a core vision and calibrating where necessary to see it through. Covid-19, for example, has forced many companies to rethink their strategies. But having to adjust for the unknown — in this case, a global pandemic — doesn’t mean scrapping the whole idea altogether. Change is inevitable, whether we like it or not. Flexibility means figuring out how to address change with an open mind and make it work.
The distinction between useful opportunities and unhelpful distractions isn’t always immediately obvious. By taking time to consider how they fit into the big picture, you can learn to tell the difference.
Long hours in a Big 4, city law firms and other large firms are often seen as the norm. In fact it can be easy to become so busy that it becomes impossible to stay focused on progressing your career. In this blog post I share an exclusive extract from the 2 nd edition of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’ (Click here for a free sample chapter) to help keep yourself focused on progressing your career even when you are overwhelmed with work and people wanting your time.
How to stay focused on your career progression when you are too busy to think
Staying focused on your ultimate career goal of making partner gets pretty tough, when you are so busy that all you can think about is getting through the day (If this hasn’t happened to you yet in your career as a professional adviser, then we can assure you that it will happen at some point!). However, if you are going to stay on partnership track, then you need to keep plugging away at advancing your career, regardless of how much client work is on your desk at the present time. Very understandably, when you are ‘too’ busy it can become all too easy to lose sight of your career goals. However, unless you have recently experienced a life-changing event, most people don’t suddenly wake up in the morning and completely change how they work and what they do to remain focused on their end game.
To keep yourself mentally focused on your career progression, you need to build personal routines designed to help you achieve your long-term career objectives, which you then religiously follow daily, weekly and monthly. These are routines which you build up over time to help keep you personally effective as well as always working towards your personal objectives. It is essential that you learn to do this early in your career. We have seen numerous professionals fail to make partner because they have not maintained a good enough level of contact with their clients and work-referring contacts. These professionals make the mistake of not thinking about where the next piece of work will come from, or how to progress their career to the next stage, because they only concentrate on the work on their desks. We are not saying that this is easy but you must learn to do it and then keep doing it. We will now look at some of those routines, which the very successful professionals use to keep themselves focused.
An effective technique for countering brain fog, a common symptom of multiple sclerosis, is mental noting – the art of labeling thoughts as nothing more than they really are.
Cognitive problems are fairly common with MS. One of the most notorious and disruptive by far is the dreaded brain fog. In my experience, brain fog isn’t being unable to think of anything.
In fact, it’s the opposite. My mind is trying to think about so much that I can’t focus on a single thought, and ends up trailing off on some never-ending tangent.
One of my favorite brain fog countering techniques is called ‘mental noting’, and the concept is actually incredibly simple. Mental noting is the art of labeling thoughts as nothing more than what they are…
Next time you’re doing a simple task, something like brushing your teeth, just observe how much your mind wanders. You start off by thinking about what you want for breakfast, and before you know it, you’re worrying about that deadline at work next week.
You’ve lost all focus on what you’re supposed to be doing, and are now trapped in the tangled web of thoughts that you’ve created for yourself. You snap back into reality 10 minutes later, and realize that not only have you got toothpaste all down your shirt, but you’ve also burnt the toast, and are now late for work.
And this isn’t really your fault. These thoughts are sneaky, they distract you, sneak under the radar, and multiply, without you even realizing! You start thinking about something, and then you think about why you’re thinking about it, and then you try and stop thinking about it, which makes you think about it more…
This is where mental noting can help. The reason why mental noting works so well is that it allows you to recognize that sneaky little thought before it gets too big. All you really need to do to prevent your mind spiraling out of control is catch that first small thought. Instead of paying attention to these thoughts, getting caught up in them, or punishing ourselves for thinking them, we simply give them a label, or a note:
And that’s it. You’ve identified the thought. It’s no longer undetected, you’re fully aware that you’re thinking when you shouldn’t be. You’re now fully in control of that single thought, what you want it to do, and where you want it to go.
The reason why this works so well is that, by not acknowledging the contents of the thought, you remove all its power. The second you try and control what’s in the thought you create another thought, and then another, and another.
Simply labelling it ‘thinking’ gives it nowhere else to go. The thought just fizzles out, and your focus can get back to making sure those teeth stay pearly white!
You can find Alex on Twitter @The_Ms_Press.
We all have goals and dreams, but it can be difficult to stick with them. Each week, I hear from people who say things like, “I start with good intentions, but I can’t seem to maintain my consistency for a long period of time.” Or, they will say, “I struggle with mental endurance. I get started but I can’t seem to follow through and stay focused for very long. Don’t worry. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else.
This post originally appeared on James Clear’s blog .
For example, I’ll start one project, work on it for a little bit, then lose focus and try something else. And then I’ll lose focus on my new goal and try something else. And on and on. When everything is said and done, I’ve stopped and started so many times that I never really made much progress.
Maybe you have felt this way too.
This problem reminds me of a lesson I learned while working out one day…
The Myth of Passion and Motivation
On this particular day in the gym, there was a coach visiting who had worked with thousands of athletes over his long career, including some nationally-ranked athletes and Olympians.
I had just finished my workout when I asked him, “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else. What do the really successful people do that most people don’t?”
He briefly mentioned the things that you might expect. Genetics. Luck. Talent.
But then he said something I wasn’t expecting.
“At some point,” he said, “it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day and doing the same lifts over and over and over again.”
That piece of advice surprised me because it’s a different way of thinking about work ethic.
Most of the time people talk about getting motivated and “amped up” to work on their goals. Whether it’s business or sports or art, you will commonly hear people say things like, “it all comes down to having enough passion.”
As a result, I think many people get depressed when they lose focus or motivation because they think that successful people have some unstoppable passion and willpower that they seem to be missing. But that’s exactly the opposite of what this coach was saying.
Instead, he was saying that really successful people feel the same boredom and the same lack of motivation that everyone else feels. They don’t have some magic pill that makes them feel ready and inspired every day . But the difference is that the people who stick with their goals don’t let their emotions determine their actions. Top performers still find a way to show up, to work through the boredom, and to embrace the daily practice that is required to achieve their goals.
The Science of Inspiration (and How to Make It Work for You)
Inspiration is fickle and difficult. We all strive for those bright “Aha!” moments, whether we work
According to him, it’s this ability to do the work when it’s not easy that separates the top performers from everyone else. That’s the difference between professionals and amateurs .
Working When Work Isn’t Easy
Anyone can work hard when they feel motivated.
When I was an athlete, I loved going to practice the week after a big win. Who wouldn’t? Your coach is happy, your teammates are pumped up, and you feel like you can beat anyone. As an entrepreneur, I love working when customers are rolling in and things are going well. Getting results has a way of propelling you forward.
But what about when you’re bored? What about when the work isn’t easy? What about when it feels like nobody is paying attention or you’re not getting the results you want?
Are you willing to work through 10 years of silence ?
It’s the ability to work when work isn’t easy that makes the difference.
It’s Not the Event, It’s the Process
All too often, we think our goals are all about the result. We see success as an event that can be achieved and completed.
Here are some common examples…
- Many people see health as an event: “If I just lose 20 pounds, then I’ll be in shape.”
- Many people see entrepreneurship as an event: “If we could get our business featured in the New York Times, then we’d be set.”
- Many people see art as an event: “If I could just get my work featured in a bigger gallery, then I’d have the credibility I need.”
Those are just a few of the many ways that we categorize success as a single event.
But if you look at the people who are consistently achieving their goals, you start to realize that it’s not the events or the results that make them different. It’s their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the individual event.
Be here right now, now, now, now…
The other night I was discussing the “how to” of being present with a friend of mine. I fell back on the old Zen standby, “Chop wood, carry water.” Her 13-year-old daughter, who was sitting with us, chimed in with the incisive understanding of delicate concepts that belongs only to a child: “So, don’t chop water when you should be carrying wood.” Exactly right.
Contrary to popular belief, human beings cannot multitask. What we are capable of is handling a number of serial tasks in rapid succession, or mixing automatic tasks with those that are not so automatic. That’s one of the reasons that the NTSB reports that texting while driving is the functional equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. You just can’t effectively attend to two things at once — even the superficially automatic ones.
So, how do we stay present? The first thing to recognize is that, try as we might, we really can only do one thing at a time, so we ought to do that thing wholeheartedly. Most of our time is spent in the past or the future, rather than the present moment. What we end up doing is passing through that moment on the way to somewhere else and, in doing so, we miss the moment. That’s how life ends up passing us by — we do it to ourselves.
Rehearsing — and that’s all we’re doing is rehearsing — the past is problematic because it’s something that can’t be changed. It’s done, set in stone, immutable and immovable. Certainly, we can change our relationship to the past, but staying there is simply ruminative and, for some of us, baldly destructive.
Anticipating the future is also problematic — even futile — because, no matter how much we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise, we can’t really control the direction in which things will go. We can set an intention, true, but, in the end, the universe has a way of deciding.
Staying present, then, means staying here — right here — and there are a few simple steps that can lead us to the experience of profound attention and direct experience of the moment that we’re in.
Take a breath. Breath, along with change, is the only constant, and being present starts with the breath. Simply draw a deep breath and let it out through your nose. When we breathe through our mouth, it triggers a subtle anxiety response, which increases heart rate and redirects blood flow. That’s why you rarely see elite runners and cyclists panting, and why one of my own martial arts instructors used to make us train for hours with a mouthful of water. A slow release of breath through the nose has the opposite effect of mouth-breathing and draws a relaxation response.
This technique and intention is also taken in part from the Theravada Buddhist meditation tradition. Try it out: Take a breath and, when you exhale, what happens? Exactly — nothing. In the Theravada tradition, the oldest of the Buddhist traditions, meditation practitioners are taught to focus on the out-breath because on the out-breath nothing happens. Everything falls away for that simple span of time — a breath.
What are you doing right now? Consider, as a correspondence to that moment of suspended breath-time, what you’re doing right at that moment. For most of you, right now, you are reading. Are you just reading? Where are your thoughts? Your emotions? Your hands? Your sense of time? You are reading — that’s it. so, just read.
Not being present is easy. There are bills to pay, and kids to pick up at school. There are doctor’s appointments and reports to write, books to read, parents to resent, loved ones to miss and the list goes on and on. With all that going on — past and future — it’s no wonder that presence is so elusive. It is not, however, as elusive as you might believe.
Be a witness. In becoming aware of what you are doing — exactly what you are doing — in any given moment, bear witness to it. Observe it, name it, and stand away from it — all at once. The moment is now. now. now. now. When we cling to a “now,” rather than simply bearing witness to it and letting it pass by, we become trapped in time as it passes.
The great Zen teacher Takuan wrote in one of his essays on swordsmanship that the mind cannot come to rest on a thing — in this case, he meant an opponent or a technique or a stance — because then the mind itself becomes trapped by that thing and we, turn, become trapped by the trap. The mind must flow like the breath if we are to remain constantly and consistently present in the moment and not mired in the past or at the sufferance of anticipating the future.
Let the rest go. Much like bearing witness, or engaging witness consciousness as the wisdom teachings refer to it, whatever is not there in that moment let go. Be there, right there, right then. That’s all.
The concept of nirvana is often misconstrued as the experience of great peace and the attainment of bliss. That is the outcome of nirvana. Nirvana itself translates to something more like “no holding” or “no clinging.” It is this release that brings freedom, which affords that great peace and attainment of bliss. Travel light — what we do not need in that moment, don’t take on board.
Come back to the breath. When the world or your thoughts begin to again intrude, simply come back to the breath. Inhale, and release your exhale to unbind yourself from the shackles of the past and the anxieties of the future. The constancy of breath can create the constancy of presence for us, if we choose to show up.
The act of being present is, in a sense, a meditation without meditating. The stillness here, though, comes from action — breathing, attending, witnessing, releasing, and breathing again. This simple cycle can profoundly change the way that we experience our world.
Contact Michael for counseling, executive or motivational coaching, or general consultation locally or nationally via telephone or internet.
How to Train Yourself to Stay Focused
By Leo Babauta
It’s a common problem these days: switching between browser tabs and apps on your phone, checking social media and messages and email, thinking about the million things you have to do but putting them off …
Anything but staying focused on one task at a time.
And it’s hard to break out of the mental habit of switching, being distracted, letting the monkey mind jump from one shiny thing to the next.
So how do you train your mind to stay more focused? It’s possible to get better at focusing, but I don’t recommend expecting to be focused anywhere close to 100 percent of the time. Not even 80 percent, and perhaps not 50 percent. Just more than now, which is more than enough to see big differences in effectiveness in your day.
Recently I took on a coaching client, and his biggest area for improvement is focus. So I gave him a plan, and I’m going to share it with you here.
Start with the Why
Why should you care about this? It’s best to give this a moment’s thought before diving into any plan, because when things get uncomfortable, you have to know your Why. Otherwise you’ll crumble at the first urge to switch.
This is important because constant switching and distraction leads to your time being frittered away, so that the day goes by and you’ve barely done anything important. You’ve procrastinated on the big tasks to take care of the little ones, and worse yet, squandered the day in distractions. Your life is too precious to waste, so you want to use your days better.
Staying focused on one task at a time, at least for some of the day, will help you get the important things done: writing, programming, studying, taking care of finances, creating of any kind, and so on. Those things tend to get pushed back, but staying on task will increase your effectiveness with the most important things by leaps and bounds.
If you’re feeling stressed out by all you have to do, unhappy with your lack of focus … then this one skill will help you turn that around in a big way.
So let’s move on to the how.
It’s fairly simple:
- Pick an MIT. First thing in the morning, before you get on your phone or online, think about what you need to do. What would make the biggest difference in your life, your work? If you have several, it doesn’t matter … just randomly choose one for now. You can get to the others later. Don’t waste your time in indecision, the point is to practice with one task. This one task you choose for today is your one Most Important Task (MIT).
- Do a 15-minute focus session. As soon as you start working for the day (maybe after getting ready, eating, yoga/meditation/workout, whatever), clear away all browser tabs, applications, and anything you don’t need for your MIT for today. Start a timer for 15 minutes.
- You only have two choices. For these 15 minutes, you can not switch to anything else (no checking email, messages, social media, doing other work tasks, cleaning your desk, etc.). You can only a) work on your MIT, or b) sit there and do nothing. Those are your only options. Watch your urges to switch, but don’t follow them.
- Report to an accountability partner. My coaching client is going to succeed in large part because he has me to keep him accountable. Find a partner who will keep you accountable. Create an online spreadsheet or use an accountability app that they can see (he introduced me to Commit to 3, for example). After your focus session each day, check in that you did it.
That’s it! One focus session a day for at least two weeks. If you do great, add a second focus session each day, with a 10-minute break in between sessions. If you have any trouble at all, stick to one session a day for the first month before adding a second.
After six weeks to two months, you should be fairly good at doing two 15-minute focus sessions, and you can add a third. Then a fourth when that gets easy. Stop there for awhile, and then add another session in the afternoon.
Some Important Tips
With that simple method in mind, I have a few key ideas to share:
- Turn off your Internet. Like disconnect from wifi or turn off your router, or use an Internet blocker. Turn off your phone. Close your browser and all applications you don’t need. This is the ideal method. If you need the Internet for your MIT, then close all tabs but the one or two that you need for the task, and don’t let yourself open anything else.
- If you turn off the Internet, keep a pencil and paper nearby. If you have an idea, a task you need to remember, anything you want to look up … jot it on the paper. You can get to those later. Don’t allow yourself to switch.
- Don’t allow yourself to rationalize putting off the session. It’s easy to say, “I’ll get to it in a bit,” but then you’re putting it off until late morning, and then the afternoon, and finally you’re doing it at 8pm just to say you did it. This defeats the purpose of the practice. Watch your rationalizations, and don’t fall for them.
- That said, don’t aim for being perfect. There are some days when you just can’t do it — for me, it’s when I travel or have guests. If something big has come up where you don’t have time, don’t stress about missing a day. Get back on it as soon as you can. Worrying about keeping a streak going is counterproductive.
- If 15 minutes is too long, just do 10 minutes. If that’s too long, do 5 minutes.
- Increase your number of sessions as slowly as you can. There’s no rush to do more. Focus on building a solid foundation.
OK, you have the method. Now get on the practice!