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This Meditation Exercise Builds Mental Muscle and Cures Procrastination

Imagine always having the strongest mind in the room.

That would mean being smart, sure.

But more importantly, you’d be grounded and unflappable. No emotion would corrupt your judgement. No distraction would diminish your focus.

This is trainable just like when you hit the gym.

What follows is an exercise that comes from my coaching and combines a meditation strategy that Will Kabat-Zinn taught me with a procrastination strategy that Tim Pychyl taught me.

Will is a long time meditation teacher. Tim studies procrastination as a professor at Carleton.


The “I Am Aware” Five Minute Meditation

This meditation exercise is a very simple twist on breath based mindfulness meditation. The twist revolves around the phrase “I am aware that…”

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Start counting your breath. Shoot to count 50 breaths. That’s 5–10 minutes.
  3. Your mind is going to wander. When it does make a mental note of what you caught yourself thinking about. This is important: make that note as a complete and grammatically correct sentence that begins, “I am aware that {fill in the blank}.”
  4. When you are done noting the distracting thought return to counting your breath at the place where you left off.

These are some sentences that I say during a meditation.

  • “I am aware that I’m thinking about what to eat for lunch.”
  • “I am aware that I’m rehearsing a conversation with Tim.”
  • “I am aware that I’m drafting an email responding to a complaint.”
  • “I am aware that I’m wondering who will win.”

The great thing about this exercise is that it is generalizable. You practice during the meditation, but then you use it for your own goals during your day to day.


The Awareness-Focus Loop

The reason this meditation exercise will work for many of you is because it trains a really specific mental skill, the Awareness-Focus Loop.

There are tons of feelings that sit right below your conscious mind. Unaddressed, these feelings actually guide the majority of your decision making.

Maybe you’ve heard this as the rider (rational brain) and the elephant (emotional brain).

With effort, the rider can guide the elephant. But with any distraction, the elephant takes over.

The good news is that with effort you can examine those subconscious feelings with your rational, conscious brain.

The “I am aware” exercise uses a nifty trick. For practical purposes, your language center is active only with your conscious mind.

So by framing your examination of your wandering thought as a fully formed sentence you’re guaranteed to be moving the feeling from your subconscious to your conscious.

Quite often the thought just disappears at that point because it’s too trivial to keep focused attention on.

In any case, having awoken your rational brain, you have the opportunity to bring your focus back to what you rationally want to be focusing on.

In meditation, that’s your breath. In work, that’s your current task.

A lot of people think of meditation as spiritual and/or calming. It can be. However, there’s a growing interest in meditation from high performance fields.

Hedge fund managers meditate to manage cognitive biases. Athletes meditate to reduce anxiety and get into a flow state. Even the military is taking up meditation.

For these high performance cases, the Awareness-Focus Loop is the key skill that you train during a meditation.

High performers take the “I am aware” exercise and apply it as they live their day.

  • “I am aware” that I’m pressuring myself to make this shot.
  • “I am aware” that I am experiencing a sunk-cost bias.
  • “I am aware” that I think we should scrap this project.

Curing Procrastination with The Awareness-Focus Loop

This is the insight that Professor Tim Pychyl gave me about the source of procrastination. So often we procrastinate over trivial feelings of anxiety.

And the procrastination takes hold simply because we never truly examine what the anxiety is.

As a cure, meditation helps us notice that we’re procrastinating, become aware of the anxiety, name the anxiety, and then deal with that anxiety.

So often dealing with the anxiety is as simple as naming it and deciding it’s not legitimate.

This is the Awareness-Focus Loop in action for a use case that almost all of us have.

After you’ve practiced the meditation, look out during your day for times when you’re procrastinating. That’s when you want to apply this skill.


The Blessing of Multiple Mental Pushups

People come into meditation feeling like their mind needs to go completely blank.

To steal a Will quote, “If your mind doesn’t wander, go to the hospital.”

He’s saying — it’s human for your mind to wander.

But I want you to think of your wandering mind as even more positive. You’re meditating to practice repetitions of the Awareness-Focus Loop.

But you can only get an honest repetition in if your mind wanders. Consider each repetition to be a single mental pushup.

How many mental pushups do you want to do? As many as possible.

Contrary to your initial expectations, you should be happy when your mind wanders. In the long run, you’ll get more reps in and build mental muscle faster.

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Coach Tony

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Coach.me. Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

Better Humans

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