Here are five practices that can be useful tools in reducing distraction or frenetic activity and cultivating focus and concentration. They are surprisingly easy to implement and, almost before you know it, can become positive addictions.
1: Appreciate Impermanence
I saw a cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine in which two people were finishing their dinners at a Chinese restaurant and had just opened their fortune cookies. One fortune read, “You are going to die.”
If you let this fact sink in — that life is short, and we all die — it can actually act as a powerful motivating force to help maintain focus and priorities. Everything changes and is impermanent, so are we fully present and making the most of this fleeting moment? Are we fully aware of what we are doing? Appreciating impermanence clarifies priorities, and it helps us identify any frenetic, shallow and ineffective activities we’re being distracted by. We see clearly the things that exhaust us and distract us from experiencing the blessing and opportunity of each particular day.
In Zen practice it is often said that the span of our lives is like a dew drop on a leaf — beautiful, precious, and extremely short-lived. Life is remarkably unpredictable. Whatever you want to accomplish, whatever is important to you, do it, and do it now — with as much grace, intensity, and sense of ease as you can muster. None of us knows what life will bring. In any moment everything we take for granted can change. We must be careful not to dwell on impermanence constantly, to the point that we become paralyzed with fear of loss, but we can use an awareness of change on a deep and wise level to focus our priorities and increase our appreciation of the sheer beauty of existence.
2: Clarify Aspirations and Create Next Steps
Make two lists. Title the first one “Aspirations, Plans, and Projects.” Title the column next to this “Next Steps,” and list concrete action steps toward implementation of each aspiration, plan, or project. What is the very first action required toward completing each item, and the step after that and the one after that? In the popular book Getting Things Done, productivity improvement expert David Allen describes the relief that people experience just by listing “next steps” in relation to incomplete projects. The act of identifying clear actions can have a freeing effect and make you feel that you’re making progress (sometimes when mired in setbacks and resistance, project management minutiae, or office politics, this is not so easy to believe). It can be daunting having many projects hanging over your head, so this helps clarify the actions needed to move each project toward completion.