Mental Focus Training: Walking In 4D
Mental Focus Training can be done in many ways from meditation, to exercise, and even computerized brain games. Walking in 4 dimensions is an approach that combines both exercise and meditation to get the most effect in the shortest possible time.
Common knowledge in today’s executives is that physical exercise is an excellent tool to combat stress. A brain pushed in overdrive by a stressor is pulled back into a greater state of calm when stress hormones and other neurochemicals are metabolized during exercise, resulting in a feeling of calm and centeredness.
Interestingly, exercise not only decreases the overdrive from stress, but is also capable of increasing drive in the brain when it is under-stimulated.
Exercise, therefore, may be one of the most powerful tools for helping the executive to voluntarily remain in the perfect performance zone, that sweet spot somewhere between under-stimulation and over-drive.
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Finally, it’s worth mentioning the benefits of brief bouts of mindfulness meditation on our ability to inhibit impulsive behaviors. Mindfulness meditation is a simple form of meditation where participants practice sustained attention on their breathing, while simultaneously keeping the mind from “wandering off” and becoming involved in other thoughts.
In 2010, a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte compared a control group that relaxed by reading a book versus a research group that participated in four brief instruction sessions of mindfulness meditation. Participants from both groups underwent cognitive testing before and after the four sessions and the results were astonishing. Even though both groups felt more relaxed and happier, the mindfulness group improved tenfold in cognitive function and sustained attention compared to the control group.
It’s a reasonable conclusion that while by themselves they offer tremendous benefits, exercise and meditation may be an extremely powerful combination for cultivating mental focus.
Based on the research covered in the previous section, ideally we would want to engage in any form of exercise that makes us huff and puff a little, while simultaneously practicing mindfulness meditation.
Because combining physical exercise with a meditative practice is so powerful, exercise forms such as tai chi and yoga are excellent ways to improve levels of mental focus. However, not everyone is interested in taking up these types of exercise.
One of the greatest disadvantages of these forms of exercise is that for most people, enjoying the full benefits does require a degree of expert instruction. For the average executive, dedicating extra time to learning these forms of exercise and attending instructed classes may not be feasible.
In my years of coaching and working with executives, I’ve often encountered clients who simply did not have the time, courage or desire to learn yoga or tai chi, but who were prepared to engage in some form of physical activity on their own. For that reason, I developed a Mental Focus Workout that can be practiced while walking, running, swimming or climbing stairs. I like to call this workout Exercise in 4 Dimensions.
Exercise in 4 Dimensions simply means that we will be walking, running or cycling while simultaneously paying attention to both our outside and inside worlds. The outside world is a three-dimensional world, and our inside world, inside our bodies and minds, adds a fourth dimension – hence an Exercise in 4 Dimensions.
Here is an example of what an Exercise Routine in 4 Dimensions could look like using a three-minute interval and a one-minute recovery period.
In this example, we will be walking, but remember that this type of routine can also be practiced using other forms of endurance exercise. If you are a more experienced athlete, you may want to match the focus interval with a hard, intense work interval, and make your recovery period a low-intensity period.
Here we go!
Walking in 4-Dimensions
Start by finding a steady pace at which you feel you are working reasonably hard, but not too hard. You should be able to have enough air to talk in short sentences, but not enough air to recite an entire passage out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth while walking.
Maintain this tempo for the entire walk while setting a timer for three-minute focus intervals with one minute of recovery in-between. This means that you will be walking and paying attention for three minutes, and then walking and allowing your mind to wander for just one minute.
This exercise/practice does not allow for music, as that can be too distracting. The timer will help you pull your mind back to attention and limit the mind-wandering. For each three-minute block, focus on using one of your senses only – starting with vision, then hearing, then smell, taste, touch and proprioception (sensing your body in movement). Finish off by using the entire symphony (all your senses).
Here’s a little more detail on how to focus with each of the senses.
For the first three-minute block, focus on every object you walk by. Start by focusing on objects that are far away, and try to make out the most minute details. Then switch to objects nearby, also focusing on the intricate details.
Next, focus on the many colors you pass by and try to take in as much as you can. After three minutes, keep the pace of your walk steady, but just allow the mind to wander without aim or agenda for one minute of recovery.
During your second three-minute block, focus on what you hear. Try to avoid going with the loudest and most obvious sounds, but rather focus your attention on more faint sounds such as the sound of the wind, the chirping of birds, children playing in the distance, and so on.
Try to determine where the sounds are coming from so that you hear sounds from all directions, especially behind you. This exercise greatly heightens awareness and is also an excellent exercise to strengthen spatial awareness.
Again, after three minutes, keep the pace of your walk steady for one more minute, but allow the mind to wander.
During your third three-minute block, focus on what you smell. Take in full deep breaths through the nose and try to take in every scent possible. Trees, plants, people cooking, exhaust fumes, laundry soap – anything goes. With every smell, try to take in the cocktail of different scents.
And again, after three minutes, take a minute of recovery where you let go of this focus and allow the mind to wander.
Taste can be a bit tricky, but one way to support this exercise is to take a single food item such as a raisin and keep it in your mouth for the whole three minutes. While you are walking, try to fully experience the various taste sensations as the raisin rolls over your tongue and travels through your mouth. Pay full attention to every single detail.
Every walk can be a different taste test with different items. I do recommend using healthy and fresh food items to taste-test and not manufactured, packaged ones; those tend to contain additives that can ruin a perfectly well-executed taste exercise. These additives may also desensitize the brain’s receptiveness to the natural flavors of foods.
Once again, after three minutes, let go of the focus on sensation and allow the mind to wander for one minute of recovery.
During this three-minute block, try to feel how the wind brushes up against your skin, and how your clothing rubs up against your body. Feel how the breeze brushes through your hair and the sensation of the sun (or rain!) on your face. Feel the cool or warmth of the air and the feel of the ground beneath your feet.
After three minutes, again let go of the focus on these sensations and allow the mind to wander for one minute of recovery.
Proprioception (body sense):
For many people, this is one of the most difficult focus exercises. Typically, our senses are directed outward and away from our bodies, so turning the attention inward can be a challenging experience.
Begin with focusing on how the air flows into your lungs while you take long deep breaths. Then, visualize the soles of your feet touching the ground and imagine each square inch of your foot making contact with the ground. Finally, focus hard on trying to feel your pulse as your heart is pumping blood through your body.
After three minutes, let go of all focus and simply allow the mind to wander freely for one minute of recovery.
The Full Symphony:
In the final three-minute block, use all of your heightened senses together as a symphony – a full, elaborate and unique composition of yourself and the world around you. Try to take in as much of the internal and external environment as you can while you are walking. For many people who were successful during the first six blocks, this can be a deep sensory experience. A conscious awareness of all six heightened senses together opens a much larger door to experiencing our world, and is an excellent focus exercise.
And after three minutes, let go of this focus, and allow your mind to wander for your final minute of recovery.
Even though exercising in itself is a great strategy to improve brain health and capacity, by engaging the brain during the exercise, we’re able to challenge the brain in the same way we challenge our muscles. Through purposeful and consistent practice during exercise, we can gradually improve the brain’s capacity to maintain focus on one task at a time.
Besides during exercise, it’s also important to consciously challenge our time in the performance zone in other aspects of our lives, such as during work. This expanded practice ensures that the neurons flexed during our walks, also learn to fire in other situations in our lives that do not involve exercise.