I gazed at the 30 expectant faces. I opened my mouth to speak but the words weren’t there. My sentences began with “Um,” or “Uuuh…”. I had written the presentation, but it was coming out as slowly as an 8-year-old goes to bed. When I finally found the words, they weren’t quite what I wanted to say. I tried to list the companies who had been my clients in the last year and struggled to remember more than 2 out of 4 of them. I would get an idea for a joke, but my timing was too hesitant.
I looked at my wife, who was recording the presentation so I could use the video to apply for my Certified Speaking Professional designation. I cast my eyes on a man in the audience who had the ability to hire me for considerably more work if I could impress him. But it wasn’t going to happen. Not today. What’s gone wrong? I wondered. What fuzzed-out my brain?
Two days before, I had been in the same room speaking on a different topic. That speech had been very different. The concepts flowed from my brain, through my mouth, into the ears of my listeners. There was learning and laughter. I think I even made a long-term friend in the crowd.
Whether you give presentations, pour concrete, counsel addicts or discipline children, mental sharpness is necessary for work and family. I sometimes wondered why I was speaking for a living, because when I got in front of everyone, I often couldn’t find the words. Or at least I never used to.
I’ve changed. Over 20 years I’ve discovered how to achieve mental clarity. The story above happened because I took a break from using the tools that follow. Here are my five favourite tools for fighting focus fatigue and achieving mental clarity.
1. Find Focusing Habits
The tool that explains all other tools is this: know that nothing important changes quickly – but in time, everything can change. Like other forms of health, brain health is formed by creating good long-term habits. What we do every day is who we become.
2. What’s Your Brain Like on Wheat?
The reason I stood up and fumbled for words that day was because I had eaten wheat. I hadn’t had much, but there had been some wheat in all of my last three meals. Deadly for me. Perhaps it’s the same for you but you don’t know it. Dr. Sarah Myhill, the British doctor of ecological medicine, says wheat is a common cause of brain fog for some people. Even if you don’t have a wheat allergy, Myhill says your brain thrives if you take in the foods humans would have ingested from our early days in East Africa while our amazing brains were being formed: water, coconuts and fish. Eating the oil of coconuts and fish is a fast track to mental sharpness.
You can find lots of blogs on what to eat for concentration. Read one over, and the next time it’s 11:30 and lunch time is coming, note how good your concentration is. At lunch, choose a particular food. Compare how you feel at 1:30 when you’re back at work. Try this with different foods for different days. Discover what works for you.
3. Our Chaotic World Wants to Destroy Your Focus: Don’t Let It!
Here’s what I do so I can keep my head straight at all times.
I have separate lists for what I need to do today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year, in the next five years and someday. On days when I’m not leading workshops, I look at and update each of these lists so I have my immediate and big-picture goals in front of me.
Prioritize the biggest, most difficult and most important tasks
You’re not going to complete big, difficult tasks if you start them mid-afternoon. You need to do them first thing, when your mental clarity is at its height.
Break it down
Break down a big difficult task into smaller chunks. You probably won’t feel like doing this when you start, especially if you know the task fairly well. But for bigger tasks, it’s invaluable for maintaining focus.
The second thing to do is to destroy interruptions. Our brain fumbles every time we switch from one task to another. It may be a small thing, but for many of us, it happens over and over all day long. Here’s how to destroy interruptions.
Determine how frequently you must respond to email, whether it is every day or every hour. Close your email program, turn off your Internet, leave the office if you have to, but do not answer your email more than that often. If you fall into the trap of answering emails at whim, pull yourself away and go back to your big tasks.
When colleagues come with requests, triage them with the compassion and unapologetic strictness of an emergency room nurse. Tell the interrupter when you’re available, for what and how long. In other words, unless a request is an emergency, you are not available until you have dealt with your biggest tasks. So that you don’t come across as a jerk, set aside time every day to deal with requests that come in. Plan for it and it won’t be an interruption.
Don’t look at junk on the Web!
4. Harness the Power of the Phone
Two weeks ago while I was at the grocery store, I took out my phone, opened a writing app, clicked on the notebook I had created when I was asked to do this blog, which I called “Sharpening Your Mental Skills,” and typed: “Write down ideas as soon as you get them.”
Because I did that, and have been doing that for a year, when I went to write this blog, the note, along with another 12 ideas and articles I had captured over the month, were all in my notebook. The most important ideas are in this blog.
I began meditation as part of my research when writing our safety and mindfulness course. I practice my own form of mindfulness meditation based on my faith tradition. After three months, I’m surprised at how powerful it is. The daily practice of working out my brain through setting aside 20 minutes a day to focus my thoughts has allowed me to regain focus, whether I’m thrown off by personal attack, conflict, deadlines or difficult problems to solve.
Try a Series Of Seven-Day Focus Challenges
If you want more focus, choose a habit from this article and practice it for seven days. Note your focus before and then during the challenge. If that habit doesn’t do much for you, discard it. Try another for seven days. If one works, keep it and add another habit. When you notice your own increased mental clarity, you’ll be addicted – and better at everything you do.
Everything you do is initiated by your mind. There’s no better way to enhance not only your productivity but your quality of life than by looking after your brain. Here’s to a better life!