When I think about strategies for better living, I consider the rule of E: efficiency, effectiveness, and essentialism. Recently, I’ve been on a kick about cultivating deep focus. In the age of social media and modern technology, we’ve lost the ability to focus. Which is why I’ve made it my aim to be more mindful.
“Mindfulness” is a hot topic these days, and while more and more people are reading about it, it’s popularity has paradoxically rendered it devoid of meaning. Tim Ferriss defines “mindfulness” as a present-state awareness that helps you to be non-reactive. That’s a good definition, so let’s go with it. Being non-reactive is essential for deep focus in a world in which we’re constantly beleaguered by inputs that distract us, sap our mental energy, and decrease our intellectual output.
Speaking of focus and intellectual output, I’ve also been on a pretty big reading kick recently. A world class expert will work for 30 years to figure something out, completely devoting her entire life to one particular question — then you can get all of her knowledge on that subject in a 200-page book that can be read in a weekend, all for $10-$15. Pretty good deal.
That is, of course, if you can focus! Which brings us full circle back to mindfulness. If you want to read a lot, you have to cultivate “a present state awareness that helps you be non-reactive” so that you can actually pay attention to the lines on the page and not your iPhone.
I do not view reading as a leisure activity. It’s serious deep-work crucial to the success of my business that takes effort.
Recently, I’ve committed to two practices that have synergistically helped me focus deeply (effective), read more efficiently and be more mindful (essential).
Short-term skill: How to 2x your reading speed.
Here’s how you get a lot of reading done very quickly.
Buy the regular book (hardcover or paperback) and then get the unabridged audio version on Audible. Sit down, open the physical book and simultaneously crank the speed up to 2x or even 2.5x on Audible. Follow along the words with your finger or a pen. You’ll sap up all the critical information without missing a beat because it’s like force-feeding your brain — and you’ll finish the book in half the time or less. Highly efficient, if you ask me!
I usually start with 1.5x for a few chapters to train my mind and eyes to keep up with the quick pace. It’s the same as using a treadmill: high-intensity interval training for the mind. Start slow, get fast gradually, then do “sprints.” I’ll do 15 minute chunks at a very fast pace, then reduce the speed for a while to give myself a cognitive break before getting back to it.
This is especially useful for times when you just need to “get through” a book because it has vital info, like business/marketing/money book. It’s how I got through Tony Robbins’ new behemoth in three days, for example.
Another ancillary benefit is that it gets you super focused on what’s being said because you’re using not just one, but two senses (sight and sound) to absorb the material as you follow along. There’s no room for distraction! That’s what we call hyper-focused. It’s awesome.
Long-term skill: How to quiet your mind (and be more mindful).
Meditation is the practice to be more mindful. On a practical level, I like to explain meditating as taking a dedicated amount of time to focus on your breath and acknowledge thoughts as they come. Instead of being like ‘BOOM! BLANK MIND! YES!’ the mission is to channel your focus on connecting with the breath as it fills and empties from the lungs. When a thought comes by (and trust me, you’ll have MANY thoughts while meditating), simply say "hmph. I just had that thought. Interesting. I'm now going to go back to focusing on my breath.”
Just as we’re bombarded with a million texts, pings and stimulations coming at us — giving attention to distractions we had no intention of ever consuming — we’re equally consumed by our own thoughts. We often give each of them equal attention and consideration, which breathes life into an endless wave of new and often unconstructive thoughts.
And the cycle repeats. Meditation allows you to see each thought for what it is — a make believe object — and gives you the perspective and training to look beyond it.
Moments of blank mind and pure bliss just start to happen and the frequency will increase over time with more practice. Most importantly, you slow down your mind, connect with self, and improve overall self-awareness.
Find a relaxing chair or couch and sit at its edge. Close your eyes and commit to taking 100 breaths. Deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Count them aloud in your head. The numbers will be mesmerizing in a way and will help anchor your thoughts from going all over the place. It will take about 10 minutes to get through one session. That’s it.
Believe me, it’s hard to just sit and do “nothing.” Simple relaxation can cause anxiety. After all, the brain is designed to solve problems, first and foremost. There is a trigger in the human brain that goes off when it feels like we’re not “doing” enough.
When the brain has nothing to solve, that absence itself becomes the problem so, in a sense, meditation is solving the biggest problem of all: just teaching us how to be. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and it’s also the simplest thing in the world.
Meditation is the eternal retreat. Even when things get tough, you can always find that “space within” as Michael Neill would call it. But just like driving to a physical location, you have to make many trips there before you can find your way without a map. And if you don’t go there often enough, you’ll forget the route. Thus the value of consistency in the practice.