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Body-Based Focus Toolkit—use your body to strengthen your brain’s focus circuits

Focus is not an elusive, uncontrollable state. It's a skill.

Welcome to Stretch, your guide to experimenting with your mental, emotional, and physical performance. Guaranteed to teach you something new about your mind and body.

⏪ Last edition, we spoke about Negative Capability and how learning to manage uncertainty and ambiguity is good for the brain. Catch up on that here.

⏩ Today, we’re talking about a Body-Based Focus Toolkit. Don’t treat focus like some elusive, uncontrollable state. Treat it like a biological mechanism you can influence by using your body.

Body-Based Focus Toolkit—use your body to strengthen your brain’s focus circuits

I used to try to force myself to focus and get frustrated when I’d inevitably get distracted. I’d get so annoyed and defeatist about this, looking for external solutions (the latest productivity app!) and magic pills (maybe this fancy brand of Lion’s Mane mushroom coffee will change everything!)

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and Huberman’s Focus Toolkit episode completely changed my mindset:

  1. Focus and concentration are not some elusive, uncontrollable mental states. Rather, they arise from specific biological and cognitive processes in my brain that I can influence through my actions and behaviors.

  2. There’s no point in getting frustrated. Focus is a skill—something I need to actively work on instead of searching for external solutions. I need to start by understanding the underlying neural circuits and neurochemicals, and what I can do to reliably get myself into a focused state by using my own body.

These two realizations have saved me so much frustration and self-criticism around feeling unmotivated, distracted, and low energy. They gave me a feeling of agency and control: I don’t need to be at the mercy of these emotions. There are practical steps I can take to optimize my ability to focus.

Today, I’m going to share three simple, body-based principles I’ve been implementing as a foundation. (Every day I get these right, I know I’m off to a good start!)

  • 01 - Be alert

  • 02 - Be visually focused

  • 03 - Move regularly

01 - Be alert

Sounds obvious, but how often do you drop down in your chair, expecting to instantly move into a focused state?

I’m guilty of this as well, usually because I feel time pressured.

I’ve now learned that it’s more efficient to make sure my body has everything it needs for me to be alert, even if that means “wasting” a bit of time in other ways:

Be well rested. During the week, I set an alarm at 9 pm, try to be in bed by 9.30 pm and sleep by 10 pm. I often feel the pull to stay up longer because the days fly by so ridiculously fast and I want to do more things, but I now know this is the schedule that sets me up for a focused and calm mind the following day.

Be fully hydrated. I start the morning with lots of water. (Drinking a green powder like AG1 helped get me into the habit of drinking a big glass of water first thing in the morning. I don’t drink it any more because I’m not convinced it’s worth the high price tag but it was a good motivator and the water-before-coffee habit has stuck!)

Get morning sunlight. I make it a point to go outside and get some natural light, even if just for 10 minutes, despite often feeling like there's no time for a walk. (How frivolous!) It takes real mental acrobatics, and thinking of the neurochemical benefits is one of my favorite tricks to push myself to go out:

Natural light stimulates the release of dopamine and cortisol, serving as a wake-up signal and promoting alertness. In this high state of alertness, another molecule called epinephrine is released in my brain. (Epinephrine is the same as adrenaline, but released in the brain instead of the body.)

I know that to get the full benefits of this neurochemical cocktail (which generates the energy and motivation I need to tackle my day), I simply need to go outside.

02 - Be visually focused

Your eyes are the only parts of your brain outside your cranial vault. This means you can use your eyes to send a clear message to your brain about what matters and needs its energy at that moment.

It’s simple: literally narrowing your visual field to the screen in front of you moves your brain into a highly focused state.

There’s again a neurochemical explanation for this:

Focusing intently on a visual target creates a sort of tunnel vision, triggering the release of acetylcholine. This brain molecule determines which neural circuits are active through a ‘sensory gating’ process, dampening irrelevant or redundant stimuli in the background. You can think of acetylcholine as a spotlight on a stage, helping your brain know exactly what is important and leaving everything else in the dark.

So when you’re working, you want to create an environment conducive to this narrow focus. Yep, that means removing your phone. “Just a quick check” sounds harmless but remember that every time you pick up your phone or even just glance at it, you’re breaking that narrow visual focus and so interrupting your mental focus. This fascinating study even suggests that “the mere presence of your phone may reduce available cognitive capacity and impair cognitive functioning, even when you’re successful at staying focused on your task.”

Help your brain by keeping your phone out of the room and your eyes on the screen.

PRO-TIP! When you find yourself getting distracted, try this simple technique to regain focus: Stare at a fixed point like a distant object or dot on your screen for 30-60 seconds. Resist the urge to look elsewhere. Notice the mental effort required to maintain focus. Once you’re done, check if you feel more focused on your task. This technique works by suppressing visual distractions and activating attentional control regions in the brain.

03 - Move regularly

Getting up and moving can often feel like the last thing I want to do. But it’s slowly sinking in for me: the less active I am during the day, the more fatigued I feel and the harder it is to focus.

So when it comes to movement, similarly to making sure I get enough sleep even though my mind resists, I am learning to override my mind and prioritize my body.

And all of the research here is clear: We're designed to move. Every single cell in our body responds to it in a way that makes us feel good and motivated and outward-facing.

As soon as you start moving, your heart rate goes up, increasing the supply of oxygen to your muscles and brain. There’s also a boost of dopamine, a hormone involved in pleasure, alertness and motivation, which explains why you feel more focused and fired up when you’re finished.

So include short burst of movements into your day. Go for a light walk. Stretch. Dance to the radio. Do some squats or push-ups. Water the plants. Your body doesn’t care what you do, as long as you’re moving.

(If your mind needs some convincing, read The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal.)

So if you’ve ever felt like there’s something wrong with you whenever you feel distracted or brain foggy, remind yourself of this:

It’s unreasonable to expect that we can sit down and immediately feel super focused, and if we only have an hour, we can use that entire hour to deliver great work.

Andrew Huberman on Rich Roll podcast

To me, this means:

  1. Don’t expect focus to just come to you on demand. Treat it like a skill you need to train, and invest the time and energy to learn about your nervous system.

  2. Don’t expect to be able to use all of your time for focused work. You’ll need to invest time in other things, like sleep and movement. Your mind might resist, but it’s the only way.

Now… let’s get up and move!

What else I’m up to…

  • As we speak: hiking up snowy Gran Paradiso mountain, hopefully making it to the 13,323 ft / 4,061 m top. Wish me luck! 🏔️

  • Planning a LinkedIn Live on Tuesday June 18 with coach Gretchen Nemechek. We’ll be exploring how job seekers can use breathwork and other body-based techniques to support the often stressful job search. Let us know you’re attending here, or feel free to share the link with anyone in your network.

  • Thinking about this idea from a Wild Card episode with Ada Limón (lightly adapted): Neuroscientist Heather Berlin was talking about how the deeper and further she studies the brain, the more generous she is with others, because we are all wired so differently. We are all so individual and so unique, and the way we perceive reality is not the same. The fact that we can be in community, in relationships and partnerships is amazing.”

Thanks for being here! Any questions, comments, thoughts… just reply to this email. ☀️


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