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Peak Mind Pro: Mindfulness at Work

If there was a magic pill that made you sharper, more effective, more creative, and more socially skilled while simultaneously improving the quality of your decisions and reducing the number of mistakes you made – with side effects of lower stress and more happiness – would you take it?

Absolutely! 

And you’d probably give it to everyone on your team or in your organization as well.

While this magic pill doesn’t exist yet, mindfulness does all of those things. 

Mindfulness is your competitive edge

Many people these days have heard of mindfulness and how beneficial it can be, but they’ve dismissed it due, in large part, to misunderstanding what it actually is.

Set aside any preconceived notions of sitting cross-legged on a pillow with your eyes closed and mind going blank. Instead, think of mindfulness as heightened focus and awareness. This combo is your competitive edge. 

In action, mindfulness at work means being fully aware of what is happening, both inside of you and around you, and being able to direct and sustain your focused attention where you need it.

 

Awareness

How much time do you spend on autopilot or lost in your head? If you’re anything like the average person, it’s at least 47% of the time. That means that you are not fully present and focused on what you are doing roughly half of the time. That also means that you’re likely missing out on lots of vital information. Imagine how much more effective you could be if you raised that number even a little bit.

Focus

Being able to direct and control your attention – focusing on what is important while filtering out distractions – allows you to perform at a higher level while exerting less energy. Multitasking is a myth. When we divide our attention, we are actually shifting back and forth from one task to the other, albeit sometimes very quickly. That shifting eats up our limited resource of attention and actually requires more energy and effort resulting in more mental fatigue and stress and less quality work. 

The Solution

Mindfulness – being aware and focused – is a core element of psychological strength. As with all core elements, it is a skill that can be developed if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do so. 

Tips to Try

While setting aside time most days for a formal mindful meditation practice (e.g., with an app like 10% Happier, Calm, or Headspace) can be tremendously beneficial, this just isn’t feasible for many people for a number of reasons. At Peak Mind, we are fans of finding effective ways to build mindfulness into the cracks of a busy, modern lifestyle. Try these tips out for a couple of weeks and see what a difference it can make.

1. Help you and your team have more effective meetings by starting with a little mindfulness. Ask everyone to set aside their phone, tablet, or laptop and spend the first 2 minutes of the meeting in silence thinking about the goals for the meeting. This will allow everyone to show up both physically and mentally, to become aware and focused on the task at hand. You will likely notice that meetings become more efficient.

2. Encourage employees (and model this behavior by doing it yourself) to carve out dedicated work times in which they focus solely on one important task or project. This means making these time blocks as distraction-free as possible by turning off notifications.

3. Build in mini-mindfulness breaks. Set a timer to go off hourly (or at least periodically). When the timer goes off, notice what you are doing and where your mind is. Were you focused on what you’re doing? Try to follow one full breath. This means resting your attention on your breath and trying to stay with it from the start of the inhale, to the pause at the top, and all the way through the exhale. Then, ask yourself, what do I want to focus on right now? 

If you are interested in learning more ways to help you and your team develop this vital skill, email us at info@peakmindpsychology.com

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn
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How and Why to Control Your Attention

What you focus on matters. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life experience.

Psychological resources

When you think about your important resources and how they influence your life, what comes to mind?

Most people think of money or other financial resources. Those are important, for sure. They’re the key to some aspects of stability, freedom, and pleasure. I’d argue, though, that we expend too much time and energy acquiring and protecting that particular resource at the expense of others that have a dramatic impact on our life experience. 

Just as your financial assets may make a tangible difference in the quality of your day-to-day experience, so will your psychological resources. Yet, we often overlook the importance of these resources and how the ways in which we choose to “spend” them will shape our life experience. Today, let’s focus on one important psychological resource: attention.

Attention

Simply put, what we focus on matters. The information we take in and the relationships, activities, and aspects of experience that we spend time on will have a big effect on us. What we focus on day in and day out shapes who we are, our outlook on life and the world, and, ultimately, what we do with our time on this planet. 

Attention is a limited resource, though, so it’s important to think about where and how you “spend” it. Unless you’re a fellow psychologist or really into mindfulness, you probably haven’t thought a lot about where your attention goes and why. 

Internal and external distractions

Our attention gets hijacked all the time, with and without our direct permission, We are constantly being bombarded by demands for attention. Things come at us from the outside (like notifications or loud noises) and from the inside (internal distractions like urges, thoughts, and emotions). Our minds, awesome little jerks that they can be, often don’t help us out because they happily chase any and every distraction unless we have the awareness and ability to stop them.

Being able to consciously direct your attention is an important skill and one that can be developed. Think about the implications here. Rather than having your attention jerked around by any internal or external distraction, what if you could choose where to focus and sustain your attention? What if you could hone in on something and filter out everything else? What if you could stay focused on the things, people, and tasks that you deem worthy? What a difference that would make! Strengthening your attentional control muscle gives you an advantage in virtually every area of life.

Get intentional with your attention

One of my favorite authors, Mark Manson, introduced the concept of our attention diet, comparable to nutrition. If we eat the super appealing, highly addictive, easy junk foods like candy and chips, we may find momentary pleasure. But at what cost? Repeatedly, over time, eating junk makes our bodies incredibly unhealthy. Manson argues it’s the same thing with our minds. If we repeatedly consume junk, there will be a negative impact on the quality, strength, and health of our minds. That makes sense to me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good Netflix binge. But, if I’m being honest, what actually happens after more than a day of heavy TV watching is that my motivation goes down. It’s that much easier to hang out on the couch the next day and to lose steam on the projects that are actually important or value-adding to me. What’s more is that the quality of my thoughts and mood are impacted, too. My enthusiasm is dampened, and things in general feel a little more blah. I know this isn’t just me. 

Guarding your attention

In addition to having the ability to control our attention, being intentional about where we choose to direct our attention is critical. Here are a few tips for protecting and maximizing this precious psychological resource.

1. Take up a mindfulness practice

Mindfulness, a core element of psychological strength, is essentially attention training, and I believe that’s part of why it’s such a beneficial practice to cultivate. There are a ton of ways to build mindfulness, and I’d encourage you to experiment until you find some that work for you. If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, join us at our next Quarterly Workshop (it’s virtual), Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think, in July.  

2. Be ruthless with distractions and ntifications

You expend less energy and waste less of your limited attention if you set yourself up for success. Be brutal when it comes to notifications. Ask yourself, do I really want to let this app interrupt me and hijack my attention at any point? Do I really need these notifications on my watch? Put your phone on silent or do not disturb when you need to focus or, better yet, leave it in another room. Same thing goes with being available online for direct messaging. Remove distractions and attention hijackers from your environment when possible.

3. Reflect on what you take in

Spend some time regularly reflecting on what you’re taking in and the quality of your attention diet, so to speak. Are you gorging yourself on junk information and relationships or are you taking in high quality, nutrient rich ones? 

Bottom line: It’s important to consider how your attention shapes who you are and what your life is like. Being able to intentionally direct and control your attention can make a big difference in the quality of your life.

“Remember: What gets attention is not always important. And what is important rarely gets attention.”
Mark Manson
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Podcasts

Take a Self-Compassion Break

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There’s no denying it – the last handful of years have been very challenging. Aside from the personal adversity we’ve all felt in our individual lives, we’ve faced incredible collective adversity. The pandemic. Political divide. Crime and mass shootings. It has all been a lot to handle, and many of us have found ourselves searching for ways to move through it and cope.

Thankfully, the field of psychology has a very effective tool for times like these: self-compassion. By opening up to and being mindful of our own emotional experience, by realizing that we aren’t alone in the way we’re feeling, and by offering ourselves kindness rather than criticism, we can help support ourselves through truly challenging times.

The main audio of this episode is a replay of an impromptu self-compassion break I led the day after the mass shooting at the elementary school in Ulvalde, Texas. Quite a few people from around the world joined in community to learn how to apply this important tool during challenging times.

Not everyone who wanted to join was able to (it was a very last-minute session), so this week’s podcast episode is a replay of the audio of that session.

In addition, there is a very valuable section at the end of this podcast about what it means to support other people through challenging times. So many times we say, “I just don’t know what to say or do.” And so we do nothing. The final segment of this week’s podcast helps give you another perspective on those situations, and I give you some practical tips about how you can support others during painful or challenging times.

Additional Resources:

  1. Fierce Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
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Blogs

Mindfulness Practice, by a Former Skeptic

My mom and I are close. I’ve always adored her but, when I was younger, I scoffed a bit at (what I used to call) her Zen-Buddha-karma hippie interests. Like meditation. She had a mindfulness practice before people even knew what that was. She was into yoga before it was cool, so I was exposed to it as a teen in the mid-90s. I didn’t mind yoga as a physical practice, but the meditation piece, though, no thank you. 

In fact, I turned down a trip to Costa Rica with her about 10 or so years ago because of it. She called to tell me about this amazing yoga retreat she was going on. I was in until she shared the schedule, which included an early morning meditation class. That was a hard pass for me.

Keep in mind that when I rolled my eyes at her meditation, I wasn’t some young kid who couldn’t sit still. I was a full-fledged doctoral level licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I knew a lot about the human mind and how it works, and I. Was. SKEPTICAL.

Make your mind go blank? I called B.S. MINDS DON’T GO BLANK!

Which is true, they don’t. The mind wanders if you don’t focus on the present, but it doesn’t just go blank. The issue was that I didn’t really understand what mindfulness meant. I didn’t get the point of meditation.

And that was a HUGE oversight on my part.

Thankfully though, as a scientist at heart and a clinician who continually strives to learn and stay current, I couldn’t help but delve into this world, and I am now a fully reformed skeptic. I’m 100% on the mindfulness bandwagon and strongly encourage everyone to hop on it with me. It is for your mind what working out is for your body…nothing short of transformative.

Here are some of the factors that made me change my tune.

The Data

Hardcore research studies may not do much for you, but they do for me, and the results are compelling. Scientists and researchers have been studying the effects of mindfulness practices (such as mindfulness based stress reduction or MBSR), and it is nothing short of a miracle. Regular mindfulness exercises:

  • Decrease anxiety, depression, anxiety
  • Decrease stress
  • Increase happiness
  • Increase focus and concentration

I’m into all of those effects. Mental health and wellbeing is my business! But here’s where it gets even more crazy cool and convincing. Mindfulness – a mental practice involving awareness of the present moment, simply paying attention to the here and now – affects your body. too. Studies have shown that mindfulness has done amazing things like:

  • Decrease physical pain
  • Turn off 7% of the genes involved in your stress response. Literally switches them off.
  • Boost your immune response (for example, researchers injected people with something known to cause skin rashes, but the people who had been practicing mindfulness didn’t get one!)
  • Even slow down the aging process on a cellular level

Seeing data like these was enough to convince me that this practice, which has been around in various forms for thousands of years, was legit. My direct experiences, though, keep me believing.

My Own Experiences

The actual details of how I incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my life vary over time, from informal to formal guided practices, and I’m not always consistent. Fortunately, there is always the option to simply begin again when I get off track. For me, personally, the top changes and benefits I’ve seen from this lifestyle practice include:

Self-awareness and understanding

Mindfulness has allowed me to observe my inner workings, gaining a better understanding of myself and my patterns of thinking and reacting. My ability to see these processes unfold in the moment has increased, too, which leads to…

Less emotional reactivity

I seem to be much more even-keel emotionally, less reactive in the moment, which is great because I feel more in charge and in control. I’m also much better able to sit with my emotions (to observe those sunsets, if you caught this previous post).

Pleasure in small moments

Because mindfulness is essentially an attention training process, there are some, perhaps, surprising side effects. One is that I’m more attune to the small pleasures and joyous moments in life. I noticed that I literally stopped to smell the roses on a walk not too long after starting my practice. Pre-mindfulness and meditation (Pre-M), I most likely would’ve just glanced at those flowers, if I had noticed them at all.

Patience

Another benefit, for me at least, is patience. Pre-M Ashley was ants-in-the-pants restless on a 3 hour road trip. Post-M Ashley handled a 13 hour flight…with an extra 3 hour delay…in stride. Very little misery. A surprising amount of pleasure. I blame mindfulness.

I’ve heard that boredom is an attention issue, that nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention to it. My own experiences echo that. I have rarely found myself feeling bored since starting a mindfulness practice, even when there’s very little apparent stimulation. I can be quiet and still (believe it or not).

Develop Your Own Mindfulness Practice

There are an endless number of ways to start to build your own mindfulness practice, ranging from apps like 10% Happier to Peak Mind programs like Ascend and our Quarterly Workshops (and, of course, you’re welcome to join those), but where I really want to direct you is to this amazing FREE online summit coming up in January 2022. 

Dr. April, Peak Mind co-founder, is teaming up with Dr. Fleet Maull of the Heart Mind Institute to host the 2022 Best Year of Your Life Summit. It’s 10 days of free content from THE leading psychologists, meditation teachers (including one of my personal favorites, Sharon Salzberg), and visionaries. (Seriously. I flipped when I saw the line up). It’s way more than mindfulness, but what a great place to start (or strengthen) your practice. See you there!

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Blogs

Connecting the Dots: Interpreting Our Experience

Just as everyone breathed a sigh of good riddance to the past year, 2021 made a dramatic entrance, at least in the U.S., when supporters of President Trump stormed the capitol on Wednesday, adding yet another entry to the List of Unprecedented Events.

Whether we’re talking about disturbing global events or the individual happenings of our daily lives, our minds work hard to interpret our experience and understand our world. They take in tons of bits of data, process that information, and, ultimately, make sense out of it. They do this by filling in gaps to create a cohesive narrative.

Our minds want the world to make sense, so they construct these narratives, or stories, to explain the whys, make meaning, figure out implications, and find some predictability. I call it connecting the dots.

Connecting the Dots

Look at these dots below. How would you connect them?

Great! Now can you find another way to connect them?

Perhaps you automatically saw a house, a star, or a zig zag. Which one is right? How difficult was it for you to come up with some alternatives? 

The Point

These dots represent facts – as close to objective things as we can get – which your mind then links together in a way that helps you understand what is or has happened. Without connecting the dots, we’d feel completely lost!

The issue, though, is that the way we connect dots depends a lot more on our histories, our belief systems, and our subconscious programming than on some objective truth. That’s why two people, even two well-meaning and reasonably bright people, can have very different takes on the same scenario.

While there may not be a right or wrong way to connect the dots, there are certainly different ways. And, depending on how you connect those dots, you see a very different picture…and then you operate in the world as though that picture is an absolutely accurate representation of reality.

What if – just what if – our minds are connecting dots in the wrong way? Or, if not wrong, per se, an unhelpful way? What if there’s a better way to interpret our experiences? What if we struggle to interpret our experience?

And, what if there are a lot more dots that we just can’t quite see? Wouldn’t that make a big difference in the picture? But, because we don’t know what we don’t know, our minds just fill in the narrative despite the missing info.

The stories we tell ourselves (or more aptly, the stories our minds tell us) become our reality. We accept them as truth and weight them like facts, often not realizing that they can be edited, revised, altered, or deleted all together.

A Solution 

Our minds are going to continue to connect dots to interpret our experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing this, though, means that you can make your mind do some work for you, rather than accepting its first draft of the story, especially if that draft isn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What story is my mind telling me?
  • What dots is it trying to connect?
  • Is it possible that I’m missing some important information, not seeing all of the dots?
  • What’s another way to connect the dots? Another explanation? Another perspective?
  • Which version is more helpful to me?

This practice of becoming aware of the narratives and working on revising them can have a huge impact! If you’re interested in learning more about how your mind works and how those inner workings profoundly impact your life experience, you may like our ASCEND program. Module 2 is all about your mind…and tools for making it work for you.

But for now, work on being aware that the narratives exist. Notice how yours influence you, and strive to connect dots in more useful ways.

“The world you’re actually in may not be harsh. But the world your mind puts you in can be harsh as heck.”
– Dr. Steven Hayes
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What a Bug on Your Windshield Can Teach You About Mindfulness

I came across this excellent metaphor on how to focus attention this week, and I have to share it.

You’re driving down the road, and a giant bug splats on the window right in front of you. Maybe you startle a bit as the splat suddenly enters your awareness. Then what?

You can focus all of your attention on the bug guts splattered on your window. Or, you can focus your attention on the road ahead. You’re still aware of the bug, but your attention is focused on the road.

Let’s say, though, that the bug grosses you out or annoys you and you just don’t want it there (you just cleaned your windshield!). What happens if you try to remove the bug from your awareness? If you try to deny its existence or pretend like it’s not there? That gunk on your car will stand out even more! 

Paradoxically, trying not to notice something actually makes you fixate on it more. (Those of you who hate certain sounds know exactly what I’m talking about here). And, if you go more extreme and close your eyes, well, that’s disastrous. Either you have to pull your car over, which means you won’t get anywhere, or you’re going to crash. Neither sounds like a good option.

So, you rule out those options, but you still just do not want that bug to be there. As you focus on the bug, you start thinking…about how nasty it is, how it shouldn’t be there, about how you’re going to grab the paper towels and windex when you get home and clean all the smudges, whatever. It doesn’t really matter what those specific thoughts are. You’re ruminating now, which is a pretty unhelpful mental habit. Your attention is fully absorbed by your thoughts. You’re in your head, which means that you’re not in the moment. You’re actually missing out on real life. 

The more we pay attention to the present moment, the happier we tend to be, even when those present moments are unpleasant (like a bug splat). And like that bug, unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, events, and circumstances may crop up, whether we want them to or not.

Whether we asked for them, caused them, or had anything to do with them. What shows up in our awareness isn’t necessarily under our control. Where we focus our attention, however, is. 

Choosing to pay attention to the things that help move us in the direction we want to go is a powerful psychological strength move. It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice, but it’s so worth it!

“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.”
― John Green

P.S. A big thank you to Carl Robbins and Dr. Sally Winstead, professional colleagues at the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland, for sharing this metaphor.

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Blogs

Psychological Strength in the Face of a Pandemic

Our message this week is a long one, but it’s worthwhile.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the coronavirus. You’ve probably also been affected in some way:

Events have been canceled. Businesses and schools have closed or shifted to remote options. Supplies at grocery stores have sold out in places, and the stock market has plummeted.

With organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) issuing the need for safety precautions like social distancing and working from home, and various levels of government calling various states of emergency, it’s hard not to worry…or worry that you’re not worrying enough. As the death toll rises in the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major public health crisis. 

It is so important, perhaps now more than ever, to focus on building mental toughness and psychological strength. We’re used to thinking about and working on our physical health, but we don’t always think about taking action to improve our mental health and wellbeing. It’s time to change that. These action steps will help increase your mental toughness and resilience during this difficult time.

For more than a decade, my day job as a clinical psychologist has been helping people learn to manage anxiety effectively. So here are a few tips to help you keep your cool while staying safe:

Understanding Your Mind

First, it’s important to understand a couple things about how the mind works:

This is an oversimplification, but it’ll make the point. There is a part of our minds that is capable of mental representation. This means we are able to daydream, worry, plan, and predict. We are capable of imagining things, creating them in our minds. 

Unfortunately, the part of our mind that controls emotions can’t tell the difference between real and imagined. That means that imagined worst case scenarios provoke the same emotional response as actual bad things happening. Our fear systems can sometimes get activated by things that are happening in our minds, not in real life.

Another thing you need to know is that our minds are master storytellers. They are designed to take a few data points, connect the dots, and fill in the gaps. Our minds make assumptions, create predictions, assign meaning, offer interpretations, and add judgments to the bits of information we take in. In other words, they spin up stories, and, when anxiety is writing that narrative, it’s going to err on the side of danger, overestimation of threat, and catastrophe.

Knowing these things, it is important to question your mind and to separate the facts from the fictions. Facts are the things that you can know for sure, right now, through your direct sensory experience. Fictions are the things, elements, and details added by your mind.

ACTION STEP 1: Hone in the FACTS of the situation.

A challenge with the coronavirus situation is that most of us have very few (if any) direct experience facts, so we have to rely on other sources of information. In an era in which information is readily available anytime, anywhere, misinformation is everywhere. 

Remember, anyone can post ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, regardless of credibility or evidence to back it, and we live in an era in which shock value is rewarded by clicks, views, and shares. It is important to look for credible sources of information. (If you want to see data collections and what studies show, then Google Scholar is a good tool, along with directives from the WHO and CDC.) 

Our minds are powerful, but they are not always accurate, and this is evident when it comes to the illusion of truth effect. Our minds will believe things they hear repeatedly, regardless of the merits of that information. They mistake repetition for indication of truth. 

Even when we rationally know that the source of the information is questionable or that claims are alarmist or unrealistic, a part of our mind is still soaking up that information and encoding it…and it will stick like  – and in the long term be treated as – fact even though it didn’t start that way.

ACTION STEP 2: Go on a media diet and limit your input.

Be incredibly mindful about the content and media you are consuming right now. Make sure it comes from reputable sources, and limit how often you check the news and social media.

In these uncertain times, credible sources are issuing cautions, and It’s hard to ignore all of the signs that suggest that something bad is, in fact, happening, which means that It’s not realistic to “just not worry about it” or “carry on with life as usual.” How do we determine when and how much to worry, and what to do about it?

I advise my patients to use this general framework to help tease apart realistic from excessive worry:

1.     Is this an actual problem (as opposed to an imagined or hypothetical one)?

2.     Is this an actual problem for today (as opposed to one that must be handled down the road at some point)?

3.     Is this an actual problem for today that I can control (as opposed to something that I have no control over and cannot influence, prevent, or change)?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, it’s time to problem-solve and come up with an action plan. However, if the answer to any one of them is “no”, it’s time to use your psychological strength to keep fear in check and to focus on what matters right here and now.

ACTION STEP 3: Use these filters to help size worry:

1.     Is this problem a real problem?

2.     Is this a problem for today?

3.     Is this a problem that I can control?

Coping skills like mindfulness (paying full attention to what you’re doing right here, right now), thought challenging (questioning the accuracy and helpfulness of what your mind is saying), and valued actions (acting in line with who and how you want to be as a person, regardless of external circumstances) can help keep excessive fear and worry in check.

ACTION STEP 4: Continue to build psychological strength!

Subscribe to our podcast to catch this week’s episode in which Dr. April and I talk about these strategies in more depth.

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Podcasts Uncategorized

How to Quarantine Like an Endurance Athlete

We’ve now been at this social distancing and quarantine thing for a few weeks, and it’s likely that people’s mood and mindset are starting to take a dive.

Above all, we’re here for you, and we’re cheering for you. You can do this. 

Story Time

On Fridays, Dr. Ashley and I have a weekly call where we hash through business-related items for Peak Mind. At that very moment, I was making lunch for my kids. My 4-year-old was yelling in the background for her sandwich, and my 20-month-old who refused to go to bed the prior night was scream-crying while attached to my leg.

It was a hurricane of stress and activity.

Ashley, being the amazing psychologist that she is, paused and said, “So, how are you doing?”

My response might surprise you.

I said, “Honey, I’m 8 miles into a marathon. Now is not the time to start concentrating on how bad my feet hurt.”

And it occurred to me, the way I’ve been coping with the difficulty, pressure, and stress of this time is to approach it the way I learned to approach very long runs. There is a very specific mindset trick that I learned from so many years of pounding the pavement, and I want to share it with you today.

Quarantine is an endurance event

The marathon, my endurance event of choice, is an incredible physical challenge, but what many people don’t realize is that it’s more mental than physical.

Endurance events require you to do just that: ENDURE.

Endure much longer than you’d like to endure. It’s called endurance training for a reason. You train not only to maintain fitness, but to keep going past the point that you think is your limit. To continue when you’re hungry, thirsty, your joints ache, your feet are blistered, and your body is begging you to stop.

Endurance events require you to get to that point…your breaking point…the point where you think you have to stop….but then keep going. Endure.

Yes, there is a physical training component to marathons, but what people don’t realize is that the physical training is the easy part. Show up, do your miles. 

The truly difficult part is the mindset work that is required to continue to make yourself push further and further past your breaking point.

The situation we’re currently in is not unlike a marathon. We’re being asked to do something uncomfortable for a much longer duration than we’d like to be doing it. Because of that, here are a few things I’ve learned from my years as an endurance athlete that are helping me endure through this time as well.

I hope they help you too.

The key to enduring is to acknowledge, but not obsess

A marathon is exactly 26.2 miles. That is longer than anyone wants to run in a single day.

In between you and the finish line are hills, exhaustion, pain, hunger, thirst, self-doubt, and fear.

There will be moments that have the potential to feel just as overwhelming as my story about talking on the phone with Ashley. This is true for marathons and it’s certainly true for the endurance event we’re all involved in right now.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my days as a marathoner is to acknowledge your circumstances, but do not obsess over them. 

Notice the pain, but don’t dwell on it.

Notice your fear, but don’t dwell on it.

Notice the chaos around you, but don’t dwell on it.

Instead, notice it, acknowledge it, and intentionally move your attention elsewhere. Sounds a lot like mindfulness, doesn’t it?

Because here’s the thing, if there’s one sure-fire way to make the pain, fear, uncertainty, or chaos feel EVEN BIGGER, it’s dwelling, obsessing, and focusing on it. Allowing your thoughts, mood, and feelings to be uncontrollably dragged down by it. 

Your mind IS your biggest asset in an endurance event.

When boredom, isolation, overwhelm, sadness, or fear begins to creep into your mind, acknowledge it, then re-focus.

Focus on the finish line. 

This will end. This is not long term. This is not high intensity training. This is all about pacing. You will not have to stay at home forever. 

Remind yourself that, although the road ahead is long, it is finite. You WILL reach the finish line, and you’ll be more grateful for your “old life” because you’ve endured this time without it. Think of this as a piece of your training plan for the rest of your life. 

A quick note on pacing

One of the little known facts about endurance events is that pacing is key. 

Your goal on race day is to run at about 60-70% for a looooooooong time. 60-70%. That’s it. 

In this endurance event, your #1 goal is to pace yourself. Make forward progress, but be constantly aware of your energy store.

Protect it.

Finally, a quick note on race cadence

This part is going to be tough to read, but I feel responsible to write it because I want you to be ready for what is to come.

Endurance events have a very predictable cadence. There are 4 phases:

  • Phase 1: FUN!!! The gun goes off, you’re feeling rested, refreshed, and good, and you bounce off the line and spend the next 5-8 miles smiling and high-fiving little kids along the race route.
  • Phase 2: Meaning. Around miles 8-10, things start to get a little hard. In this phase, cope by focusing on meaningful things, like the bigger reason why you run, gratitude for your body, etc.
  • Phase 3: Hitting the wall. Right around mile 20, many marathoners hit “the wall.”  Everything hurts. Your mindset and attentional control is CRITICAL in this phase.
  • Phase 4: The finish!!! 

My prediction is that we are about to hit our first wall. Here’s why:

  • Phase 1: We had fun with quarantine. We made the best of it! We had the push-up challenge, people posted fun photos with their kids and the delicious meals they were making.
  • Phase 2: We’re here now. People are focusing on more meaningful activities like sewing masks, cutting out hearts for their front windows, and supporting healthcare workers.

This means, if race cadence prevails, the wall is next. Be ready for it. 

My challenge to you

My challenge to you over the next 1-2 weeks is to keep your head in the game.

Acknowledge the way you’re feeling but work hard to move your attention to other things.

This quarantine is an endurance event. You are being asked to endure longer than you’d like to.

Your actual limit is so much further than “the wall” will lead you to believe.

You CAN endure.

We’re here for you

Please know that we’re here to help you thrive through these uncertain times. We’re cheering you on!

And please be sure to be there for yourself! Self-care is critical! You wouldn’t show up to a marathon without eating or sleeping or doing the things you need to do to make sure you’re in tip top race shape. 

The same goes for now, too! You need a solid, effective self-care routine to help you show up in tip top shape, mentally, physically, emotionally, and energetically. Self-care [by Design] can help you do just that. 

 
“It is only in our darkest hours that we may discover the true strength of the brilliant light within ourselves that can never, ever, be dimmed.”
 – Doe Zantamata
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Blogs

Feeling Fuzzy or Forgetful? A Lesson About Cognitive Load

I’m going to cut right to the chase today – we’ve been hearing from many people that they’re feeling foggy, forgetful, or absent-minded; these are symptoms of significant cognitive load.

You know, when you walk into a room and totally forget to do the ONE THING you went into the room to do?!

If you’re a mom, you’ve likely experienced it and had people say, “Oh, you’ve got ‘mom brain.'” 

As it turns out, “mom brain” is something much more pervasive, it has a scientific name: cognitive load and many people are experiencing it right now.

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to a state that we experience when our finite amount of working memory is used up by the current mental tasks we’re trying to accomplish. 

Quick background, “working memory” is our quick-access memory system that is used for things that we’re currently working on. Extraneous cognitive load greatly inhibits our abilities to recall even basic elements of our tasks.

The good thing about working memory is that we have quick access to it. The bad thing is that it’s not reliable. Information isn’t even really encoded there. You have to work hard to keep information in working memory, like reciting your shopping list over and over in your mind, and the second you stop reciting it over and over, it’s lost.

It’s that resource-intensive repetition that causes cognitive load.

The only other option is to commit the information to long-term memory, but that takes hundreds of repetitions over the course of days or weeks. Not realistic for day-to-day tasks.

In our normal lives, this looks more like:

  • Attempting to work
  • while being interrupted by kids or others
  • while trying to remember that long list of items you still need to accomplish (appointments, email replies, items to buy, phone calls to make, what food is in the fridge, etc.)

By simultaneously holding “mental space” for all of these ongoing things, we deplete our working memory down to zero. Just like a computer out of memory, our information processing system has shut down. This example is just one of many types of cognitive load issues we might face.

There’s nothing left to help us remember that we went into the other room to grab our cell phone charger, for example.

And, as a result, we call our kids by the wrong name, lose our car keys, make errors at work, forget important items on the shopping list, forget an important family member’s birthday, the list goes on.

Who cares?

If you’re a well-intentioned, empathetic person who’s honestly trying to do a good job, you likely beat yourself up for being stupid or lazy or forgetful when this happens.

But, like so many of the topics we cover at Peak Mind, intrinsic cognitive load is just something that happens to humans who have brains.

If you are a human with a brain, you will experience cognitive load at some point, and if you’re taking on more than others around you, you’re likely to experience it more often. You’ve got more on your mind.

While our cognitive architecture can be adjusted through neuroplasticity efforts, cognitive psychology research shows us that you can’t “get good at” handling too much information. It’s not a limitation of yours. It’s a limitation every single human being has. It’s important to reduce your load on working memory capacity, especially when dealing with complex tasks. But, there are a few tips and tricks from the field of Life Design that can help you minimize it.

Minimizing Cognitive Load

STEP 1: Brain dump

The problem that’s causing your cognitive load is that you’re trying to hold too much stuff in working memory at the same time.

To get it out of your working memory, sit down, and write down everything going on in your mind. There are likely quite a few categories of things, such as:

  • Important, upcoming dates, deadlines, and responsibilities
  • Daily, mundane tasks you need to do
  • Shopping lists
  • Other family members’ / people’s needs
  • Things you’re particularly worried about right now

Brain dump them all onto a piece of paper, and add to it over the course of the day. Anytime a thought pops up that you feel like you have to remember, write it down.

STEP 2: Organize

Start to clump those categories and the items underneath them into broader groups, like:

  • Running lists (e.g., shopping, to-do lists, etc)
  • Dates & deadlines
  • Feelings & emotions

STEP 3: Create a System

Chances are you can’t eliminate many of these items from your list. It’s not realistic.

However, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HOLD THESE ITEMS IN MEMORY! Tools exist specifically for things like this!

The goal of this step is to make a system that you can use to handle the items that normally are in your mind, opening you up to have less memory problems, better mental clarity, and a better ability to problem solve. 

Here are my favorite tips:

  • Every single date and deadline gets scheduled on a calendar. And, I mean ALL OF THEM. If it involves other people, it goes on a shared calendar that notifies them 1 week, 1 day, and 1 hour before the event.
  • Every to-do list item that requires time to accomplish either gets put on the same calendar or it gets put on a back-log list (my list is in my iPhone). 
  • Create a running shopping list on your phone or in a common place in the house where everyone who needs to access it can access it. 

There are probably other bullets that you need to employ to take care of your unique situation, but the general concept is to account for all of the “stuff” clouding up your mind by putting it in a reliable, safe place so that you don’t have to remember it.

Iterate, iterate, iterate

Chances are, you’ll falter at first. You’ll forget to add items, or you’ll revert back to your old habit of just mentally reciting everything.

Adjust, go back to your system, and review it regularly to remind yourself that you’ve got everything accounted for. 

Over time, the anxiety associated with being afraid you might drop a ball will lessen as your mind catches on that it doesn’t have to take on so much anymore.

This system is one of the core elements of my self-care routine. I have a daily, weekly, and monthly task on my calendar to review this system, add to it, make adjustments, reprioritize, etc. It keeps my mind clear and my anxiety level down. 

If you want to develop your own blockbuster self-care routine, you can follow the method I use in Self-Care [by Design].

But, for now, be kind to yourself. If you’re feeling forgetful or frazzled, know that it’s simply cognitive load theory because you’re human and taking on more than one human being’s worth of stuff right now. No need to lose hours of sleep worrying this is Alzheimer’s disease or simply a part of aging. Rather this is natural side effect of your busy life! 

“Be kind to your body, gentle with your mind, and patient with your heart. You are still becoming, my love, and there is no one more deserving of the nurturing grace of your love.”
 – Becca Lee
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Blogs

Be Like Gerda: Finding Gratitude in Darkest Times

Profound Conversations

Among many Holocaust survivor stories, few compare to that of our friend, Gerda.

You know those conversations that just stick with you? The ones that don’t necessarily seem significant at the time but that worm their way into your memory, take root, and blossom into something that fundamentally shifts your worldview?

Have you ever had that experience second-hand? When you weren’t even a part of the original conversation, you just heard the recap?

I have, and I want to share that with you.

Gerda’s Story

A few years ago, back before Peak Mind was even a consideration and Dr. April had just gotten into podcasting, she and I were catching up on the phone talking about grateful people and stories of gratitude. She told me about a recent guest she had just interviewed, a woman who survived the Holocaust. April told me that in their conversation, the woman (who I now know is named Gerda Weissman Klein) remarked to her that no one ever talks about the good parts of the Holocaust. 

EXCUSE ME?! The good parts of the Holocaust? There were GOOD parts of the greatest human atrocity of modern times? Anne Frank must have left that chapter out of her diary.

Gerda told Dr. April about the compassion and support and friendship and sacrifice amongst the Jews in the concentration camps.

The atrocities of the second world war with forced labor of men, women, and children, being deported to Auschwitz, seeing friends and family members taken to the gas chambers are too much to bear. I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships and suffering that Holocaust survivors had to endure, and I was blown away that one would highlight the bright spots.

Honestly, I was blown away that there were any bright spots.

That fact speaks to some of the strengths of the human spirit.

Finding a bright spot, something to appreciate or be grateful for, doesn’t negate the pain, the suffering, the hardship, or the adversity you are facing. Those things are real, and they’re there. They’re hard to ignore, and they tend to demand and hold our attention.

Finding Gratitude 

In my clinical practice, I often teach both kids and adults about our brain’s natural negativity bias, the importance of finding a “but at least” in every crummy situation, and the power of gratitude (there are SO MANY psychological and physical benefits, trust me). I am often, however, met with a version of “But this sucks! There’s nothing good about it.”

That’s when I share my second-hand conversation with Gerda. If she can find something to be grateful for during the Holocaust, I’m pretty sure we can find something here in the United States.

The attitude of gratitude – or the act of finding and focusing on those bright spots –  helps us have a more balanced view of our experience. It helps us to be strong and resilient. It gives us a lifeline to cling to when it feels like we’re drowning.

Don’t short-change this practice, though, by quickly naming things you should appreciate. Seek out the unique bright spots for that day, and when you find one, savor it. Really focus on it, tap into that sense of gratitude, and hold on to it for just a little while (10-12 seconds to be exact. That’s about how long it takes positive stuff to get encoded in our memories, in contrast to the negative stuff that gets socked away pretty much instantaneously).  

And as you work to find your bright spots during difficult times, please don’t let gratitude become a sneaky way to shame yourself. “You’ve got a roof over your head and food to eat. You should be grateful. Why are you struggling?” or “There’s always a bright spot. Why can’t you find it? What’s wrong with you?” Commence the self-criticism spiral. 

In those moments, perhaps the bright spot is simply that you tried; amidst everything else going on, you tried, and that speaks to your strength.

Whether your circumstances in this pandemic make it easy or difficult, I implore you to find something to feel grateful for each and every day.

Be grateful.

Be strong.

Be like Gerda.

“I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars.” 
 – Gerda Weissman Klein

 P.S. If you want to hear Gerda’s powerful story, here’s her interview with April.