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Episode 214: Mental Focus


And hello to you and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast.
The personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate and motivate you to be the best you can be. I’m psychotherapist Richard Nicholls and this is episode 214 it’s titled Mental Focus and if you're ready we'll start the show.
Hello hello hello! It's a new month. Or at least it will be when it goes live because I'm recording this on what would normally be the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of May and it's not actually June until Wednesday but instead of a Bank Holiday Monday we've got a Bank Holiday Thursday this year to commemorate the Queen making it to 70 years on the throne and they're giving us a Bank Holiday Friday as well, so this week everyones
trying to cram in a weeks worth of work into 3 days. Good luck folks! So there's a lot going on. Although even without that people are saying to me that it's been quite hard to concentrate lately, maybe people are trying to catch up on their socialising when they had 2 years of doing less of it and they're making up for lost time, maybe a lot of us are doing extra hours at work to try and pay off the loan we took out just so we could heat the house and put fuel in the car,
whatever it is I know I'm not alone in feeling a bit out of focus lately.
So when we lose our concentration, our mental focus, it is definitely worth looking at what's going on. Because there are lots of reasons as to why it might be happening. And some not so obvious ones as well actually. It's not always because you've got too much on and don't know what to do first sometimes it can be plain old procrastination.
I've met many clients who come to me for help with their studies for example because they can't concentrate and are easily distracted. And they want to learn some magical hypnotic mind altering technique to give them focus and the thing is without looking at why that focus wasn't there in the first place we could end up with a temporary fix for a permanent problem, and that's not ideal. Because those sorts of techniques would soon become useless.
And we end up thinking that we can't be helped. when actually the issue might well have been that the thing we couldn't focus on was something we didn't even want to do in the first place. Or we procrastinate because a PART of us wanted to do it but a stronger part of us didn't. A scared part maybe. An overwhelmed part possibly. Sometimes we're distracted from the job at hand by our subconscious defence mechanisms telling us that changing the bed sheets is more important
and we believe the lies we tell ourselves we really do. If we tell ourselves that we need to put the mop over the kitchen floor before we do our tax return then that's probably a lie. Not too harmful a lie but it's still a lie that we've conned ourselves into believing. Now when we put the mop over the kitchen floor before we prepare for a job interview then that's a lie that could cause problems. We tend to call it productive procrastinating
to differentiate it from the the procrastinating of just scrolling through social media or binge watching crappy TV. And we need to be aware of it because most procrastination, especially productive procrastinating, is unconscious. We don't hear the instructions from our brain telling us what to do or rather we don't hear the reasons behind it. We might hear the instructions that say "Mop the floor"
because we feel the urge to do it, and turn it into conscious words but we don't hear the instructions in the first place, we just get the urge. Otherwise we'd hear the reasons why, we'd hear the unconscious say "don't bother preparing for the job interview because they'll hate you anyway." If we could hear our unconscious we might have a better chance of doing something about dealing with it. But our unconscious processes, our instincts our beliefs about self and all that jazz,
run too quickly through the brain for language to be a part of it. Instead all we get is the urge for a particular behaviour. So if we can think for a bit about those urges to prevent us from falling fowl of defence mechanisms we might find some understanding. We might not like what we find on our journey of self discovery, but it's better than not knowing. Now that's a common reason why we struggle to focus on things
but we can't ignore the possibility that we've just taken on too much and need a rest. It's something that people talk about in therapy all the time, because this phrase of giving a 110 percent keeps cropping up with various different folk, all dotted around the country, must give a hundred and ten percent. Well that's not how percentages work is it, you only ever have a hundred percent to give
and some of that you might need to reserve some for giving something to yourself. But if you work at this fictitious 110 percent. Which ok isn't really 110 percent it means give everything you can but do it quicker than usual. If you work at that level and it tires you out to the degree where actually you're only performing at 90 percent anyway because your brain can't send the signals fast enough because you're exhausted,
then you might be tempted to push yourself further to try and perform at 110 percent which exhausts you more so you're now only performing at 80% which, means you have to push yourself even harder which exhausts you more and now you're only able to create 70% and so on and so on. Sometimes you need to stop and sharpen your axe. Or as Stephen Covey originally called it sharpen your saw.
Stephen Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the 7th habit was called sharpen your saw, but because he trade marked it if anyone wants to use a similar metaphor they tell a slightly different story. It's a common metaphor but it's really important to hammer the point home and actually it was Abraham Lincoln who probably popularised the idea anyway so there's nothing new under the sun anyway if you've never heard it before the story goes like this.
Once upon a time, a very strong woodcutter asked for a job in a timber merchant. The pay was really good and so were the working conditions. For those reasons, the woodcutter was determined to do his best. His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he would work and told him he was on a weeks trial to see if he could work hard enough. And off he went. The first day, the woodcutter cut down 20 trees. “Wow,” the boss said. 07:30
“Carry on like that and you've got a job for life here mate!” Motivated by his bosses words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only bring down 18 trees. "That's alright" said his boss "it's still a good amount but try harder tomorrow." So the third day he tried even harder still, but he could only manage 14 trees. And his boss isn't sounding as impressed as he was at the beginning of the week. Day after day, the woodcutter finished with fewer and
fewer trees yet the sweat's pouring out of him. And so by the end of the week his boss takes him to one side and says "Look. You're just not cut out for consistent hard work are you, I'm sorry mate, but you've got to go." The woodcutter apologises and goes and gets his things. He hands his equipment back to his boss And as he handed the axe back his boss took one look at it and said “When was the last time you sharpened this axe?” “Sharpen it?" said the woodcutter
I’ve had no time to sharpen my axe. I've been too busy trying to cut down trees.” And I know its obvious, it really is obvious that you can't function well if your body is knackered. Get some rest if you have too. Make sure you're eating right, drinking enough water, all the stuff that we all know but find it hard to stick to sometimes. It's no secret that if you want to be at your best you need to rest. It's true because it rhymes.
I didn't intend it to but there you are. There's actually some studies into that that you're more likely to believe something if it's put into a rhyme. The brain likes the rhythm to it so be careful with some advertising slogans or political messages if they rhyme, because they could be manipulative. I've gone off on a tangent here haven't I that's not a surprise. Yeah, its called the rhyme-as-reason effect,
or Eaton-Rosen phenomenon where a saying is framed as more accurate if its written in rhyme. Its related to the Keats heuristic where a statements truth is evaluated according to its aesthetic qualities if it sounds nice it gets accepted. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit," got OJ Simpson off a murder charge, remember that now. If Johnnie Cochran had been less eloquent
or hyperbolic and said "because the glove does not fit, it does not belong to O.J. Simpson, and thus he is innocent" he may well have been jailed for life. I've been in dozens plays over the years, dozens and dozens and dozens of them and I don't think I could probably remember any of the lines unless prompted with one exception a version of The Wife of Baths Tale from The Canterbury Tales, because it was written in rhyme
"I thank you for this years reprieve, what the answer is I can't conceive. And so I must be on my way to seek the truth without delay." That was my first line and it's a play that we would pull out of the bag if an arts festival or the local brewery tap room fancied doing something different and asked us to put something on. We all remember the words to humpty dumpty don't we, the exact words, not just a rough idea,
but the exact words in the exact order. Because our brain links it all together much easier, it takes far less effort, even if we are overwhelmed. He says, trying to bring the episode back on track. So how do we fix our mental focus problems. Well if it IS procrastination because of perfectionism or self esteem issues then we need to accept that something isn't going to be perfect.
Because its not realistic. Or accept that you're not sure what you're doing and need to break things down into bite sized chunks to make it manageable. No matter how small. Now matter how low your self esteem is you know that you can do something, even if step one of a thousand steps is just "open a word document" that's fine because sometimes we don't break things down enough. If you've got an essay or a covering letter for a job application to write.
Then step one being write 1000 words is probably too much, every step needs to be manageable. Listen to your gut and if step one feels too big then break that step down into 10 smaller steps if you have to and just do that. Because that way you have inertia, you're moving 12:30
there's a reason why the worlds strongest man competition has someone pulling a lorry. Because we all know that it's hard, it's very impressive, but its not the pulling of it that's hard necessarily it's getting it to move first. It takes great strength to get it moving but once it starts moving the weight behind it helps push it forwards and you only need half the effort for it to stay moving.
If it started off being an empty truck, difficult but not that heavy and easy to get moving and the organisers started piling the weight on THEN as it rolled, it wouldn't take any where near as much effort to pull the full weight at the end. And that is the same no matter what we have to face in life, whether its trying to fix a damaged relationship, move house, get fit. Once you get moving its easier.
But unless step one is manageable you can't get moving. And that strong man competition. Step one wasn't "pull the truck" that was step 145 million. Step one was 10 press-ups every morning 10 sit ups every evening. Step two was doing both in the afternoon and so on until step 145 million is take a deep breath and start pulling that truck has hard as you can until the wheels roll forwards.
So don't be afraid to make everything bite sized chunks. Don't bite off more than you can chew otherwise you'll choke. God how many metaphors are in this episode I feel like a flipping living cliche today. Sorry. If you want more content feel free to look up my other podcast series, it's called Therapy Natters and comes out every Wednesday. That's a collaboration with my good friend and colleague Fiona Biddle.
Where listeners send us questions and we do our best to answer them. You can find us on all the podcast apps and there's a link in the show notes as well. All of this being funded by the way by my favourite listeners that support me on Patreon. So if you want to show some love for the series do please consider coming on board on Patreon where you get early access to stuff, extra episodes every Monday and some chill out hypnotherapy sessions on a Monday as well.
If you could support me that would be amazing.We almost at our target actually to enable funding therapy for a year for someone. That's another thing I use Patreon for, if you're supporting me you're also supporting someone with their mental health treatment who wouldn't normally be able to afford help. If you're a patron of mine you are literally saving lives you really are. So do please consider supporting us on there. If you do I'll be back next week where I'll be talking about
cognitive biases I think what else is on my list for June. Err. Something to do with self-esteem and taking things personally, I've been asked to talk about job loss so that'll probably come up this month. What else was there? Dealing with a lack of motivation that was one topic and maybe something to do with highly sensitive people that's always a popular theme, although maybe I'll save that the the public episode next month we'll see. No matter what there's no lacking in content you're not gonna shut me up in a rush. Have a great June podcast fans, look after yourself and be excellent to each other. Bye for now.