March 9, 2011

The Positive Feedback Cycle

I am in for a bit of a waft today, suffering from 3rd day blurriness after The Grape Escape on the weekend. I made some big choices to push beyond where the body wanted to go, relying on the mind to numb the pain and keep pushing when I really didn’t feel like it much. The level of riding in mountain biking is unlike triathlon where the gaps grow and wane dependent on the discipline we are undertaking at that moment.

Greg Beadle snapped a great moment early on Sunday where I am stuck between the front group of 15 guys and the 2nd group of about 8 guys chasing.

We rode this way for around 50km, I kid you not. Two guys bridged across and nobody got back to the front, leaving a few guys blown out the front pack to come back to our small group, but really, it hung like this for hours. Quite amazing that the human mind can deal with that much hope.


After the race my mind just felt numbed and blank. There was no major joy or excitement, purely a sense of having given my all, a quiet content that I really could have only given a little more and very much would have risked a total blowout had I pushed even a tiny bit further into the big black hole of turning a big gear monotonously for hours.

Which brings me to the ability to focus on the point at hand. If the training I did for all the Ironman races I have done taught me anything, its the ability to single task and focus on the task at hand. We all struggle to focus at work, especially. I had to set up a routine to focus properly and have to reinforce this every day. Developing the positive feedback cycle for focus orientated work was a major breakthrough for me and I read a bit about it again this week on Zenhabits.

The way to beat PROcrastination is to set up a positive feedback cycle for focusing. Here’s how:

  1. Start small. You only need to focus for one minute at first. Clear everything away, pick your one important task, and just do it for one minute without switching. This is hard to do in the beginning but if you consciously focus on focusing, you can do it. It’s just a minute.
  2. Reward yourself. The reward for focusing for one minute can be one minute (or 30 seconds) of checking whatever you want. Email, Facebook, whatever. Or get up and take a one-minute walk. Stretch, drink some water, massage your neck, enjoy your small victory. Empires are created with small victories.
  3. Repeat. Keep doing one minute focus, one minute reward (or 1 minute to 30 seconds if you like) for about half an hour (15 of each). You’re done. Repeat that later in the day. Rejoice in how much work you got done! And notice how you’ve set up a positive feedback cycle for focusing.
  4. Increase in small steps. Tomorrow, make it two minutes on, one minute off. Repeat that for 30 minutes, do it later in the day too. Feel free to go wild and do three focus sessions in a day if you like, but it’s not necessary.
  5. Keep taking baby steps. I think you can see the pattern by now. Make it three minutes on, one minute off on the third day, then 4:1, then 5:1. When you get to 10 minutes, be crazy and take a 2 minute break. When you get to 20 minutes, take a 3 minute break. At 30 minutes of focus, you’ve earned a 5 minute break. And once you’re at 30 minutes, you can stay there. No need to become a monk.

Set up a positive feedback cycle for single-tasking focus and you’ll reverse the years of training your mind has gotten to switch tasks. You’ll get more important work done, and it won’t seem hard. You’ll find that focus becomes a form of meditation. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing when we get in the zone and tasks become easy, the to-do list disappears and our work is exemplary. A simple, beautiful thing.

So if I look back at the amount of work I have done and the effect it has had on my ability to focus, I can smile at the picture. There is very little else going on right there except focusing on the task at hand. A simple, beautiful thing that I could not have executed nearly as well even a year ago.

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