• Adam L Washburn

Are You Essential in These 4 Areas? Part 2: Mind

This article is part two of a four-part article series looking at the essentials of Body, Mind, Heart, and Spirit. The ideas are a synthesis of concepts from Greg McKeown's book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and Stephen R. Covey's book The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.

In Part 1: Body, we looked at how Tiny Habits can help you keep your body physically fit, how intermittent fasting can help you eat essentially, and how getting the right amount of sleep is critical.

In Part 2: Mind we'll consider 5 concepts that are essential for your mind to be the best.

Assume the half-life of your profession is two years; now prepare accordingly —Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit

Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can 'multifocus' is. —Greg McKeown, Essentialism

As human beings, we value and appreciate our physical bodies. But it is not our bodies that give us pre-eminent status on earth. Our speed can't compete with a Cheetah. Our eyes can't compete with an eagle. Our strength can't compete with an elephant.

But our minds our unparalleled.

Today's world contains an accelerating pace of scientific and technological developments. Our modern life is a rich reward for centuries and millennia of the human mind working to make things better.

However, our modern pace has also increased the demands that our minds be the best we can be. The modern economy calls for our minds to be focused, attuned, and prepared to learn new skills.

Here are 5 essential areas to focus on growing and developing your mind.

1. A Growth Mindset

The biggest enemy to our personal growth is a fixed mindset. Most of us limit our future by putting I can't or I'm not in front of desirable attributes.

  • I can't sing

  • I can't learn new technology

  • I can't change jobs

  • I'm not an artist

  • I'm not good at math

  • I'm not a reader

As a child, I grew up thinking I was bad at drawing and bad at art. The truth is, I was bad at drawing and art. I was not naturally drawn to the subject, so I never practiced on my own. As a result, I never did well in art class at school. Thus, I didn't feel good about my efforts in art or sketching. As a result, I never practiced it.

You can see how the cycle continued. Any time I tried something new in art, my results were not that great, so I gave up.

I thought I would be that way the rest of my life—it's just 'how I was.' I had other talents—art was just not one of them.

Then, as a young adult, someone introduced me to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. The 'before and after' pictures in the book were convincing. Could I also learn how to draw?

I decided to dive in and follow the book's instructions.

I quickly learned two things from this experience. First, there was knowledge about how to draw that I didn't previously have. Once I gained some knowledge, I could improve quite significantly.

Second, I was not bad at art. I had limited myself from gaining knowledge and limited myself from practicing. Once I overcame my knowledge and practice gap, I found I could improve. You can see my 'before and after' picture below that over a short time I was able to improve quite significantly.

Practice and knowledge improved hand drawing from rudimentary look to more realistic look.
Before (11/26/04) and after (12/29/04) hand sketches, by the author

While I did not ultimately transform myself into a professional sketch artist, I did transform my mindset. I no longer say I'm bad at drawing or bad at art. I say that I haven't chosen to be good at it. I've chosen to be good at other things.

This type of transformation is the transformation of a growth mindset. As described by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success, a growth mindset opens us to the possibility of learning, growth, and development. It unlimits us from past failures.

In contrast, a fixed mindset keeps us stuck. We forever remain bad at art. Bad at math. Bad at working with people.

A growth mindset is essential for our minds.

2. Growth Knowledge: Reading

‘Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are’ is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me what you reread. ― François Mauriac

A growth mindset is step one in developing our minds. However, without a source of knowledge we remain stuck.

In today's world, there are many sources of knowledge. We can find limitless information on the internet. We can ask for opinions on social media. We can browse thousands of YouTube videos.

However, one of the best sources of knowledge is the same as it has been for centuries: reading books.

What great books have you read lately? How have they changed your mindset? How have you grown by applying what you've learned?

As quoted by François Mauriac above, what books have you re-read? What books have changed you so powerfully that you've gone back to read them again? What books have you taken the lessons and applied them to change your life?

Everyone has their own list of books that they read and then re-read. Here are a few from my list that I've either read multiple times, or have referred back to enough times to count as re-reading.

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg Mckeown

  • The 8th Habit, by Stephen R. Covey

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, by Stephen R. Covey

  • The 3rd Alternative, by Stephen R. Covey

  • Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien (fiction can be very inspiring, too)

  • Bonds That Make Us Free, by C. Terry Warner

  • The Book of Mormon

  • The Holy Bible

This is not a static list. I expect it to grow and change as my mind grows and changes. I'm constantly looking for new books that will help me learn and grow.

It is essential to have a list of influential books that shape us and keep us growing.

3. Brain Power: Sleep

Sleep well, think well —John Medina, Brain Rules

To keep our minds growing and developing, we need to get sleep. Part 1: Body discussed the importance of sleep for our bodies.

As essential as sleep is for our bodies, it is even more crucial for our minds.

Research in recent years has focused on how sleep affects learning and brain health. For additional reading on the topic, I highly recommend Matthew Walker's book: Why We Sleep and John Medina's book Brain Rules to understand better the importance of sleep for the brain.

However, I'd like to share a study that helped me realize the true value of sleep, not just for health, but for the learning process.

Did you know that you learn in your sleep? Or perhaps more accurately stated, that your learning is consolidated while you sleep?

As a piano player, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. After a sequence of focused practice, I will gradually improve on a difficult passage, as expected. However, I'm often amazed at how I can come back a day or two later, without any practice in between, and my ability to play the difficult passage has significantly improved.

It's almost magical.

Several literature articles, such as this one have studied the effect of sleep between learning motor skill tasks. The studies look at subjects who are given a new, challenging finger-tapping task to learn. They are evaluated based on the speed and accuracy at the task.

As with all learning, the more a subject practices, the better they become. What is interesting, though, is that after a break in time, there is typically a significant improvement. More interestingly, the most significant improvements come after a night of sleep.

While this is just one particular study, modern sleep science is showing that if you want to learn, you need to sleep. Cutting back on sleep not only dulls your ability to learn from being tired, but it also hinders your ability to retain and consolidate what you have learned.

Be kind to your brain. Supercharge your mind. It is essential to get enough sleep.

4. Focus

Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking. —Cal Newport

Our brains are not good at multitasking, or as Greg McKeown puts it, at multi-focusing.

If you don't believe it, try the following task. Count the numbers out loud from one to twenty-six. Time yourself doing this task.

Now say the letters of the alphabet A to Z. Time yourself doing this task.

Now say the sequence A-1, B-2, C-3, etc. Time yourself doing this final task.

If you are a perfect multitasker, your time on the second task should be the sum of your times on the individual tasks. However, unless you've practiced this skill, it's almost certain that your time on the combined letters and numbers is much worse.

Now, you might argue, if I practiced that task, I could get good at it. You would be correct in this assumption.

As human beings we can learn a variety of complicated, interwoven tasks. A chef can make a meal and keep multiple steps in mind to finish a complicated meal on time. A professional basketball player can handle a ball, observe the court, and make split second decisions for how to win the game. Most of us have developed complicated patterns of interwoven tasks.

However, each of these "multi-tasks" are consistent, synergistic tasks that can be practiced. We can build up skill with a certain combination of tasks.

In contrast, most of what we refer to as "multi-tasking" is not a skillful combination of synergistic tasks. Instead, most of the multi-tasking we face in modern world is the equivalent to the A-1, B-2, C-3 challenge with the task changing constantly. First, it's A-1, B-2, C-3, then it's Z-1, Y-2, X-3; then it's A-red-1, B-orange-2, C-yellow-3. You get the point.

We feel this when we're bombarded with a text while trying to finish a work report; when we try to listen to a child while talking on the phone; when we try to answer an email while engaging in a teleconference. None of these tasks provide an opportunity to gain skill in a synergistic, practiced manner. It's always a new A-1, B-2, C-3 task.

I recently followed the advice of Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and began setting up time each day at work to focus in an undistracted manner. My work, like many jobs in our modern economy, requires attention and response to emails, instant messages, meeting requests, etc.

However, to make an impact with my work, I also need to find focus time. I have found that even 30-60 minutes of focus time each day has accelerated my progress on projects and helped me focus on getting the most impactful work done.

Our brains can do amazing things when they can focus. Help clear out non-essential clutter so you can focus on the most impactful thoughts.

5. A purpose

People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe —Simon Sinek, Start with Why

Returning to the growth mindset, if there are so many possibilities to learn and grow, where do you start?

Without a clearly defined purpose, it will be impossible to focus your efforts to learning and developing in the areas that matter the most. You have to focus on the why.

Simon Sinek's bestselling book Start with Why (also viewable as a TED talk) implores readers to first start with a purpose; start with an undeniable reason to do what you're doing.

You may not be leading a company or a team, but as the leader of yourself, you need an important purpose or reason to keep you moving toward your goals.

We'll dive into purpose in some additional depth in Part 4: Spirit, but having a why is so important in all four areas (body, mind, heart, spirit) that I wanted to mention it here as well.

Our minds remember things best when we have a question and a purpose. As Jim Kwik, author of Limitless: Core Techniques to Improve Performance, Productivity, and Focus, says:

Reasons that are tied to your purpose, identity, and values will sufficiently motivate you to act, even in the face of all of the daily obstacles that life puts in your way.

Without purpose we lack motivation. Without motivation, we lack power to learn.

Purpose also drives us to ask questions. Hard questions. Questions that require contemplation, mental wrestling, and thinking deeply. Asking questions helps us learn.

As one of my college professors, Paul Savage, once said, "When you ask a question, you make a hole in your brain. That hole is where the answer goes."

What is your purpose? What motivates you to fulfill core needs in your identity and values? What questions do you need to know the answers to?

When you have these elements, you have an essential ingredient to unlocking the power of your mind.

Up Next…

Focusing on the essentials for your Body is Step 1. Essentials for your Mind is Step 2. What are the essential needs for your Heart and Spirit?

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