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Improve Your Cognitive Performance by Ditching Your Device

In an increasingly distractible world, we’re slowly losing the ability to sit with our thoughts and experiences. When our inner self becomes foreign, we become hyper-reactive to anything it says. The explosion in mindfulness books, podcasts, and apps is a consequence of this deteriorating ability. We are looking for a solution to a world in which we increasingly do not need to deal with our inner self. When we train our ability to be alone in our mind, to sit with thoughts and sensations, we’re better able to disengage from negative stimuli.

To be mindful means to be aware. It doesn’t just mean some form of Buddhist meditation. Consider my favorite activities, going for a walk or run. A former college runner, Devin Fahey, told me how he didn’t mind music when exercise was easy. But as he developed as a runner, getting used to running over 10 miles per day with nothing but his thoughts, he noticed a change. “Over time, I got to the point where I’d tune out the music completely. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what song was played or even what type of music it was. The tuning out became subconscious. It’s as if my brain said, this isn’t important, we’re going to ignore that. Eventually, I just stopped, and the boredom went away. I adapted to it.” Devin was training the ability to be alone in his head and be completely fine with it. No music, just him.

He wasn’t in some meditative state on every run, but over time he naturally developed the ability to shift his focus from their breathing to his form to his inner dialogue to nothing at all. Eventually, he became comfortable with all the sensations, thoughts, and experiences. We can develop the same skill when we workout, but also during everyday activities like cooking dinner or doing the dishes. Notice the sensations and thoughts that arise, trying not to judge or assign meaning to them. Learn to tune in and tune out to different interoceptive feedback and external stimuli. During physical activity, you can hone in your breathing for a time, and then switch to noticing how your inner dialogue jumps between impatience and jubilation, and back again.

Endurance athletes often train this capacity without realizing it. It’s a side effect of long runs, rides, or swims with not much else to focus on. Writers tend to excel in this area, as well. Long sessions, staring at the screen, with just the words on the page and their inner dialogue. But the skill of being alone in your head, as I outline in my new book, is a foundational piece of developing toughness. And most of us are horrible at it. We’d rather be anywhere but inside our head.

In a study by Dr. Timothy Wilson and colleagues out of the University of Virginia, they took individuals and stuck them in a room alone. No phones, friends, or objects to distract them. There was a chair to sit in and a table with a singular item on it, a button. Subjects were informed that if they pushed the button, a painful shock would follow. The choice was simple: either embrace the boredom and spend time thinking or kill time by shocking yourself and inflecting pain. The logical answer is pretty clear. Mind your business, and be alone in your head for a bit. The behavior of the subjects, however, tells a different story. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict themselves with pain rather than contemplate their thoughts for 15-minutes. One individual pressed the button an astonishing 190 times during the 15-minute period. That meant shocking himself, on average, every 4.7 seconds.

Scientific research confirms that cultivating awareness activates an “emotion-regulating network” that includes the amygdala, or the part of the brain associated with feeling fear and panic. Researchers out of the University of Wisconsin found that when subjects were confronted with a fearful stimulus, conscious awareness improved emotional regulation and directed a subsequent behavioral response by enhancing the interaction between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the more calm and collected part of the brain. In one study, Dr. R.C. Lapate and colleagues found that “awareness seems to break otherwise automatic associations between initial (physiological) reactions and subsequent evaluative behavior.” It’s not that we always need to be consciously aware or directing our attention. In fact, over time, just like the runner Devin Fahey’s experience tuning out music, the process largely takes care of itself. But to develop that capacity, first, we need to consciously train it. To be aware and notice where our mind is going, and then to direct it from one stimuli to the next. The larger our capacity for this, the more space we can create between stimulus and response.

Simply being alone in your head goes a long way. If all you do is leave the phone and headphones at home when you go on a walk, you’ll start to stretch your mental muscle. But we can also be intentional about the skills we’re trying to develop. I split them into three levels: noticing, turning the dial, and creating and amplifying. Noticing helps you learn how not to jump from stimuli to stimuli. Turning the dial trains you how to tune into and out of the world, directing your attention where it needs to go. And creating and amplifying increases your cognitive capacity to examine and adjust your internal world. These skills serve as your foundation, allowing you to create space in calm situations before applying them when facing discomfort.

Steve

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