The Mental Excellence Toolbox: 5 Essential Skills to Significantly Improve the Quality of Your Life and Work

Deep focus

When we think of success, we also think of failure. In between lies mediocrity—not a complete failure and not a brilliant achievement. The previous articles highlighted why we fall into mediocre living and what we can learn about excellence.

In order to tackle my own mediocrity, I started thinking about the skills required to develop a mindset that favors depth and deliberation over superficial and impulsive reactions.

The skills needed would lead to mastering two crucial processes:

1. Attention: To be able to focus on what you want and sustain such focus, without fragmenting your attention.

2. Independent thinking: To be able to think and make rational decisions that support your values and priorities—regardless of outer influences.

There are many skills and habits that can help in improving our focus and effectiveness. I’ve selected the five I feel will have the most immediate effect on attentional control and rational thinking.

The following will lead to improvement in every aspect of your life.

1. Stillness (to curb craving distractions)

Sit still with the feelings of boredom or discomfort. Allow the sensations to be, and lean into the feeling. After a while, you’ll feel better. And, in all likelihood, you’ll feel inspired to do something. You’ll take calm and helpful action, and not revert to fearful compulsive browsing and clicking.

Being still is the most challenging, and most rewarding thing you can do. Stillness is quite simple to put into practice—when we make a conscious decision to stop the habitual restlessness (which is the challenging part).

There are situations (waiting and commuting) where you’ll be tempted to just browse on your phone. You may feel tired, bored, or stuck on an issue, which will trigger a desire to escape. Do the following instead of succumbing to the habitual choice.

  • Take three deep breaths. How do you feel? Do you still need to check the phone?
  • Prepare a few things you enjoy doing and have them loaded on your phone, or with you. For example, instead of checking the latest feud on twitter, or who had what for lunch on Instagram, read from a book or listen to music. You can also get into the habit of writing on your phone using a notes app to clear your head.
  • If you feel stuck working, it’s best to move physically. Go for a walk, or up and down the stairs. Grab a drink and sip slowly.
  • You may also want to consider a simple form of meditation—sitting still for 10-20 minutes and focusing on your breath.

These are just examples. You can come up with more ideas as you practice. The most important thing is not to repeat the old pattern of social media and net surfing without a purpose other than to kill time.

The more comfortable we become with being still and quiet, the better our chances of developing the next skill.

2. Deep reflective thinking

Instead of looking for quick fixes based on unrealistic fantasies and promises (advertised or shared on social media), we can use this time to think and reflect on what matters. It’s in this space that we get to look at our struggles and aspirations, what’s working and what’s not, and what we can do.

Deep thought is tough. We’ve been programmed to choose the quick and easy. We need to use as much willpower and discipline as we can muster to develop this fundamental skill. For more information on the subject, visit Farnam Street.

Another part of deep thinking is reflection—taking the time to look back and discern the main ideas and lessons. Here are a few articles about reflection and making it a habit.

3. Clarity

If you give yourself enough time and energy to refine what you want, and make it a priority, you’ll spare yourself the grief of allowing others to dictate what’s important, or how you should live your life.

Before we get clear, we need to reduce the noise and clutter that occupy so much space in our minds.

A couple of articles that can be helpful:

When it comes to clarity, we need to get comfortable with saying no to incoming unimportant demands.

If you can’t stop the influx of new clutter, you’ll end up shuffling meaningless thoughts and tasks and compounding your confusion.

Clarity enables us to figure out what’s important, simplify our wants, and prioritize our actions. It’s a prerequisite to taking meaningful action.

4. Developing (and working with) routines and systems

The bigger the change, the more resistance we’ll encounter. When we start something new, we rely on motivation, and then tap into the limited reserve of willpower we have each day.

If we don’t create routines (systems) to automate the repeated actions and reduce friction, we’ll eventually stop—not because we don’t care about the project or task, but because we’ve depleted our inner resources and can’t find the strength to keep going. And it’s so easy to stop and fall back into harmful habits. When we have a routine in place, and keep it as simple as possible, we’re more likely to stick with it.

We can develop routines for anything (examples include eating, work, exercise, cleaning, learning, relaxing, and morning and bedtime routines).

To be effective, routines require deep thinking and deliberate action steps, and vice versa—effective routines help us in taking meaningful action.

This is the area I intend to focus on the most, and I hope I’ll have more ideas to share soon.

5. Deliberate learning

Learning is an investment that pays the best rate of return in the long-run—the opposite of mindless distractions that provide no value whatsoever. Using our free time to learn improves not only the quality of our life, but our ability to think and act in general.

The most two important issues that come up with learning are:

  • Finding the time to do it
  • Learning effectively by grasping and working with new ideas

When it comes to time, it’s a matter of priorities. If learning is important we’ll allocate enough time to it. We can wake up a little earlier, sleep a little later, or watch one less TV show, or spend less time online. Schedule your learning time (add it to your calendar) and do your best to stick to it.

For learning effectively, I recommend two resources:

The most important part of learning is to do it consciously. Blog posts and online articles are not enough, unless they’re part of a specific plan that includes a course or book/books. You can easily find courses that suit your preferences (video, audio, text or a combination). Take your time and make a decision then focus and work with the material with all you’ve got.

I’m doing my best to work on developing the above skills, and I hope you give them a try. There is no downside and the payoff will definitely outweigh the effort.

Mediocrity is not something we consciously pick. It’s the consequence of repetitive choices that lead us down the shallow path of least resistance. This may feel okay in the short-term, but eventually we will bear the deep pain of regret.

In order to step out of mediocrity, we need to drastically change direction with unwavering resolve to focus on what matters—regardless of how long it will take and how hard we need to work. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.

I hope we can take this journey of depth together, and join the very few who reap the fruits of patience and clarity, and master the art of living.