7 Ways To Hone Attention, Insight And Creativity

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Back in my corporate lawyer days, there was one guy who everyone hated. Not because he was mean or underhanded or cut-throat. He was actually quite nice and always willing to help. People hated him because he was good. Superstar good.

While everyone else fretted and froze under the dizzying pace and pressure of the job, he seemed to always keep it together, to thrive and even come alive as the fire got hotter.

He wasn’t an adrenaline junkie or cowboy. He was actually a pretty level-headed guy. But he just seemed to process things faster, do things differently and see things everyone else missed. And that gave him an edge. An edge everyone else wished they had.

I used to wonder what he was doing differently. Whether he was just wired that way. Maybe it was genetic. Or perhaps there was something else going on. All I knew is I wanted an answer.

Because if it wasn’t genetic, if it was something that could be learned, I wanted to know.

I never figured it out before I left the law. But I also never gave up the quest, because I began to see this phenomenon across all professions and all industries. A handful of seemingly bright, but regular people regularly dusted everyone around them. And, it wouldn’t be long until my experience as an entrepreneur in the lifestyle and wellness industry and my exposure to certain Eastern-derived practices began to fill in the gaps.

Turns out, there are a handful of things most super-performers do different that underlie or, at least substantially accelerate their success.

Time for Mindset Domination Strategy #2.

In part 1 of this series, we introduced the first of three little-known practices that turbo-charge your creativity, productivity and develop breakout problem-solving ability—Building In Space. We showed how completely removing yourself from the creative or problem solving process can often be the fastest path to an innovative, revolutionary solution.

Now, it’s time to add to our arsenal with strategy #2 – – Attentional Training

There’s one very special thing that many do, religiously, that really helps push them over the edge from good to professional super-power good. And while many do it intentionally, far more don’t even realize they do it. Or, they don’t realize how or why it works or how critical it is to their success.

I wonder when the last time you felt any of these was?

  • Stressed,
  • Anxious,
  • Tired,
  • Unfocused,
  • Depressed,
  • Moody or
  • Burned-out.

Reality is, everyone experiences these on some level virtually every day, but your ability to handle, quickly recover from and master these states so often makes the difference between worker-bee and executive suite in the high stakes world of business. Think about it, what is the corollary to the above states?

  • Calm
  • Content
  • Energized
  • Highly-focused
  • Upbeat
  • Even-keeled and
  • Optimistic

There is a simple daily practice that has the ability to not only make the dramatic changes in mindset and operating state noted above, but alter your “attentional” abilities to literally allow you to see things others miss.

This hugely-beneficial daily practice is called Attentional Training (AT) and it comes in many formats, both active and seated (heck, even lying down). Regardless of how it pursed, though, the critical elements always include the cultivation of high-levels of sustained focus that are required either by instruction or by the intrinsic nature of the activity.

How powerful is this practice?

Done right, AT induces a psycho-physiological state where your heart-rate, blood pressure and levels of stressor hormones all drop precipitously, while your attention becomes highly-focused. And, inducing this state on a regular basis not only helps your mindset, it dramatically lowers your risk for heart-disease, diabetes, and various other life-limiting conditions. It helps you sleep deeper, longer and wake fewer times at night and it can lower anxiety, stress and depression. That’s where the focus has been in most of the research.

More recently, though, we’ve discovered these practices have a monumental impact on professional performance.

Back in 2007, a team of researchers from China and the University of Oregon reported a study that showed improvements in a person’s attention and response to stress after only 5-days of practicing their specialized IBMT protocol (more on this later). The lead investigator’s wrote, “after training the experimental group showed less cortisol release, indicating a greater improvement stress regulation. The experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than was the case in the control group.”

Other studies back up these conclusions and one fascinating study reported in Live Science even revealed improvement in what has been termed “attentional blink” after 3-months of a more intensive form of training.

How to see what everyone else misses…

Apparently when we’re shown two images in rapid succession, most of us don’t see the second image, because we are busy processing the first. It’s almost as if we had blinked. That means, all day long, we are literally not seeing things that are right in front of us. In fact, most of the time, we don’t even see a good part of the first image. Don’t believe me?

Take a look back at the photo of the monkeys above and see if there’s something, oh, just a bit unusual about the one on the left.

Researchers studying a very intensive form of AT called insight meditation discovered that, after three months of training, people were able to see far more of the “second” images than those who were not similarly trained.

With Attentional Training, they could literally see what everyone around them missed.

I wonder how much of an edge that would give you in business and life?

The C-Suite climbs on board

Constantly driven to be better at what they do, the mounting research has led more and more C-suite leaders and thinkers to engage in this practice.

According to an article in Fortune Magazine:

Devotees include junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Mike Milken; Bill George, the former Medtronic CEO; ad industry mogul Renetta McCann; and NBA coach Phil Jackson. Silicon Valley is full of meditators, such as Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, and Larry Brilliant, head of Google’s philanthropic efforts. Naturally, a crew of Google employees has organized twice-weekly open meditation hours, at which it has hosted Tibetan monks and a team of mind-science researchers….Particularly hard-core is Bob Shapiro, the former CEO of Monsanto, who has done three ten-day silent retreats and is considering a 30-day tour.

In that same article, bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and master business networker, Keith Ferrazzi, reveals the key to connecting is “not being an asshole” and cites the most effective path to be AT.

It works, whether you want it to or not

Well, that sounds interesting, comes the reply, but I don’t go for that namby-pamby mindset voodoo crap. Plus, I can tell you that most of the people I know with that magical professional edge don’t do all of the things mentioned above.

Maybe not, at least in the formalized way I just laid out. But, here’s the interesting thing—though few people have a dedicated AT practice, many super-performers actually do bring the critical elements of this practice into their lives every day without even knowing it. And, it’s those unwitting AT practitioners who tend to lead the professional pack. As you pour through the variety of ways to access the AT state below, this will become much clearer.

Okay, so that’s the what, now let’s get into the how…

AT takes many forms and, different approaches tend to work better with different people. So, here are 7 different approaches, each studied and considered to be highly-effective.

  • Active-AT – This I how the vast majority of business super-performers get their AT in. In fact, many of us invoke the major elements of AT during specific types of sports, serious hobbies like painting, composing or playing music, knitting or outdoor activities without even realizing it. Look for activities that either: (a) by their intrinsic nature, require an intense state of concentration for an extended period of time, or (b) are repetitive and deliberate, allowing you melt into that elusive “zone” state. So, trail-running, which requires intense observation, concentration and adjustment would be example of the first, while track running would be an example of the second. The point is, the right kind of physical activity can induce the relaxation-response state. And, over time that psycho-physiological training filters past health to business performance. Ask any top-level executive who runs every day and they’ll tell you. It’s not just about fitness, but about the effect on mindset and creation of the “edge.”
  • Insight Training/Meditation – this is the technique that was studied with regard to reducing the attentional blink. It is a specialized form of meditation/AT that grows out of Buddhism (though you do not need to be a Buddhist to practice or benefit from it) and is highly effective at delivering a wide range of benefits. But the training can be fairly intensive, even requiring 10 hours a day for weeks at a time. So, though it is incredibly powerful, for most, it is not an easily accessible first-step. Interestingly, though, it appears similar benefits are derived from the other forms of AT and, upon further study, the reduction in attentional blink may, in fact, be a benefit of most sustained AT practices. Future research will tell. Insight resources include:
  • Biofeedback – Biofeedback has been around for decades and has been well-studied as a form of stress-management and state-change. It is a great tool for those more “science” oriented who want immediate, objective feedback. There are many approaches, but, generally, you use a simple machine that reads various biological markers, like pulse, galvanic skin response, temperature, and then direct your focus on changing those markers to bring them into a target range. Biofeedback machines and audio program are now very inexpensive and can be learned and used at home. Some resources include:
    • Stress Eraser – very cool, iPod-size, high-tech biofeedback device
    • BioMedical.com – online clearinghouse for devices, information and audio/video
  • Classical meditation – A vast array of approaches to meditation abound, with the similar element of requiring you to train your attention on anything from your breath to a prayer, phrase, candle-flame, set of numbers and more. While highly-effective over time, many people find it extremely challenging to keep focus, get frustrated and give up on a practice that could have become hugely impactful. Reality is, it takes a long time before you feel any level of mastery and impact with this approach, which makes it important to find a technique, tool or teacher that really resonates with and supports your quest. Some resources include:
  • Psychoacoustics – In the 1970s, neuroscientists developed a technology that delivered slightly different, often inaudible tones into each ear simultaneously and found that by manipulating the frequency different between these tones, they were able to entrain brain waves in specific states. It was hailed by many as meditation for those who couldn’t meditate, because it seemed to work without the participant having to maintain a rigid point of focus. Since then, A number of researchers have build goal-specific audio programs and tools around this technology in an effort to allow more people to use these tools. Resources include:
  • Integrative body mind training (IBMT) – This is the form of AT that was used in the University Oregon study discussed above. You can learn more about the science and the practice at Dr. Yi Yuan’s website. It seems to offer all of the benefits of AT, but three unique features may, in fact, lead this to become amongst the fastest adopted and most widely form of AT to hit the U.S. in a long time.
    • One, it does not require rigid focusing of the mind on one thing for an extended period of time, a practice that most people find extremely difficult.
    • Two, it appears the benefits can be experienced extremely quickly, in as little as 5-days, and
    • Three, the practice can be done fairly quickly, allowing almost anyone to fit it into their day.

Wanna jump right in today?

Here’s a simple technique and to get you started with a very basic, accessible 10-minute daily seated practice.

  1. Find a quiet place
  2. Sit in a comfortable upright position with your hands on your knees
  3. Close your eyes and take 10 breaths, letting your exhale get longer and longe with each one
  4. Starting at a very gentle pace, begin to count backwards from 100 by threes, saying each number softly or just sub-lingualizing them with every inhale and exhale. So, for example, inhale and think and say 100, exhale, think and say 97, inhale, think and say 94 and so on. If you get a number wrong, just let it go, say the right one and move one.
  5. When this becomes easy or a few days or week in, pick up the pace a little bit until it becomes easy again. Then, bump the top number by 25 and keep practicing and bumping pace until it gets easy again. Keep at this until the whole practice takes about 20-minutes and give it a few weeks.
  6. Let go of any expectations and see what unfolds…we’re all meant to suck at it in the beginning!

There are so many ways to explore AT and access the states that it creates. And, it is important to note that, while the focus of this article is on the “professional” impact of these practice, there is also a very clear and profound impact that reaches deeply into all aspects of your life. That discussion is for a future article.

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26 responses

26 responses to “7 Ways To Hone Attention, Insight And Creativity”

  1. Ivan Walsh says:

    I’m usually skeptic about this type of approach, but you’ve put a lot of hard work into this and made me re-consider some of the areas you’ve highlighted. Thx

  2. Mike Drips says:

    A well written and researched article that succinctly gets the point across to the reader. An added bonus (which I feared was coming up while reading the article) was that it lacked a pitch for a $47 ebook on “Attentional Training”.

  3. Eugene says:

    Very well written post.

    If I’ve learned anything about meditation and/or attentional training over the years, its that consistency in practice is more important than any one method.

    And following that, the most important thing I developed was the ability to just let go, do it, and stop trying to make everything perfect. If you skip a few days, no problem. Just keep some consistency, and you’ll see some great and surprising benefits in all areas of your life.

    • Mike Willner says:

      I think meditation works because it rests your brain in a way that sleep doesn’t and I agree that you should just do it and not worry about whether you are doing it well. In my case, I just try to focus on my breathing with the objective of getting to a point where I’m thinking of nothing at all (I rarely achieve that objective). I do it anywhere (sometimes with my eyes open) – when I’m taking a walk, sitting at my desk, or waiting in a line. Usually I can only stay focused on my breathing for a minute before I start thinking about something else. No problem. Once I realize I’m thinking and not meditating, I go back to focusing on my breath. The key is to not sweat it. I may only get about one minute of non-thinking over a ten minute period, but so what. I think it’s better than nothing – in fact, much better. Unless, of course, you are thinking of nothing, which is better yet. 🙂

  4. Leisa says:

    Great article. Given your thoroughness, I’m just really surprised you didn’t include Transcendental Meditation (TM). It’s been around for years, is hugely popular and has many, many studies backing up it’s effectiveness.

  5. Srinivas Rao says:


    This is pretty interesting stuff. I guess I would fall in the category of Active AT. I’m an avid surfer, pretty much I’m in the water everyday, unless it rains. Seeing this kind of makes me realize why I’m able to write better, create more, and do much higher quality work than I ever had any other time in my life. I do all my best thinking in the water when I’m not doing any thinking at all.

    My boss is an avid runner. He runs 6 miles a day and he specifically talked about exactly what you mention here in terms of what it does for your mind set.

    If I remember correctly you wrote a post a while back called the Surfer’s guide to entrepreneurial bliss, so I assume you’ve done a bit of surfing yourself. I’m gonna have to go through this in a bit more detail to see if I cn bring this into my life even when not in the water :)/

  6. Topi says:

    I want to start meditating, but didn’t know where to begin, so thanks for this well researched and written post. I especially like the exercise you’ve described at the end of the post – it seems so simple, I start it straight away, I can do it without signing up for any thing, I don’t have to attend a class or buy anyhing, thanks!

  7. Good stuff. I don’t think I’m one of those amazing people you referred to in the first part, but the first thing I noticed was the one gorilla flipping the finger lol I mean, the photo of gorillas had to be there for a reason, so I looked it over to see why you chose it before I started reading.

    The technique you describe is pretty much what I’ve been doing for a long time on my own and in the last few years in a local Zen group. The variation in what I’ve learned with the Zen approach (at least from one teacher) is to not focus so much on the numbers but allow them to just help you keep your focus (or you can focus on your breathing). Then you watch where your thoughts go, what emotional reactions you’re having and so on. The purpose is to help us learn awareness and mindfulness.

    For me, I just kind of watch the thoughts go by like a film. This is really helpful when I have trouble sleeping. Soon enough, the thoughts go into their little files if I don’t pay attention to them lol zzzzzz Or it’s just very quiet in my head which is nice. It’s also a time when creative ideas might pop up out of nowhere.

    I also call this “processing.” I know when I’m overloaded with stuff, and I just go sit or lie down and breathe. Or count, as you describe, and let my mind do whatever. 20 minutes, I’m clear, refreshed, ready to go. Centered, as many call it.

    I have some friends who say this is really hard for them, though. A few are dedicated students of Buddhism, too, and they’ve been meditating for years, and have a hard time getting to 10 before thoughts totally interrupt. But no biggy, you just let it go.

    Also concerning the guy you mentioned early on and other people like that, could be you’re referring to what I notice: some people are more task-oriented and just don’t have the emotional involvement that stresses other people. They just shrug and do what has to be done while everyone else is freaking out lol

    Good start to my day, to think about this,


  8. What a thorough job you did of researching alternatives. I can attest to the value of focused activity–in my case, cycling, paddle-boarding, or singing–to train attention. Recently I renewed my commitment to daily meditation using the Holosync (Centerpointe) binaural recordings as an adjunct. I’ve also used the bio-feedback games from Wild Divine to good effect.

    One of the important points you make well as that people don’t have to make a career of this. A little (albeit regular) practice can make a big difference.

  9. Ilana says:

    Love this post! I spent a year doing mindfulness meditation every day for 30 minutes and had the most centered, creative year ever. It takes real discipline to stop constantly “doing” and I have been remiss. I find that yoga works but mindfulness meditation, when consistently practiced is like magic.

  10. Mark says:

    I recommend the books of Eckhart Tolle to supplement the ideas of awareness and living in the now!

  11. Kelly says:

    When I looked at the image of the monkeys something did seem off about the first one, but I felt it instead of seeing it. There is something to the gut instinct as well. 😉 Even when the processing part of your brain doesn’t see things the emotional part reacts.

  12. I’ve been doing Somato Respiratory Integration (SRI) and Network Chiropractic Care combined with exercise and meditation three times a week for about 4 months now. It has made an incredible difference in my ability to be calm, think quickly, and create solutions seemingly out of thin air. I am also really able to tap into my intuition very strongly.

    A great article, Jonathan. I’ll be reading it again several times for other ideas.

  13. Daniel Nolan says:

    I usually meditate 10-15 minutes each morning before I start my day. I have been doing this one and off for a few years now. I can tell a difference, expecially when I am very consistent in making sure I practice each day. On days I meditate, I produce more quicker and more accurately. I am in a even, often pleasant mood. I’m calm and optimistic. And even when things occur that are not what I wanted, I am able to deal with them and move on with out obsessing (something I use to struggle with).

    I am always looking for ways to take my meditation to the next level. Thanks Jonathan for the great comprehensive writeup

  14. Walt Goshert says:

    Relax, Breathe, and Give the finger to the Monkey Mind.

  15. This is basically what I experience through daily meditations. Total deep concentration with no mental anguish, no push or pull whatsoever. Pure ecstasy, it’s great.

  16. Ross Hudgens says:

    Liked this a lot. Trying to see the deeper level every day, hard to do though. Unfortunately a few of those 7 tips have high barrier to entry, but exercise + meditation are two that we don’t have an excuse not to execute.

  17. J Griffin says:

    I’ve tried meditation a few times over the past ten years or so in an attempt to calm my ADD brain but it never felt like I was accomplishing anything and would drop it after a week or two. I’d never seen the ‘count by three’ method you mention here so I though I’d give it a shot… What do you know?! Something about doing that little bit of math helps keeps me focused and pushes my neural noise into the background. Awesome.

    Now, I can only *really* stay focused for, maybe, four or five breaths but I’ve only been doing this for three days and that’s far better than any other method I’ve tried. It’s too soon to tell whether or not this will make a difference throughout my day but I’m going to stick with it for two weeks and see what happens.

    Thanks for the tip Jonathan!

  18. […] Fields.  He posted lots of great information of the various types of meditation in his post 7 Ways To Hone Attention, Insight And Creativity. There is another book and DVD Yoga Onboard by Kim Hess that I keep seeing at boat shows and that […]

  19. […] 7 Ways To Hone Attention, Insight And Creativity – This article is powerful enough to change your life. Jonathan devoted this blog entry to providing us with some awesome reference materials in order to help us focus and relax. And when life gets a little intense, to let it roll off of us “like water off a duck’s tail!” Jonathan never fails to deliver inspirational and motivational reads! […]

  20. […] can often push myself to exercise, meditate, eat well, sit down to write and pretty much overcome most forms of resistance in the early part of […]

  21. […] can often push myself to exercise, meditate, eat well, sit down to write and pretty much overcome most forms of resistance in the early part of […]

  22. Kevin says:

    The focus and the concentration and the attention to detail that flying takes is a kind of meditation. I find it restful and engaging, and other things slip away.

    -Harrison Ford

  23. […] decompose. That means, like it or not, some kind of daily movement or exercise and some form of attentional/mindset training are not only important in your quest to stay focused, fit and capable of enduring the stress of […]

  24. […] Do nothing but close your eyes and let your mind think. It needs the exercise. People I admire like Jonathan Fields and Celestine Chua have created successful businesses and happy lifestyles by taking the time to […]