The Practising Mind by Thomas Sterner

The Practicing Mind : Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life

by Thomas M. Sterner

Why should you as a civil services aspirant read this ?

Most of us have felt performance anxiety at some point in our preparation. Whether it is completing the syllabus or finishing a question paper within 3 hours. This anxiety almost always doesn’t allow us to perform at our maximum capacity.

We often set our goals too high, believing we can achieve them. And here lies part of the problem because, as soon as we reach these higher goals, we set new ones that are even higher. As they become harder and harder to reach, we also deny ourselves the gratification of achievement. So let’s look at a different approach to achieving the things we want in life with a practicing mind that constantly improves without the anxiety of performance.

In this edition of QuickReads we will see

  • how doing anything bit by bit is a successful strategy for getting things done;
  • what the Do, Observe, Correct technique is; and
  • why focusing on the process instead of the end result makes us feel like winners. So where does anxiety come from? And how can we tackle it?

#1 Because we raise our  expectations of ourselves, we never feel satisfied.

Sometimes it seems that, no matter how much you practice something, there’s always going to be someone out there who does it a little bit better than you. It’s frustrating, to be sure. And it can shape our attitude toward several aspects of our lives. But why do we feel frustrated by this in the first place?

If there’s one flaw that all humans have in common, it’s striving for ideals that simply aren’t attainable. We’ve all got a picture in our minds of what we believe is a perfect life, making our real lives seem inadequate by comparison. Consider this fictional news headline : “21 year old Graduate of AIIMS secures All India Rank 8 in his first attempt at the UPSC Civil Services Examination.” More so it may even mention, it was only through self-study.

Of course, high expectations aren’t all that bad. We can use images of success to inspire us to work hard and achieve more. Unfortunately, we tend to use them as nothing more than objects of comparison. We compare our age, educational background, attempts at the exam and wonder, I am 27 and what have I achieved in life until now !

And there’s yet another problem with the way we engage with our ideals. Rather than working toward one goal and feeling satisfied when we achieve it, we raise our expectations as we achieve more. This means that our ideals move further away from us, and we’re stuck constantly pushing ourselves to reach goals that we don’t value once we achieve them. For example, clearing the Preliminary Exam. No joy of the successful first step until our name is in the top 100 of the final list.

In short, the feeling that we’re never good enough is a source of constant anxiety for us all. But what if we don’t want to feel anxious all the time? Well, then it’s time to make some changes.


#2 Cut  out anxiety by focusing on your progress in the present.

Why is it that, when an important deadline is looming, we seem to get better and better at procrastinating? Feeling your focus waver when you know you’ve got serious work to do can be quite stressful.

This is often because we’re consumed with the thought of our end goal, which seems to be far away no matter how hard we work. This, in turn, makes us feel discouraged and damages our productivity. Rather than fixating on future consequences, we need to focus on the here and now to do our best.

This is due to a simple change of perspective. Thinking about our goal can fill us with fear and anxiety, which distracts us from the real task at hand. But by simply keeping our thoughts on the present moment, our anxiety will drop significantly. Putting our end goal aside for a moment and concentrating on the process we’ll go through to achieve it, we’ll see ourselves making progress and feel more motivated than ever.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t focus on our goals. Goals are vital, but they are of no use to us when we use them as an indicator of our progress. Again, this just discourages us. Our goals are better used as a rudder to steer us in the right direction.

But, in order to let ourselves be steered, we’ll also need to ensure we respond sensibly to problems. Rather than letting our emotions color our reactions, we need to take a step back and objectively assess what is and isn’t working in that moment. Once we’ve done this, we can adjust our next actions accordingly.


#3 Simplify your tasks and take your time to make your goals achievable.

If high expectations are making us unhappy and unproductive, should we lower them? Actually, we’re free to dream up ambitious goals to our heart’s content, as long as we can break them down into smaller objectives. This makes any large goal achievable.

Anyone that’s ever worked on a large, long-term project knows the sheer frustration of working hard while your goal seems farther away than ever. To avoid this, set yourself smaller goals that lead you on a journey to your overarching goal. Keep these tasks simple and you’ll find yourself flying through them.

Writing a three hour exam, for example, is a big tedious task that most aspirants tend to avoid. So before taking full-tests, it is best to start small with attempting just 2 questions in under 15 minutes everyday for a week, you’ll have created a goal that’s easy to complete and easy to start. Then try 30 minute tests the next week and so on until 3 hours become easy. You’ll not only have easier tasks, but you’ll also be working toward your final goal every single day!

You might be tempted to work faster to get your tasks completed in less than the allotted time. But this is something to avoid. Though we often think that it’s better to do unpleasant tasks as quickly as possible, it is actually rather counterproductive.

Working at a slower pace allows you to stay in the present, rather than rushing to start working on something else. Rushing creates stress, and stress will only make you less effective. So take your time and allow yourself to complete your tasks thoroughly and efficiently.


#4 Use the Do, Observe, Correct technique when your productivity wavers.

We know why we procrastinate when we’re under pressure. But what can we do to combat it? The author of this book Thomas Sterner has developed a three-step technique that can help you maintain calm and focus in any situation. It’s called Do, Observe, Correct and it’s all about learning to monitor and respond to your own behaviour.

Say you’re studying for the Main Exam just after Prelims and notice that worrying about your Prelims results is making it hard to study: apply the technique! You’ve already covered the Do step by noticing that you’re straying from the task at hand.

Now it’s time to take a step back and Observe the behaviour you’d like to change. In this case, it’s your worrying. In order to observe effectively, try to not get too emotionally involved or judge yourself for your reactions. Rather, look at your actions as an uninvolved spectator.

This will allow you to see how your emotions are making your situation seem worse than it really is, and that, by reining them in, you’ll be better able to tackle your challenges. Finally, it’s up to you to Correct the situation by freeing yourself from those negative, fearful emotions as much as you can.

Initially, it might be a little difficult to do the Do, Observe, Correct technique when you’re in the middle of a crisis. But the more you practice it, the stronger your self- observational skills will become. Soon enough, you’ll notice yourself applying this technique automatically in any given situation. This will allow you to keep your mind on the present and accomplish the tasks that will lead you to your bigger goals, the dream of entering the civil services.

The key message is, ambitious aims and high expectations should inspire us. And yet, they become a source of anxiety when we let them distract us from the task at hand. By learning to remain in the present moment, break up our workload and take things slowly, we won’t just increase our productivity: we’ll also feel more fulfilled as we make progress toward our goals at our own pace.

It’s all about the here and now!

If you have a task to finish or a skill to master, don’t think about the goal, this will only distract you. Tell yourself to work on one smaller task just for a limited amount of

time and don’t think of anything else during that time. If you manage to fully concentrate on what you’re doing in that very moment, you’ll notice that you’ll get even unpleasant tasks done easily.


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