Keeping focus and attention in the present moment

During my morning hill workout, I kept catching myself thinking about topics outside of my run.

I was focused on my workout about 30% of the time.  The other 70% of the time was spent thinking about other things—the kids, my career jumble, weekend plans with the looming storm, and anything else that popped into my mind.

Expanding on the thought a little further, I realized that the 30-70 ratio wasn’t just true for that workout.  It’s true for all my workouts.  Furthermore, it’s true for most of my daily activities:

  • When I’m running, I’m thinking about the kids
  • When I’m with the kids, I’m thinking about my career jumble
  • When I’m working on career stuff, I’m thinking about running

It’s not that cut-and-dry, but the ratio still holds.  During the course of a day, I’m usually about 30% focused on the current task and 70% focused on other things.

Then the real question hit me.

What would happen if I aligned my focus, or shifted my attention, to the present?

What would happen if I put 70% of my focus on the present activity and allowed only 30% of my focus to wander?

  • When I’m running, think about running
  • When I’m with the kids, think about the kids
  • When I’m working on career stuff, think about career stuff

I wouldn’t spend any less TOTAL time thinking about running, or the kids, or my career.

Yet the impact would be tremendous.  I’d get more out of my training, more out of my relationships, more out of my “work” time.

This is not a revelation.  It’s pretty simple, actually—if you’re focused on what you’re doing, you will be more productive.

Yes…But…

Running gives me space to let my mind wander.  It’s one of the reasons I love running.  I can’t count the number of good ideas that popped into my head during a run.  I wouldn’t want to lose that aspect of running.

Not to mention that being 100% focused in the present all the time is near impossible to achieve.

There is a middle ground here somewhere.

For me, a good starting point is shifting the ratio—instead of 30% on the present, make it 70% on the present.  Use that as a starting point, and see what happens.  Do it across all aspects of my life—when I’m running, when I’m with the kids, when I’m “working,” and so on.

Saying that I should “shift the ratio” is easier than actually doing it.  I’m sure there are underlying reasons why I’m not focusing on the present moment.

What would cause my focus to drift?  Unwillingness to accept the present?  Fear?  Guilt?  How could I best shift my focus to the present moment?

During my run, I stopped thinking about these questions before I could answer them.  After all, I was trying to focus!

Rather than try to answer all these questions in my mind, I’ve simply started trying to “shift the ratio.”  Trying to keep my focus and attention in the present moment.

We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll report back any interesting findings.

What about you?  Does this resonate?  If you know anyone who could benefit from this insight, please pass it on.

 


Running Slump Over: Hungry and Humble Again

My fitness is terrible, but my running slump is over.

I’m on a regular schedule now, increasing the distance and looking forward to increasing the intensity.  I’m being careful so I don’t get hurt.  Most important, I’m looking forward to every workout.  My eating and sleeping habits are improving.  I’m out of the rut I was in.

Autumn’s perfect running weather is right around the corner.  I can’t wait.

I’ve got a brand new set of goals for 2011 and 2012.  Do they qualify as BHAG’s?  Pretty darn close.  I’m nervous, and I’ve already started re-thinking my training and recovery strategies.  I’m not sure I should publish these since I’m still not 100% committed, but here goes…

My new list of races and goals:

November 2011:  Marathon (Kansas).  As fast as possible (I may not have time to get fit enough for a PR)
February 2012:  Marathon (Alabama).  Get my PR, potentially break 2:50
April-May 2012:  Races TBD.  Weekend of back-to-back racing.  Saturday marathon, Sunday 50K.  I’m looking to find a marathon and 50K within reasonable travel distance
August 2012:  Pikes Peak double.  Ascent Saturday, marathon Sunday
Fall 2012:  TBD.  Either ultramarathon (50+ miles) or marathon PR

The centerpiece of my new goals is an old friend that inspired (scared) me to big breakthroughs in 2010 – Pikes Peak.  I intend to race the Pikes Peak double in 2012.  I’ve never done anything like that.  And just finishing isn’t good enough, I intend to compete.

Future posts will cover the training implications of all these races.  Training for a PR is different than training for a Pikes Peak double.  Right now, my main concern is getting this PR, so that’s my initial focus.

It’s nice to be thinking about serious racing again.

What caused the slump?

Understanding what caused my running slump probably isn’t important.  But I’m obsessed with improving, and diagnosing the root causes of this slump will help me get better.

While running slumps are common, the cause of this running slump is not ordinary.  It’s related to the intersection of running and life.  The two can’t be separated, but in my case they became too close for comfort.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering whether I’m in the right career.  I’ve been reading a lot about “following my passions” and building a career based on what I love.  My biggest passion is running.  That passion has led me to some modest success – I’ve done pretty well in races over the past few years.

I started this blog as a first step in transforming my running passion into a career.  When I decided to start this blog, I fully intended to make money from it some day.  I figured other runners would actually be interested in hearing my secrets to running success.  Interested enough to pay for them.

I didn’t expect what happened next.

Once my “passion” became the seed for a new career, it ceased being a passion.  I stopped thinking about running for the fitness and challenge, and I started thinking about running as work.  I started thinking about ways that I could turn running into a business.  Not what I was looking for.

I also started to believe my own marketing hype.  I lost my humility.  In my attempts to position myself as an expert, I inflated myself to the point where I thought I was invincible.  I thought I could get by on eating like crap, running poorly, and sleeping poorly.  I forgot what fueled my previous success.

It’s taken me a while to figure this out.  I had to do some soul searching.  But discovering these connections is huge, and ditching this blog over the past couple months helped me get out of the slump.  I’m back to running for the right reasons.

What’s next for this blog?

Against most conventional blogging wisdom, I’ve disconnected this blog from Facebook.  Disconnected it from Twitter.  Disconnected it from LinkedIn.  Those connections were lame attempts on my part to get people to read it.

I’m no longer writing this blog with the aim of getting readers.

I’m writing this blog to capture my thoughts and feelings as I pursue running breakthroughs.  It’s like a journal or advanced training log.  I enjoy the process of writing and it helps clarify my thinking, so I don’t see a need to stop writing altogether.

I plan to use this blog to capture my learnings and document the places I find useful information.  Sometimes I’ll probably just capture some feeling I had during a training run or an inspiration I got from somewhere.  Writing for those purposes will be useful for me; perhaps it will be useful for others too.

I’ll probably end up posting more frequently.  In the past, blog posts have taken a long time because I’ve tried to make them perfect.  Ironically, I’ve had trouble developing content that I thought was compelling for readers.  I don’t expect to have that problem any more – I’m getting unstuck.  If it’s compelling for me, it’s good enough.

I’m guessing that plenty of other people are searching for that running breakthrough.  If you’re one of them, you might find some value in what I write.  That would be great.  But I’m no longer worried about anyone else who might read this stuff.

I’m just happy to be back running again.


Breakdown: A Running Slump

Remember that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest just stops running?  Against the Wind is playing in the background, Forrest is in Utah’s Monument Valley, and he just stops.  He says “I’m pretty tired.  I think I’ll go home now.”

Where Forrest Gump stopped running

I felt like that for most of the past two months.  I’m in a wicked downward spiral that isn’t bottoming out.

I’m not sure where it started.  But like a virus, it’s infected almost every part of my life.  Lack of motivation to work out, poor eating habits, worse sleeping habits – the wheels have come off.

There are lots of places to find advice for how to get out of a running slump.  This post isn’t one of them.  If you’re in a slump, I’m hoping this post gives you some comfort – you’re not the only one.

What it’s like to be in a slump

Every day I say to myself … “this is the day I break out.”  Everything goes well for the first 18 hours.  I get a (bad) workout in, I manage my eating habits, I play with the kids, I tell myself that I’m going to bed early.

Then in about 30 seconds, my thought process changes.

  • I start rationalizing the behavior that I know is harmful and I’ve avoided all day.  The rationalization takes one of a few different forms:
  • I don’t need to worry about eating poorly today – once I get going again, I’ll get back into shape quickly.
  • I’ll eat poorly for one more night, but this is the last night.  My good habits start tomorrow (or the next day, or the day after that).
  • It’s too hot to stretch.
  • I feel great.  I’m going to reward myself for feeling great.
  • I’m really feeling down – I need to de-compress (by watching TV and eating chocolate chips, ice cream, cookies, and chips/salsa).
  • I know I’m going to do something really great today, so I’ll reward myself ahead of time.

I coined a new phrase for that last one – the “pre-ward.”  A reward for doing something before I’ve actually done it.

I usually have one or two opportunities to make a choice that dictates success or failure for the day.  Opportunities to replace bad habits with good habits.  Five out of six times, I choose the bad habits.

What’s going on here?

“You may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?”
Talking Heads…Once in a Lifetime

I’m a big believer in the concept that there are four different dimensions to a person’s life:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Spiritual

Like most people, I have a hard time compartmentalizing these different dimensions.  Rarely am I doing well in one dimension but poorly in others.  It’s either all good or all bad.  The “rationalization” process I described above is a great example – weak or frazzled emotions trigger a mental rationalization, which leads me to bad physical habits, which plays negatively on my emotions, and down we go…

The obvious answer to what’s going on is that I lack motivation.  But that doesn’t help much.  Why do I lack motivation all of a sudden?  What happened?

TRUE…I haven’t committed to a running goal.  BUT…I know that my next race is a November marathon, but I haven’t settled on the specific race.  That should be enough of a goal.

TRUE…I’ve been experimenting with different running ideas.  I’ve tried new warmup routines, new time slots (afternoons), different stretching programs.  These could be disrupting my rhythm.  BUT…experimenting with new ideas is a typical strategy for breaking out of a slump; I wouldn’t expect them to contribute to a slump.

TRUE…my job situation is in flux right now.  I don’t have the daily structure of a regular schedule.  BUT…wouldn’t more free time help me become a better runner?

Sometimes I think I’m addicted to sugar.  Rationalization, tremendous cravings, knowingly making harmful choices – surely I exhibit the same symptoms as other types of addict.  I’ve tried eliminating sugar, but I could only stick with a low-sugar diet for one or two days.

Am I over-thinking this?  Absolutely.  It’s the way I operate.  In the last two months, I’ve read more than ever about how to motivate yourself and develop positive habits.

The Path Out

Given the depth of this slump, I need to attack it from multiple angles.  Here’s the rough plan:

  • Implement a modified form of the Paleo diet / Primal Blueprint.  Less sugar, more energy.  With the “modified form,” I’ll still eat grains and dairy but only immediately before or after workouts.
  • Re-institute the regular morning workout.  For now, I’m ending my experiment with workouts in new time slots.  Once the day starts, there are too many chances to skip the workout.
  • Sleep more.  I’ve been tracking my sleep for six months, and the results are ugly – I average just over five hours per day.  I’m aiming for seven hours, even if I have to sacrifice a workout.  While I’d love to take a mid-day nap, my experiment with naps proved that they were logistically difficult.
  • Disrupt my “bad brain.”  When I finding reasons to eat poorly or sleep less, I need to disrupt the thought process.  I almost always recognize it; now I must take action.  The action must be something that gets me back on track – stretching, sleeping, or some other healthy activity.  I’ve found that brushing my teeth really helps me control my desire to eat.
  • Get comfortable with my emotions.  I’ve never been good at naming what I’m feeling.  I typically use words such as “good,” “ok,” and “not good” to describe how I’m feeling.  Since I can’t precisely name my feelings, they often turn into hunger.  So for now, I’ll be carrying around something that helps me name my feelings.  If it isn’t hunger, I won’t be eating.

I’ve had a lot of running breakthroughs in the past 15 years.  Most of them were PRs or better-than-expected performances in new and challenging events.

My next breakthrough will be a breakout.  A breakout from this deep slump.  A break from the mindset and bad habits that have stifled me for the past few months.

It won’t be overnight, but it will happen.

Does any of this resonate?  Got any tips to help me pull out of the downward spiral?

Photo CreditPaolo Rosa

Needs and feelings inventory credit:  Center for Collaborative Communication