There’s plenty of research out there (e.g., Aspen Brain Institute, 2022, Marzo et al., 2009, Eschenki & Sara, 2008, Kuo et al., 2007) that consistently shows how significant learning and neuroplasticity only occur with very high levels of focus and alertness during the practice and learning of a skill.
"Very high," for alertness, means feeling wide awake, looking forward to the work we're about to do, and being fairly energetic (with or without caffeine). For focus, this means having laser-like mindfulness concerning the task we want to complete. Focusing this way should feel quite effortful, like when you're trying to thread a needle or playing timed version of the board games Operation, Chess, or Sudoku.
My Alertness Routine
Here are 7 evidence-based alertness primers I do, and recommend, before practicing. (IMPORTANT: Please check with your doctor before trying numbers 5, 6, & 7):
Splash cold water on your face¹.
Drink a cold glass of water².
Turn on the lights as brightly as possible³.
Go outside to look at or toward the morning sky for 5-10 minutes without sunglasses -- NEVER look at any light that is uncomfortably bright⁴.
Take several quick, deep breaths in a row⁵.
Work out. Even doing a few jumping jacks or burpees immediately before sitting down to practice or during breaks helps quite a bit⁶.
If it's safe for you, take a cold shower (or at least finish with completely cold water)¹⁰.
My Focus Routine
Here are 8 evidence-based focus primers I do and recommend immediately before starting my practice routine:
As soon as you sit down to practice, write a to-do list of anything on your mind that is not related to practice. And during practice, keep that list accessible to write down any invading thoughts of things you need to do later that day(¹⁴).
Next, write a to-do list of specific practice goals for your practice session⁷.
Always eliminate distractions (especially social media, web searching, phone noise, and notifications)(¹⁵)
Focus on a fixed point in your practice space about 1-5 feet away from you and practice engaging your entire focus on that point for 30-60 seconds. This helps prime the brain for maximum focus(¹¹, ¹², ¹³).
Do a quick warm-up and then engage in maximum focus on only one (1) goal at a time. Do not multitask⁸.
When you start losing focus, quickly re-focus your attention. Focussing well is a skill that requires practice. If you start losing focus often, take a 2-3 minute movement break and then go back and try again⁹.
Limit each practice session to 60 minutes peppered with plenty micro and movement breaks.
Next time you practice, first remind yourself that effective learning starts with alertness and a high level of focus. Without these two conditions, your efforts in practice won’t be as fruitful as they could be since the neurological pathways needed for learning won't be primed very well (see references above).
This week try out a few of the ideas I shared with you above and let me know in the comments (at the bottom of the page here) if you found them helpful.
Please leave a comment or question about this post at the bottom of this page to let me know how these strategies are helping you. And if you’re interested in lessons, please contact me below. Thanks and happy practicing!