Why I Sat in Silent Focus Every Day Last Month


With one month remaining in 2017, I went to my mentor looking for a solution to a nagging concern. I’d noticed that during intense stretches of life and work, I’d become more dependent on having a nightly drink (or two) as a coping mechanism. Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking in moderation for enjoyment, but I realized this had evolved into a tool, something I was using to make me feel calmer. And that bothered me.

My mentor recognized that this coping mechanism was symptomatic of something deeper. He probed and listened, then zeroed in on the truth: “Is it difficult for you to pause productivity and quiet the noise in your mind?” he asked. He knows that I have a hard time slowing down my thoughts and actions.

His challenge for me was to sit in silence for twenty minutes every day and focus my thoughts on one word. As other thoughts might surface —problems, obligations, wanderings — he urged me to let them go as if they were floating down a river.

It was a challenge I was excited to take on. And so, every single day last month, I sat in silent focus.

It was so powerful I grew to love and look forward to the practice.

The Power of Silence

My mentor’s advice reminded me of how sports psychologists train athletes. It also reminded me of what my own job is: to help our team regularly focus on our company vision in order to reduce the noise and distractions that are everywhere. Silence seems to be in short supply, both outside and inside our heads. So it was interesting to discover how this practice affected me as the weeks went by.

Looking back, I went through some distinct phases:

Phase 1 – Surprise

Right off the bat, two things amazed me: First, twenty minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but it is excruciatingly difficult to focus on one word in silence for twenty minutes —both for practical reasons and because I lack the patience. To be honest, never during the entire month did I go beyond sixteen minutes.

Second, despite the difficulty, I was shocked at how calm and aligned my thoughts were after doing it. It reminded me of the focus and alignment created in an organization through a clear vision.

Phase 2 – Reconsideration

After about a week, I was sure I had picked the wrong word to focus on. As I sat in silence at the kitchen table in the dark I thought, What does this word really mean anyway? Is this the most important word I could be focused on? Did I put enough thought into selecting it?

The questions reminded me of the uncertainties I’ve had about our vision at work. Is this the right focus for our team?

Phase 3 – Annoyance

The middle of the month got busier. And the time spent in silence focused on one word got old. Do I have to keep doing this? Surely I should pick a different word. This is becoming rote.

Similar thoughts have entered my mind about our company vision. How many times do we have to repeat this for people to remember? Disciplined focus is so hard in a noisy and distracting world.

Phase 4 – Transformation

Then something happened that got me to reaffirm the value of doing this. A difficult, high-stakes decision presented itself to me. I was immediately sure what needed to be done, so I typed out an emphatic text to a colleague with my point of view. But we didn’t finalize the decision until the next day — after I’d had another “focus” session. And that morning was different. My focus word became the filter for this big decision.

After the time of silence, I stood up with a changed point of view. I knew that a different, more difficult decision had to be made that aligned with the focus word. Taking this harder, more aligned path gave me profound calm and clarity.

Phase 5 – Readiness

What started as a month-long experiment has turned into an integral part of my day. The silent focus has become normal to me now. I’m ready for it, even craving it. It’s hard to imagine not doing it.

Perhaps this practice has become normal for you too. I’ve seen it happen with our company vision at work. Our vision, while still aspirational, is a part of who we are. I can’t imagine not focusing on it. I’m continuously ready to talk about our vision in meetings, use it as a filter for decisions, and share it with customers. It’s the focal point, the single source of clarity, in the midst of all the chaos and noise.

We know that regular communication of vision and direction is important at work. I’m reminded how important it is at home too. The recommendation from my mentor yielded powerful results. The alcohol use went down. My thoughts settled, my sleep quality improved, and my energy increased.

What about you? Could consistently taking the time out for silent focus help you in your work or home life?

Next week I’ll continue with the topic of focus, exploring how my sons’ juggling coach (you read that right) is helping me make better business decisions.

In the meantime, I’d love it if you would help us out with our Humble Leadership Project. Throughout 2018, I’ll be interviewing and analyzing the characteristics and impact of humble leaders, because the world needs more of them. Do you know someone who fits the bill? Please fill out this short form to nominate a humble, self-effacing leader who gets results.

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