The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life - by Thomas M. Sterner

Life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort to refine the motions, both physical and mental, that compose our days.

The practicing mind is quiet. It lives in the present and has laser-like, pinpoint focus and accuracy. It obeys our precise directions, and all our energy moves through it. Because of this, we are calm and completely free of anxiety. We are where we should be at that moment, doing what we should be doing and completely aware of what we are experiencing. There is no wasted motion, physically or mentally.

A paradox of life: The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.

Process, Not Product

To me, the words practice and learning are similar but not the same. The word practice implies the presence of awareness and will. The word learning does not. When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between actively practicing something and passively learning it. Practice encompasses learning, but not the other way around. Learning does not take content into consideration. Keeping that in mind, we can also say that good practice mechanics require deliberately and intentionally staying in the process of doing something and being aware of whether or not we are actually accomplishing that. This also requires that we let go of our attachment to the "product."

When you focus on the process, the desired product takes care of itself with fluid ease. When you focus on the product, you immediately begin to fight yourself and experience boredom, restlessness, frustration, and impatience with the process. In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal. When your goal is to pay attention to only what you are doing right now, as long as you are doing just that, you are reaching your goal in each and every moment. In one respect, this is a very subtle shift, but in another, it's a tremendous leap in how you approach anything that requires your effort. When you truly shift into putting your attention on what you are doing right now and remain continually aware that you are doing so, you begin to feel calm, refreshed, and in control. Your mind slows down because you are asking it to think only of one thing at a time. The inner chatter drops away.

Creating the practicing mind comes down to a few simple rules:

  • Keep yourself process-oriented.

  • Stay in the present.

  • Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer your efforts.

  • Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention.

When you remain aware of your intention to stay focused on the present, it's easy to notice when you fall out of this perspective. At such times you immediately begin to judge what and how well you are doing, and you experience impatience and boredom. When you catch yourself in these moments, just gently remind yourself that you have fallen out of the present, and feel good about the fact that you are now aware enough to recognize it. You have begun to develop the Observer within you, who will prove so important in your self-guidance.

At any point in the day when you notice you are feeling bored, impatient, rushed, or disappointed with your performance level, realize that you have left the present moment in your activity. Look at where your mind and energy are focused. You will find that you have strayed into either the future or the past.

During a present-moment experience, you cannot be aware of anything other than the experience itself. This is why we cannot observe ourselves when we are practicing a process-oriented mentality. What we can do is use the moments of questioning whether we are focusing on the process to remind us that we are not.

Why, during a subconscious judgment process, do we define one activity as work and another as "not work"? I feel that a large part of what makes us define something as work is that the activity requires a lot of decision making, which can be very stressful and fatiguing. This is especially true when the decisions that you are making are very subtle and you are not even aware that you are making them. Try this the next time you are faced with doing something you define as unenjoyable or as work. It doesn't matter if it is mowing the lawn or cleaning up the dinner dishes. If the activity will take a long time, tell yourself you will work on staying present-moment and process oriented for just the first half hour. After that, you can hate it as much as usual, but in that first half hour you absolutely will not think of anything but what you are doing. You will not go into the past and think of all the judgments you have made that define this activity as work. You will not go into the future, anticipating when it will be completed, allowing you to participate in an activity that you have defined as "not work." You will just do whatever you are doing right now for half an hour. Don't try to enjoy it, either, because in that effort you are bringing emotions and struggle into your effort.

Creating Habits

We need to become an observer of our thoughts and actions, like an instructor watching a student performing a task. The instructor is not judgmental or emotional. The instructor knows just what he or she wants the student to produce. The teacher observes the student's actions, and when the student does something that is moving in the wrong direction, the instructor gently brings it to the student's attention and pulls the student back onto the proper path.

Our minds are going to practice certain behaviors whether or not we are aware of them, and whatever we practice is going to become habit. Knowing this can work in our favor. If we understand how we form habits, and if we become aware of which habits we are forming, we can begin to free ourselves by intentionally creating the habits we want instead of becoming victims of the habits we unknowingly allow to become a part of our behavior. What is required is that you are aware of what you want to achieve, that you know the motions you must intentionally repeat to accomplish the goal, and that you execute your actions without emotions or judgments; just stay on course. You should do this in the comfort of knowing that intentionally repeating something over a short course of time will create a new habit or replace an old one.

How do you stop the momentum of an old habit? To help us with this, we can use a technique called a trigger. For our purposes here, a trigger is a device that serves to start the creation process of the new habit. It's sort of a wake-up call, a whistle blow or a bell ring, that alerts you that you are in a situation where you want to replace your previous response with this new one that you have chosen. One of the functions of a trigger is to stop the flow of your emotional response to a situation and bring you into a present-moment, nonjudgmental posture so that you can be in control of your actions. The trigger jolts you into awareness and reminds you it's time to commit to the process you have already decided upon.

I work with a lot of junior golfers, many of whom play in weekly tournaments. Before we identify a trigger, we first create what is known as a preshot routine. In the preshot routine, the golfers first gather data about what they want to accomplish. This is done very academically, away from the ball and ideally with no emotions. You decide on the reaction you want to execute in the safety and unemotional state of a nonjudgmental frame of mind. In that state, you are fully objective and make choices and decisions without mental or emotional clutter. As with the golfer, it is not a bad idea to practice your response: Imagine your coworker barking at you for no reason or saying something that is totally uncalled for. Now envision him in your mind as having no power over you. Observe him with almost detached amusement as you calmly decide how you will respond. They still have to hit the shot. This is where the trigger comes in. It's a simple movement that reminds the golfer to start the routine.

It is very comforting to know that when you remain present in an effort like this, and when you have a predetermined intention about how to react, that intention will, with surprising quickness, come to your rescue and give you that little edge in personal control you need to stay ahead of your reaction. Then your new reaction becomes self-perpetuating. You execute the reaction you want; then your internal reaction to your response feels good because you have protected your inner peace, and you experience the paycheck for your effort. This gives you the emotional and mental stamina to stay with your effort. Thus a new habit begins to form.


Experiencing impatience is one of the first symptoms of not being in the present moment, not doing what you are doing, and not staying process-oriented.

The first step toward patience is to become aware of when your internal dialogue is running wild and dragging you with it. The second step in creating patience is understanding and accepting that there is no such thing as reaching a point of perfection in anything.

Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything. When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease. However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you. In every moment that you look at the goal and compare your position to it, you affirm to yourself that you haven't reached it. In reality, you need to acknowledge the goal to yourself only occasionally, using it as a rudder to keep you moving in the right direction.

The real thrill of acquiring anything, whether it is an object or a personal goal, is your anticipation of the moment of receiving it. The real joy lies in creating and sustaining the stamina and patience needed to work for something over a period of time.

The Four "S" Words

  • Simplify. When you work at a specific project or activity, simplify it by breaking it down into its component sections.

  • Small. Be aware of your overall goal, and remember to use it as a rudder or distant beacon that keeps you on course. But break down the overall goal into small sections that can be achieved with a comfortable amount of concentration.

  • Short. "I'm going to work at cleaning the garage for forty-five minutes a day over the next few days until it is completely clean." You can survive just about anything for forty-five minutes. You have to deal with only one corner of the garage for forty-five minutes, and you'll be done for the day. You look at your watch and walk away from the task at the end of the forty-five minutes, feeling in control and satisfied that your goal of a clean garage is flowing toward you.

  • Slow. You work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing. This pace will differ according to your personality and the task in which you are involved. If you are aware of what you are doing, then you are probably working at the appropriate pace. You can work slowly only if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment. The paradox of slowness is that you will find you accomplish the task more quickly and with less effort because you are not wasting energy.

Since all four components take effort to develop and maintain, you will have greater success if you break down the time that you apply to working on them into short intervals. You will find it much easier to stay with your effort if you do this. An exercise I use to start my day in this mindset is brushing my teeth slowly. You can apply these simple rules to any part of your life and to any activity you undertake. As you begin to evolve in this area, the Observer within you will become more and more apparent. You will start to watch yourself going through your daily life; you will become more and more aware of when you are living in the present moment and working in the process, and when you are not.

Equanimity and "Do, Observe, Correct"

Equanimity comes from the art of nonjudgment. Nonjudgment quiets the internal dialogue of our mind. First we must become aware of exactly when we are involved in the process of judging. We must work at being more objectively aware of ourselves. We cannot refine any part of our daily thought processes if we are not separate from those processes. The more closely you become aligned with the quiet Observer, the less you judge. Your internal dialogue begins to shut down, and you become more detached about the various external stimuli that come at you all day long. You begin to actually view your internal dialogue with an unbiased (and sometimes amused) perspective.

DOC happens in the background, without effort. In a short time, the new habit of DOC will be a natural part of how you operate. You are shooting arrows at a target: "Oops, missed that one by aiming too far to the left, that's all. Shoot more to the right." It's a game of sorts, and you are not letting the villain of emotions play in your game.

Don't confuse evaluating something with judging it. Evaluation comes before the action of passing judgment. You can't judge something if you haven't first evaluated it. You can decide to stop the DOC process after evaluating or observing, before your thoughts turn toward judgment. This is what you are doing in DOC. Your observation is the point at which you evaluate your process. Are you heading toward your goal? No? Then jump immediately to correct, and skip the judgment because it has no value in your effort.

The stamina necessary for self-control is a process that you work at daily. You start with short sessions and allow yourself rest. If you are aware of when you are trying, then that means you are in the present moment and you have already won, regardless of where you appear to be in relation to your personal goals. Your goals will always move away from you. That is the way we keep evolving.