Much of my daily grind, I shuttle between emails, phone calls, and longer term projects that require me to hunker down for chunks of time. I’m the first to admit that there is an allure to my dips into Facebook, texts, fact checking, research, and emails; sometimes I go so far down into the rabbit hole that only after do I realize my attention has waned and I’ve deviated from my plan. I refocus, regroup, and begin again. It’s not too difficult; I’ve become a Jedi master of getting in the zone. I’ve literally spent 30 years, in some form or another, learning how, or practicing, as they say in the Bay Area, to “drop in.”
Dropping in helps me achieve what’s required of me in my art, work, and relationships; working from a place of attention, focus, and sometimes perseverance, engages me through the process. When I not only resist the temptation to cave into ‘plugging into’ my social media or Facebook pursuits, I’m practicing skills that mirror good studying habits. In fact, these also are the best practices of being a successful test taker. I learned ‘dropping in’ through years in the art studio of my undergraduate education, and art classes prior. For students, the quickest and most effective way to get there is to harness focus through holistic and mindful means: mindfulness, hypnosis, meditation, visualization, NLP, EFT, EMDR, and more.
In Daniel Goleman’s book, Focus, he boils attention down to three forms — inner, other, and outer focus — and demonstrates why high-achievers need all three kinds. He writes that those who rely on Smart Practices — which include mindfulness meditation, focused preparation and recovery, positive emotions and connections, and mental “prosthetics” that help them improve habits, add new skills, and sustain greatness — excel. It’s in the state of “full focus” that one achieves the ideal state: a doorway into flow. It’s the state I’m in when I’m creative, productive at work, engaged with a friend, and when I work with my students. Further, my being in this state helps entrain others to enter it as well. Focus begets focus. Zone begets zone.
Ask any world class artist, musician, chess player, or high performance athlete about focus and flow, and they’ll likely describe it the same: it’s entering a high state of focus, where time seems to slip away, and the only engagement is with the moment unfolding. Certainly what separates a good performance in any of these fields from a great one is our being so captivated by the presenter’s (artist, musician, athlete, etc.) ability to be so present, drawing from their wisdom, skills, and experience, while artfully and elegantly responsive to what the moment asks of him or her. And this engagement of the moment is what we experience cathartically. Think of the converse: I have always found fault in attending a concert only to see a musician whose performance mimics the studio version of their music. It’s rote, predictable, and lacks the spark I hope to gain by getting to see the artist in his or her artistry. These distinctions can be useful for one to become a great test taker: one who not only draws from the mastery of material, practice, and execution of effective strategy, but also has prepared his or her mind to think critically and tap into different parts of the brain, different aptitudes, and different ways of engagement. In other words, building and engaging in a better mousetrap.
Content mastery is finite for most standardized tests. What requires less time, but as much seriousness, is training the student to be more focused and engaged for the duration of the test. And for different test takers, duration could be hours to days (for example, the SAT is about 4 hours; for the USMLE and BAR exam, it’s days). Mental training also includes techniques to alleviate stress and fear, which comes up for most since these tests are high stakes and very well may hold the key to acceptance — or not — into his or her choice school, by virtue of a score. The benefits of engaging in the practices which get a student to be more focused, engaged, and stress free not only help improve one’s test scores, but improve one’s experience taking the test, and (bonus!) enhance life beyond the test itself. In fact, out of the purview of this essay, but found just about everywhere, are the virtues of holistic and mindful practices espoused.
The benefits of the practices of ‘getting in the zone’ are consistently proven in our work with high stakes test takers, and are likewise endorsed by science. A 2013 UC Santa Barbara study published in the journal Psychological Science, and reported in the New York Times, reported that researchers found that after a group of undergraduates went through a two-week intensive mindfulness training program, not only did their mind-wandering decrease and their working memory capacity improve, but the students performed better on a GRE reading comprehension test.
These undergraduates practiced what resembled a standard mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which typically meets once a week for eight sessions, but instead, met four days a week for two weeks. Their practice, typical to standard meditation, included sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed, a softened, lowered gaze, breathing exercises, and a kind of return to focus by “minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.”
After two weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity, and given another version of the GRE reading comprehension section. Their minds wandered less, and they performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. Before the training, their average GRE verbal score was 460/800. Two weeks later, it was 520/800 — in other words, a 13% increase: the same percent increase noted for when one has undergone anxiety relief work. And we continue to collect anecdotal evidence: GMAT students whose scores improve 100 – 230 points (out of 800) after only 2-4 hours of holistic and mindful training to stop their inner critic, and ACT students’ scores increasing multiple points after one session dedicated to calming the mind. See — mindfulness and holistic methods help us not only focus, but also suppress anxiety and distraction demons.
So the next time you are working with a student, or you yourself are preparing for a high stakes test, performance, interview, or life cycle event, remember that meeting each moment with full engagement garners optimal results
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