Renewing Your Mind – 15 Essential Zen Habits to Stop Brain Overload
A great Zen teacher named Hui Neng was enlightened when hearing a single sentence from the Diamond Sutra. (This is one of the essential teachings in Buddhism).
The sentence was: “Develop a mind that clings to nothing.”
Renewing your mind to stop brain overload means that you cling to nothing. This is one of the most important themes from Leo Babauta's blog Zen Habits.
Would brain overload be a problem if you had a mind like that?
A mind that doesn’t get attached?
In this blog post I distilled the 15 most essential Zen Habits that will help you to clear and renew your mind.
Common Pitfalls When You Want to Renew Your Mind and Stop Brain Overload
Stopping brain overload would not be difficult if there were no obstacles.
So before we can explore the essential zen habits that Leo talks about over and over again, let’s look at the common pitfalls that stop you from developing mental focus.
The Habit of Procrastination
You put because it's uncomfortable. Yes, renewing your mind is not something that comes naturally. Feeling overwhelmed or anxious often times leads to brain overload.
Instead of creating the conditions that make you more relaxed and feeling renewed you put the things of that serve you.
The Switching Habit
Unfortunately, we humans are wired to look for more opportunities even if it's against our best interest. We constantly switch to other tasks. Dan Ariely points out that we all switch between various possibilities, and we do so too often. This is closely related to procrastination. We experience discomfort and uncertainty, and you want to do something else. It's much easier to give in to your favorite distractions. Switching, from one thing to the next leads to a lack of focus and constant busyness.
You feel overwhelmed because your work isn’t perfect. You don't keep the promises you make to yourself because you overestimate how long a task will take you.
For example, you want to start a blog but can't until you register the perfect domain, the perfect hosting, the perfect WordPress theme, and cannot decide on the topic of your first headline.
You always have a list of great ideas and what it means to be an excellent blogger.
When I started to write this blog post, I felt the same.
I had a list of 400 keyword ideas and wasted half a day to get started. Then I made a decision. It's better to write a mediocre blog post that gets published than none.
This article is not perfect yet, but I gave it my best shot.
Other People Steal Your Attention
Of course, there are always other people that stop you from renewing your mind. They frustrate you and make it impossible to stay focused. Whenever you have to deal with other people, things get more complicated and messed up.
Sometimes it's impossible to clear your mind when you are among other people. But more often than not this is a rationalization.
Distractions & Interruptions
Constant distractions and interruptions prevent you from developing mental clarity as well. Some of those are under your control, others aren't. Constant notifications, the urge to visit Facebook or Youtube...
It might only be for a few minutes but dealing with interruptions is one of the major roadblocks to become mindful and to maintain attention.
Renewing your mind is difficult if you feel tired and lack energy. These kinds of obstacles can make it hard to calm your mind and recharge. Especially if it’s a long-term problem.
Fear & Uncertainty
When your brain feels overwhelmed you often experience self-doubt. Your mind does not like uncertainty and wants to shut down, avoid and neglect. Get in control and dealing with uncertainty belongs the few essential critical zen habits you need to develop.
This might feel like an overwhelming list of obstacles when your brain feels overloaded.
But the Zen Habits Leo uses are relatively simple, especially if you use them in combination with an app like FindFocus that was build to improve your online habits.
I’ll talk more about how to use FindFocus in combination with zen habits when we are talking about taking breaks and removing online distractions.
First, let’s look more at the essential zen habits you want to develop.
15 Essential Zen Habits To Stop Brain Fog
With our list of obstacles, I had a lock at Leo's blog and what the zen habits he came up with.
They mostly have to do with habits that we want to get better at.
Let’s look at those zen habits:
Zen Habit #1: Stop Optimizing - Pick One Thing to Do and Focus Fully on It.
Instead of trying to find the perfect productivity tools and mind tricks, focus on being content. When you feel the urge to optimize and find the perfect setup, recognize that you're letting yourself be distracted from what's important.
Instead of training your brain and developing a fragile optimized system, allow yourself to be okay with how you are and compassionate with your shortcomings.
Finding the optimal solution for everything is impossible.
Zen Habit #2: Be Present
Appreciate the present moment, because there won’t be many more before you die. If you doubt this read this post by Tim Urban.
Ask yourself, "What's most important right now?" Focus on what you can do right now. Merely being aware of the present moment is a surefire way to get rid of brain overload. Try this, even if it gives you discomfort and makes you want to distract with social media.
Zen Habit #3: Find Peace in the Middle of Chaos
This zen habit takes a lot of practice. To find inner peace in the middle of chaos requires you to turn your attention to it, to feel the things you would rather ignore. Paying attention to your feelings is a transformative practice, but it is very powerful.
Recognize that peace is available to you at any time. You don't need to go somewhere to find it. Stay where you are and love the place where you are right now. Relax your mind and ease into peace. Smile. Love your life, just as it is.
Once you renewed your mind and found peace take action from that place. Sitting down and meditating is excellent, but at some point, we have to act.
You can't complete a complex project at once. Focus on taking one step at a time.
Zen Habit #4: Prioritize (Picking one important thing at a time).
If you stop multitasking and getting distracted, you'll be getting stuff done. You'll be less effective if you only deal with the non-essential.
Pick one important thing to focus on at a time.
It turns out we cannot multitask anyway. For example, answering an email while writing this article is not my priority. It's okay when people get upset when I don't respond.
Ask yourself: What activity would move the needle for you?
Zen Habit #5: Just Start
Procrastination is one of the most common causes of brain overload.
If you get good at starting, you'll gain momentum and immediately fell less anxious because you are in control.
Starting is best done by starting small. When I began to work on this article, I came up with a good headline. One that would make it more likely that you read this article.
Finishing this first step helped me to start the research on Leo's blog. Completing the research, allowed me to write and publish the article.
Zen Habit #6: Focus Sessions
Focus sessions is a term that I often use when using my software FindFocus. Although this might sound like a blunt ad for FindFocus, the term "Focus Sessions" a zen habit right from Leo's "Little Handbook for Getting Stuff Done."
Leo has found huge value in focus sessions. He recommends to pick a short interval (10 minutes, 15, 20, or 25) and practice focusing on one task during that session until a timer goes off.
Then take a break, and try another focus session. He recommends just doing a couple focus sessions a day for a week, and expand from there.
If you work online, it's so easy to get distracted. That's why Leo recommends setting limits.
Zen Habit #7: Simplify Technology with Limits
Here is a quote from his post on tech limits:
Technology has a tendency to overrun our attention and our lives.
It's designed to do that: tech companies are motivated to keep our attention in their apps, their websites, their devices. They've found incentives for us to continue using the technology, shiny new things every second, powerful recommendation engines, tapping into our desire not to miss out, to be entertained, to run to comfort.
But you know all that. The problem comes when we try to figure out how to get a grip on it all, to tame technology to do what we need and then let it go so we can be more present, go outside more, move more, be connected to each other in real life more. Wrangling the chaos into something that we use consciously isn’t always easy.
I propose simplicity. And the method I suggest is setting limits.
When you get caught in a loop of watching Youtube videos or browsing the news feed on Facebook or Instagram you need a little help. If you feel a bit addicted to Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, Netflix, Facebook, Messenger/Whatsapp or the like it's time to overcome your Internet Addiction.
That's why I recommend to use FindFocus and put yourself into "White List Mode."
In FindFocus you can only allow websites you need to get your work done. Whenever you get distracted and feel the urge to go to another place online, you can tell the app to remind yourself to stay focused.
Choosing the right productivity software can be overwhelming. A lot of people who don't even bother.
I usually try to stay away from new software but if you want to keep yourself focused I highly recommend you give this software a try.
Keep it simple and only allow the websites you need for work during your focus sessions. Finally going online doesn’t have to be overwhelming, anymore.
Zen Habit #8: Embrace Uncertainty
There will be fear, uncertainty, and discomfort in all of your work. Stop avoiding, complaining, lashing out, hiding. Notice when you feel uncertain and insecure.
Then ... just stop and be with it.
Notice how it feels in your body. Be present and gentle with the feeling. Even friendly.
It's just a feeling. You will be okay. The best antidote is to find gratitude for the present moment.
Zen Habit #9: Stepping Back Into the Big Picture.
It's one thing to be intensely focused on a task, but it's another to step back and to renew your mind.
From time to time take a look at the big picture. Leo recommends to
"doing that at the beginning and end of each day (a morning planning session and a brief evening review of your day) but also checking in during the day with how things are going and how you might need to adjust your plan and refocus yourself. We all get distracted, interrupted, waylaid by unforeseen difficulties. And those are all fine if we can refocus ourselves as needed.
I recommend you use some kind of planner to do this. For example, you can download my free productivity planner here:
Zen Habit #10: Take Full Responsibility
This would be more of an advanced practice, but taking full responsibility means not blaming others for your difficulties. Recognize the obstacles but take full responsibility. Take responsibility even if you are not responsible, at all.
Zen Habit #11: Create Structure
Developing a zen mind does not mean to lock yourself into a rigid structure and for most people, rigidly planned days are just a fantasy.
But some kind of structure creates stability. For example, you could create a lot of advanced Pomodoro sequences and lists in FindFocus running multiple profiles at the same time.
Instead, I like having a minimal structure. Sometimes I only use the app to remind myself to take a regular break and get away from the computer every 50min.
Just make sure you start your day so that you’ll work on the things that will move the needle.
Think about what you can do, so you won't be too distracted during your focus sessions.
How will you review your day so that you’ll learn from what happened? (Hint use a planner. It does not have to be one I created).
Most of the time it's the simple answers to these kinds of questions that help you to create the basic structure. It's not about getting everything perfect.
The FindFocus One Page Productivity Planner has a space to review your day, so you can adjust and get better at creating a structure over time.
Zen Habit #12: Develop a Mind That Clings to Nothing
Notice how it feels when you’re clinging. What do you notice about your mind? It’s hard to see this at first. This zen habit is not easy to develop. It's hard to quiet your mind and stop rationalizing, but once you start to see, you can notice it all the time.
When you don’t like the way your food tastes, that’s clinging. When you need to have your coffee, that’s clinging. When you overeat, procrastinate, get frustrated, lash out, run to your favorite distractions, shut someone out … those are ways of clinging.
What do you notice? What do you feel in your body? Turn your attention to your body and so that you can notice when you feel tense.
Zen Habit #13: Practice Daily Meditation
Try to meditate in the morning or during the day for 5-10 minutes. Before you extend it to 10-15 minutes stick with this practice for about a month. You'll notice that sometimes you want to skip this important zen habit and instead check your phone or get up from your cushion before the session is supposed to end. During the session try to let go. Focus on your breath. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Over and over again.
Ideally, you will practice this throughout the day. 'It takes literally one second': The former Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan advises beginner meditators to do less formal practice than you are capable of. Trying to not to get too ambitious is probably the best meditation advice I've ever heard.
If you can sit in mindfulness for five minutes before it feels like a chore, then just do three or four minutes." Chade-Meng says "It doesn't make you lazy — it makes you smart. If you create a practice that's comfortable, and joyful, you'll have a much better chance of sustaining it."
Zen Habit #14: Treat Brain Overload Not As Problem, But As An Experience
Life can overtimes lead to brain overload: Your spouse is unhappy with you, your boss is demanding more from you, you get into a fight with someone, your finances are tight. Maybe you don't get enough sleep, or you are sick.
Our way of dealing with this is usually to do one or more of the following:
- Break up with your partner
- Quit your job,
- Get away from the problem or
- Stop caring.
Anything you can do to exit.
You try to ignore the problem and pretend nothing’s wrong.
Distract yourself with Netflix and Youtube. Anything else to numb your thoughts.
Unfortunately, this is not very effective. Here's a zen habit that helps when you are facing a problem:
Think of it not as a problem, but as an experience.
Think of it as an experience you’re having.
Everything in zen is an experience, a feeling. It's not good or bad. It's just an experience. It might not feel great, but that's not an issue. Not all experiences feel great.
Sometimes we just have to experience obstacles and challenges. It’s part of the experience of life.
Find peace with whatever problem you are facing and treat it as experience.
Zen Habit #15: Make Time for Solitude
To renew your mind, sit out in nature doing nothing. Simply enjoy the silence. These days most of us don’t make time for solitude anymore. Our brain rationalizes staying busy to stay addicted to technology and distraction.
We don’t often acknowledge it, but we feel uncertainty all day long.
We cling to excuses and distractions. We procrastinate and put off the habits we want to form, we are always busy and messaging and more.
We have the opportunity, every single day, even every moment, to be present with the storm of the world.
Don't let the excuse “I can’t because I have too much to do!” “stop you from putting these Zen Habits in daily practice.
There is a great saying:
Common sense is not always common practice.
Don't let this constant busyness and distraction stop you.
Take action and start spending your time intentionally.
Start by downloading the FindFocus productivity planner and print it out.
Or try the FindFocus software to limit the amount of information you take in.
Let's practice some of the habits above and set up the conditions, so this is not just another blog post you don't take action on.