Focusing Your Mental Energies

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In the old dubbed kung fu movies of the 1960s and 1970s, a common theme was that of an unassuming, innocent young man who would invariably run afoul of the local gang of hard-boiled criminals. They would somehow bring shame on the protagonist’s family/temple/personal honor, and then he would haplessly attempt to get revenge on them, which usually resulted in him being on the receiving end of a beating. Did he give up? Oh no: He’d just go up into the hills or something like that to find the local hermit/kung fu master and beseech him for lessons in the martial arts. The sifu (Cantonese for “master”) would commence training the young man in a montage of extremely arduous tasks, like doing push-ups with the old man seated on his back or standing on one leg for hours. After finishing these exercises, the hero—now a hardened warrior—would avenge the original offense by battering around about 50 dudes in a well-choreographed climatic fight scene.


In spite of the Scooby-Doo-like repetition of plotlines, these flicks never fail to entertain. I especially enjoy the part where the old master physically and verbally abuses the guy to mold him into a fighter. (There’s actually a pretty funny beer commercial out right now that parodies this.) But there was a point behind all of this cruelty: The sifu was instilling him with the ability to focus single-mindedly on a goal and concentrate all his energies toward it. We have a term for this in the West, too: being “in the zone.” This phrase refers to a state of complete concentration, where time and space seemingly cease to exist and nothing matters except for you and your objective.


For obvious reasons, this state is invaluable in both studying for and taking certification exams. Mental strength and stamina skyrocket when your mind completely concentrates on just one thing instead of being pulled in million different directions. So grasshopper, if you’re attempting an IT credential anytime soon, here are a few suggestions to help you focus your thoughts:


People who run long distances often experience what’s called a “runner’s high.” This is basically a clearing of the mind: All of the problems and concerns they have simply vanish from their mental purview, and they reach a state where it’s just them and the ground they’re running on. It’s not just limited to the time spent exercising, either. People who engage in any kind of strenuous activity also frequently have remarkable concentration when their bodies are at rest. If you’re putting your nose to the grindstone in your studying but coming away with little knowledge of the topic, you might want to try to work in a few hours of exercise a week. It’ll do wonders, trust me.


Also, make sure to eat something prior to study sessions and exams, but don’t overdo it. You’re not going to be able to focus on an empty or full stomach. And stay away from any foods that might wind up wreaking havoc on your gastro-intestinal tract a few hours after eating. An upset stomach is a surefire concentration-killer.


One of the best ways to learn how to focus is to play mind games where winning is tied directly to paying close attention. It doesn’t have to involve more than one person, but some of the better games for concentration out there entail two or more players. These include chess, Memory and card games such as spades and hearts.


Also, (and it just about kills this self-diagnosed media junkie to say it) you might want to avoid the news, if only while you’re seeking your certification—present publication excluded, of course. Don’t worry about who’s killing who in the Middle East, who’s dating who in Hollywood or who’s stealing from whom in Washington, D.C. The news will bombard your mind with information, most of it overblown or inconsequential. If you absolutely have to get your fix, rely on the newspapers and avoid the tabloid-style journalism and manufactured drama of TV news programs.


For spirit, we must again turn to the East and consider meditation. This technique is almost the opposite of running, but very similar in its results. Like the runner’s high, meditation produces a clearing of the mind. I won’t go into the specifics of the Lotus position or chakras or anything like that here, but I will say that most forms of meditation boil down to sitting still with your backbone straight while breathing very slowly and rhythmically. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with this position, try to let go of your thoughts by staring at a blank wall or closing your eyes and counting your breaths.


Now that you’re equipped with these concentration techniques, be like Bruce Lee and go out and kick that certification’s butt.

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