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4 Things Your Professors Don't Teach You in Grad School - Mental Strategies

by Justin Johnson, PT, DPT, OCS

Many new grads get overwhelmed easily. I know I did. I had a fancy degree that gave me a few letters behind my name and I felt like I was suddenly expected to know everything. So many tasks need to be completed for even the simplest treatment session that it is hard to stay focused and prioritize our time.

We all know what it is like to feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed at work can and does lead to burnout. It is important to recognize when you’re overwhelmed and then take the necessary action. Not enough time, too many distractions, a lack of concentration—these are all reasons for feeling overwhelmed. It can be tough to find the appropriate strategies and actions to deal with these all-too-common issues.

Two strategies that will revolutionize the way you work

Over the last year I’ve read two books that have had a profound effect on my personal and professional life. These are two books that I recommend for anyone looking to make improvements in using time efficiently, resisting distractions, and the ability to improve productivity in your most meaningful tasks (no, I don’t mean how many patients you can see in an hour).

This article will introduce some of the principles I’ve learned from these books and how they can improve your concentration, life balance, and ability to achieve your goals. Strategy numero uno is from David Rock’s “Your Brain at Work.” He introduces a few strategies that I find helpful in my professional, person, and athletic endeavors. Here I will introduce you to one of the most useful.

Strategy 1: Your mind’s stage.

David Rock points out that visualization is an excellent way of decreasing the workload on your brain. Simply writing down tasks or grocery lists is an excellent example. Isn’t it easier to write down lettuce, carrots, chicken, bread, beets, taco shells and yogurt versus remembering them? Yes it is. Trying to remember all these items ultimately uses our limited mental energy.

Mr. Rock’s suggestion is to visualize your brain as a stage. Who or what is on the stage is what you are thinking about or concentrating on. The goal is to have only one person or thing on your “mind stage” at a time.

For example, if you are working with one patient and you keep thinking of another, you need to visualize removing the second patient from the stage in your mind so you can concentrate on patient number one. Same thing goes for paperwork. If you are sitting down charting and you notice your mind wander, first visualize your stage. Then, remove everyone and everything besides the computer and charting you are currently focused on.

If you are not good at visualization then I suggest you read up on how to get better. It is one of the most useful tools to all high-performing persons. These individuals include thought leaders, athletes, business people, and anyone looking for a little success in life.

Strategy 2: Deep Work

Another book I’d like to bring to your attention is “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” by Cal Newport. If you haven’t read it yet, move it up on your priority list. He is an excellent writer and the entire book is useful for insight into creating distraction free work, improved concentration and accomplishing short and long term goals.

Mr. Newport’s definition of Deep Work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

We all work in an alarmingly distracted world. Deep work is essential for professional and personal development, the attainment of new skills, and progress in almost all worthwhile endeavors.

Deep work requires considerable energy. The time in which you can perform Deep Work, Newport argues, is limited. Deep Work requires concentration and focus, and of course that takes lots of glucose.

Here are a few tips from Newport on how to integrate Deep Work into your busy life.

  1. Start small. When I perform Deep Work I set my watch alarm for 20 minutes. 20 minutes is about all I can commit for Deep Work during a work session. After about 20 minutes my brain wanders and I have a hard time clearing the tasks and individuals off my mind’s stage.
  2. Recharge. Find what helps you to feel refreshed. Cal reports that he enjoys and playing with his kids to recharge. I recharge by exercise, meditation, or simply watching highlights of soccer game or bike race.
  3. Become an expert at scheduling. I recently bought a new planner. This one starts at 5am and ends at 9am. I get up at 5am and am in bed by 9:30pm, and plan everything in between. If you schedule your day there is less change for interference and you can keep your priorities straight.

Hopefully these two concepts are not foreign to you. During your academic study there is no doubt you performed Deep Work and thwarted distraction—even if you didn’t know it at the time. I also recognize that many readers have the concept of Visualization (Mind Stage) introduced to them in many forms. For those in ever-changing healthcare professions, these two strategies will benefit you by decreasing stress, improving focus, and helping you to attain your goals.


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