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Training Your Mind to Stay Focused

Do you find yourself distracted, jumping from one thing to another, unable or unwilling to stay focused? 

This “monkey mind” phenomena occurs at meetings, when reading, watching a video, writing, or creating a product, when in conversation, when meditating to cultivate calm and clarity of mind, or when relaxing and trying to fall asleep.

When working a project, staying focused on the tasks that will satisfy objectives is a critical success factor.  Focused attention on a single task leads to greater performance effectiveness than popping from one thing to another.

The tendency to become distracted by monkey mind is not limited to project work.  It occurs in every aspect of life. 

One can exercise the mind to reduce the effects of “monkey mind” in meditation and in daily life, at work and at play.

Monkey Mind

“Monkey mind” is a mind that jumps from one thought to another, often unconsciously.  Thoughts are triggered by the experience of another thought, a feeling, sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch.  Something ‘interesting’ comes along and the mind is off and running.  It spins a web of thoughts, elaborates on the experience; repeats.  Some thoughts lead to actions, others to obsessing about some fantasy, worry, experience, or any concept and the feelings it brings up.

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For example, here is a sequence that took place over half an hour, moving from observations to feelings, thoughts, activities, more observations, feelings, thoughts, etc.  

  1. Objective – verify when a new policy is to begin by emailing Amanda, the administrator
  2. Go to the email program to compose the email
  3. Notice a new batch of emails
  4. Feel annoyance about the number of junk emails
  5. Obsess a bit about the “junk” proliferation
  6. Review and delete junk emails
  7. Notice an interesting email with a quote from Ram Dass’ Words of Wisdom
  8. Contemplate the wisdom (this could set the mind off on a major diversion)
  9. Deciding to not take the diversion, copy the quote into Evernote for later reading
  10. Tag the note to a writing project
  11. Return to the email list
  12. Notice an email from one of the writing project team members
  13. Respond to that email
  14. Write a short email to the writing project team about the quote
  15. Return to the emails and finish reviewing
  16. Write and send the email to Amanda
  17. Create this list in Evernote
  18. Write notes about the list and the concept of monkey mind.
  19. Create this article.


This tendency for thoughts to proliferate and to become entangled in a web of feelings, mental commentary and actions is natural.  Everyone experiences it from time to time.  There are distractions and we are often easily distracted.

Sometimes a message comes in that starts another chain of events that may go on for hours moving from one thing to another.   Then there is the break for coffee or conversation with a co-worker.  Or, any number of other things.

The initial objective may be forgotten for days or until something comes up to trigger a need to get back to getting it done.   If the wisdom quote in step 7 triggered writing an article about the content of the quote, instead of putting the quote aside for later use, the diversion could have taken many hours.

The chain from the initial objective through its accomplishment took a half hour.   Without the distractions, writing and sending the email to Amanda would have taken less than five minutes, with no risk of getting lost in the chain.  Further, process quality and project management wisdom, including Critical Chain/Theory of Constraints, tells us that productivity and the quality of the outcome are enhanced by staying focused on one objective at a time – minimizing distractions and their effects.

Reduce Distractions

To minimize distractions and their effects, you have two challenges, 1) reduce the number of distractions and 2) better manage the distractions that will not go away.   Yes, you can minimize the number and frequency of distractions, but you cannot eliminate them.

You can reduce the number and frequency of external distractions like pings and rings, by turning off notifications and devices (if you dare take the risk of missing something really important).  Treat your solo work sessions as if they were meetings with an important stakeholder.  Do not allow interruptions for the length of your work session.

Unless you are a “surgeon” who must respond to emergency calls to action, you can be “off the grid” for an hour or so without fear of the world ending unless you take the call or respond to the text immediately.  If you do have emergency response responsibilities or high priority callers, set up your devices to filter out everything or everyone else.

 When it comes to internal distractions – thoughts and feelings – reducing the distracting events is not so easy.  It is hard to stop the mind from thinking or stop yourself from feeling angry, sad, frustrated, when triggered.

Train the Monkey

The second challenge is to better manage distractions.  It begins by seeing the monkey mind for what it is and to train it to think and decide before jumping.  And, to do that in a way that enables the kind of adaptive flow that promotes creativity and ease of being.

When you train the monkey, you can just go along in a stream of consciousness or pull back and stay on a chosen object – the task at hand or the content in your conversation or article.

The monkey is not some primate that lives in your mind.  It is the habit of grasping at the next “interesting” thing (thought feeling, sound, image, etc.) that comes up.  It might be something pleasant or painful.  The more interesting it is, the stickier it gets. Sticky thoughts attract and adhere to other related thoughts and feelings.  A momentum builds and the mind is off in a new direction. The more momentum, the stronger the new chain.  The stronger the chain the more difficult it is to break it and get back to the chosen object of your attention or the chain of thought that you were on before the distraction.

To break the habit, apply the effort required to cultivate mindfulness and concentration. That effort begins with the intention to be more in control of where your mind goes and what you do with it.  Then you find a meditation discipline to use to exercise the part of your mind that decides what to do.  You use formal and informal meditation techniques to confront and quiet the monkey mind.  You increase your mindful awareness so that you can recognize distractions as they occur and get back to your chosen object before the distraction takes hold. 

What are the techniques? 
Check out the videos at

How long does it take to train the monkey?
As consultants and project managers say, “It depends.” The factors are strength of your intention, the effort you put in, the monkey’s willfulness and strength. With practice you can see some results in a few weeks, but don’t be impatient, taming the mind, like keeping your body in shape, is a process.

How much time and effort do I have to spend?
Not as much as you may think. It can be anywhere from five to twenty minutes of formal practice and intentional attention during the day, integrated into the daily routine so no extra dedicated time is needed.

You may want to checkout my past PM Times article, How to Mindfully Manage Emotions at It contains an instruction for a formal mindfulness practice.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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