Our time is our most valuable currency. It’s finite, and there’s no way around that. But it is possible to exponentially increase the quality of our time by focusing on the most important aspect of it: our attention.
As an example, answer this simple question: What do you want in life?
I find it interesting that when you ask most young children this question, they respond with an instant elated answer. Most adults, however, respond with agitation and discomfort. Why is this?
Given the abundance of choices and stimuli we have in every moment today, it has never been easier to be indecisive and distracted. This is the source of that all-too-common feeling of being too busy.
The truth is this: what you want is almost entirely irrelevant. What matters is how you think about this question. Where does your attention go when you consider it? If you tend to focus first on what you don’t want, what you don’t have, and or what you should be better at, then congratulations! You are a responsible adult. If you’d like to be more creative, successful, and present, then this information has the potential to change your life. I hope to empower you to practice reprogramming your mind to better adapt to our overstimulating modern world with a few disciplined practices that can help you reclaim the quality of your attention.
I am no guru of attention/presence. In fact, the more time I spend on this subject, the more I realize just how much I am a victim to my own distracting vices and emotional reactions. I can tell you, however, that every moment invested on this introspective journey has granted me more confidence, clarity, gratitude, fulfillment, and overall quality of presence.
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I believe that being a successful dentist in today’s world requires disciplined self-care practices to help train deeper focus, more positive awareness, faster decision-making, and faster resilience when things don’t go as planned.
For the sake of your loved ones, team members, patients, and your relationship to yourself, I encourage you to pour more of your attention into what curiously captures it and focus on bringing out the best in each moment, so you can inspire more people to do the same. This is the simplest recipe for living and leading your best life.
The power of attention
Life is a constant barrage of distractions disguised as shortcuts to gratification. But true gratification comes from the fulfillment of evolving, and this requires discomfort, challenge, and often even failure. We have conditioned ourselves to seek instant comfort through distraction every moment that discomfort arises. Many apps on our devices are designed to reinforce this behavior, and I would argue that this is the root cause of the predominace of mental illness today.
We have a limited capacity for attention, so the more we are distracted, the more our attention becomes diluted and scattered. This leads to more anxiety because we’re no longer able to sit with discomfort; it feels more challenging to focus our attention long enough to get anything accomplished.
In 2021, my wife and I began hosting dental aid yoga retreats in the Dominican Republic. We give every attendee a bracelet to honor the jungle and the human attention span (figures 1 and 2). The black beads represent the life within the earth; the green beads represent the lush foliage; and the white bead stands for the sliver of life in the jungle.
Similarly, most of our brain power is devoted to unconscious processes (symbolized by the black beads); much less is devoted to subconscious processes (green beads); and only about 5% is devoted to conscious awareness (white bead). Every time I glance at my Revive Mission bracelet, I am reminded to make that precious 5% of my attention capacity count.
When I graduated from dental school in 2014, my wife (who was my girlfriend and a dental student at the time) convinced me we should take a yoga class together. I feared that yoga might threaten my masculine identity, but despite my reservations, I kept gravitating back to the yoga studios.
Like most new dentists, I thought my greatest challenges were behind me. “Just get through dental school and then you’re set” is what I told myself, so I believed I’d crossed the finish line. To my surprise, life felt more like the beginning of even greater hardships. No one told me it would be so difficult to earn the trust of employers and patients while concurrently learning about how to run a business and manage the pressure of hefty tuition debt. I was also sorting through the constant bombardment of opportunities and trying to figure out who I was as a person and a dentist.
In dental school all my big decisions were made for me; I had no time for distractions. Despite its challenges, being in school was easier. Once I graduated, I was lost and felt like I was sinking deeper. Yoga kept me sane as I navigated the turbulent waters of being a new dentist.
The amygdala runs the show
Dental school conditions us to become really good at paying attention to what’s wrong. It disguises this as that desirable trait we call perfectionism. Unfortunately, perfectionism doesn’t equate to leading a happy and successful life, especially not in today’s world.
If you reflect on those old physiology lectures, you may recall the little pea-sized portion of the limbic brain called the amygdala. Its role is to instantly react at perceived wrongs by turning on the body’s fire alarm: the fight-flight-freeze reaction. It is theorized that this reaction developed to be hypersensitive to protect us from predators. But our culture has evolved alongside technology with one small glitch that has created paramount consequences. Instead of training our minds to dial down the amygdala response (after all, this is by far the safest time in human history to be alive), we’ve learned to feel threatened more frequently.
When the amygdala gets triggered, it sends input to the prefrontal cortex to scan for more evidence of any threat. The fight-or-flight emotional response shunts blood away from the prefrontal cortex so we don’t take time to rationalize the validity of the threat. For example, let’s say you come across an advertisement for a CE course you know you could benefit from, but it intimidates you. Your amygdala gets tipped off, and you will likely start scanning your memories and your self-worth for evidence that makes it difficult to commit to something you know logically will benefit you. It becomes much easier to justify why you’re not good enough and or why you can’t afford to make the commitment required to invest in the course. Don’t get me wrong—it’s important to be practical and self-critical to an extent, but we often veer to the point of analysis paralysis. The good news is, it’s entirely possible to reprogram every perceived challenge into an opportunity.
Yoga and mindfulness, demystified
It took me many years of practicing yoga to realize that leaving my phone behind and focusing on one singular intention while breathing and moving slowly helped me become slightly more immune to the distractions I face daily. My yoga practice strengthened when I decided to pursue yoga teacher training. I began to notice my reactions softening more naturally. I became less riled up when something went wrong, less insecure, and less stressed overall. When inundated with a barrage of thoughts that used to trigger insecurity and a lack of motivation, I would more frequently pause to question these thoughts instead of simply reacting to them. Life began flowing at a more natural pace. Yoga helped me remember that I was already successful, and I began to see my life in the form of opportunities rather than threats.
To maintain mental health, physical vitality, optimal focus, and motivation, it is essential to spend at least 60 minutes every day away from any device. You must focus on one internal intention while feeling, breathing, and moving slower than you’d like. You’ll be training your mind to constantly embrace discomfort rather than defaulting to distractions from it. This is how you cultivate a state of presence.
For thousands of years, yoga was an Eastern practice with only one asana (pose), which was seated on the ground. In the early 1800s, it evolved into many poses after gurus noticed that Westernized boys were becoming increasingly more restless, so they began mimicking the movements of the British infantry to tire themselves out so they could embrace stillness. I don’t think these early gurus ever imagined that this new form of yoga would gain such popularity in the West, but it turns out to be great medicine in our overstimulated Western culture. Yoga has worked well for me, but there are other ways you can strengthen your mindfulness.
Disciplining your attention
Without disciplining your attention, you will get distracted easily and quickly disregard any helpful practices. These practices discussed below have the capacity to change your life, but only if you do them with unwavering consistency. As soon as you become distracted, you’ll forget any insights you have gained thus far. Do yourself a favor and write down which practices you will begin today. When you start slipping away from the practices (and you will), just remember to return as soon as you notice you’re suffering. When everything feels like it’s going wrong, take that as a sign to go within and discipline yourself. Do this for your family, your loved ones, and your success.
The greatest impacts of yoga
Here are some practices that have been influential in my life and the lives of dental yogis.
Put limits on your screen time. Never scroll through your phone or computer first thing in the morning or right before bed. The mind is most pliable in the morning, so the thought patterns you start the day with will get repeated throughout. If you begin the day triggering your amygdala by scanning a bombardment of emails, negative news articles, and the content of “friends” who seem more successful and happy than you, then you’re destined to repeat this behavior and perpetuate a stress cycle all day long.
Give yourself at least an hour of quiet and slow-paced thinking before picking up any device. Every time you pick up your phone, ask yourself, “What is my intention?” Focus only on that and then put your phone down immediately afterward. This practice alone will shave off countless hours of mindless scrolling.
In the evening, limit blue light exposure to your eyes so your body doesn’t mistake it for sunlight. Limit exposure to stressors; your cortisol levels will gradually decline and melatonin levels will rise, allowing you to sleep with ease.
Reprogram with gratitude. Take advantage of your mind’s malleability in the morning by training it to pay attention to what is right rather than constantly focusing on what’s wrong. Focusing on wrongs creates a bleak, inaccurate portrayal of reality. Each morning I write down at least three things I’m grateful for. Doing so shifts my focus to opportunities rather than emphasizing challenges.
Spend more time in nature. It’s easy to forget that we often move, think, and act at a pace that’s way beyond our natural capacity. Getting out in nature reminds us to slow down and respond with clarity and efficiency. The Navy SEALs have a saying, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” If the most elite armed forces organization in the world recognizes the value of slowing down, there must be value in practicing it. As a practical application, I purposefully ride my bike to work instead of driving.
Exercise in the morning. Moving your body and getting your heart rate up helps close the stress cycle and increase the release of cortisol. Exercising first thing in the morning allows cortisol levels to decrease gradually into the evening. Cortisol and melatonin generally oppose each other, so the ideal circadian cycle is to spike your cortisol first thing in the morning so as it declines through the evening, your melatonin will rise and you’ll be able to fall asleep easily.
Take your sleep seriously. We all have reasons to compromise our sleep, but we also have unnecessary habits that affect it. Be vigilant about your sleep hygiene by eliminating blue light from screens at least an hour before going to bed and by exposing yourself to natural light, or at least bright lights, first thing in the morning.
Stay hungry. Once any new skill gets repeated enough, the body learns it, and we become able to do it using muscle memory without giving it any attention. If everything we do in our environment gets repeated too frequently, life becomes mundane because we’re no longer paying attention to any of it. Our subconscious seeks the safety of repeated behaviors, but for the sake of our vitality it’s important to combat this. Whenever feeling stuck, book a trip to a new destination or at least book a new experience to reignite that inner hunger for creative learning and adaptation.
Observe your thoughts instead of reacting. Meditation is simply the art of listening and observing instead of reacting. It’s not about doing nothing or turning off your brain on command. Instead, try shifting your attention, slowing down your breathing, and allowing all other thoughts to come and go as they please. I used to try setting a timer to turn this into a reward-driven game, but I was missing the point.
Yoga and breathwork have such value. If you’re new to yoga, jump straight into a beginners’ class at a local yoga studio. The most fundamental principle to yoga practice is the idea of nonjudgment. No one cares how you look in a yoga class because they’re too focused on their own practice. As you free up the attention required to be concerned with how you appear to others, you’ll be able to shift that attention into feeling your body and controlling your breathing. This makes you better at yoga.
Start with an in-person yoga class so the instructor can help correct your posture and allow you to breathe properly. When my students are in discomfort during class, I remind them to smile and not take themselves too seriously. Recognizing that the discomfort you may feel is not threatening can help reprogram the subconscious to relax and turn off that amygdala response.
Focus on what inspires you and on the blessings in your life … the rest will take care of itself. Stay hungry and present through the process!
Author’s note: Download a free track at dentalyogis.com to learn how to breathe mindfully. Once mastered, you can implement this technique to treat your anxious patients.
Editor's note: This article appeared in the October 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.