The Intentional Life: The Virtuous Cycle of Mindfulness & Clarity

Uncategorized Nov 18, 2017

By Michael Mrazek, Ph.D. and Alissa Mrazek, Ph.D. 

Consistently high performance doesn’t happen by chance. It starts with having clarity about who you are, what you want, and how you’re going to get it. This kind of clarity allows high performers to be intentional. They stay focused on what truly counts. Moment-by-moment, they direct their minds to the things that truly deserve their attention.  

Being intentional about where you focus your attention is a key element of mindfulness. Mindfulness is fundamentally about using attention effectively. Attention is like a spotlight, and where you shine it is the single best predictor of what you’ll experience. By practicing mindfulness, we get better at focusing our attention and releasing distractions. Yet to understand how to apply mindfulness in your life—and to appreciate why it is so intricately tied to clarity—you must understand the concept of an anchor.

You can be mindful of anything—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, emotions, or thoughts. Our lives are filled with an endless array of these experiences, and usually our attention darts frantically between them. But if we wish, we can learn to anchor our attention on a subset of our experiences. Using an anchor means choosing a specific target for our attention and deciding to bring ourselves back to this target when we get distracted. The anchor we choose doesn’t have to be something like our breath—in fact, it doesn’t even have to be something happening in the immediate present. Sometimes the most strategic anchor is choosing to direct our attention to planning an upcoming meeting or thinking through a challenging problem.

Imagine you’re sitting down to write an important email, but your mind is pulled to thoughts of something that happened yesterday with a friend. Practicing mindfulness would involve making the deliberate decision to anchor your attention on the email, letting go of distracting thoughts every time they arise. This way you can efficiently address the current priority. Then later, when you’re with that friend again, you can give them your undivided attention rather than mind-wandering about work. Mindfulness allows you to live more deliberately wherever you are.

The concept of an anchor is central to practicing mindfulness because you must decide where to focus your attention. This choice presents itself in every moment of your waking life, but most people rarely make these choices consciously. Instead, their attention is automatically captured by whatever thought or perception is most prominent. Email alerts and phone notifications start dictating how we allocate our attention. Pointless or stressful thoughts clutter our minds. Countless moments are lost every day as attention is squandered on things that don’t truly matter and that bring us no joy.

The greater clarity you have about what matters in your life, the easier it will be to decide where to anchor your attention in any given moment. Even though high performers often have busy lives with enormous responsibilities, their high level of clarity supports them in being mindful throughout the day. They know what matters and have trained themselves to focus on those things, which in turn allows them to maintain consistently high performance over time.

Fortunately, mindfulness can also help us develop clarity. In fact, the first step to practicing mindfulness is making a deliberate decision regarding where you will focus your attention. This decision makes you pause for a moment and become a little more intentional. To be mindful throughout the day, you must make this decision repeatedly. Where is your attention typically focused as you walk into an important meeting, wait in line, or take a shower? Are you utilizing your attention to efficiently progress toward your goals or are you squandering it away minute by minute?

Clarity makes it easier to be mindful, and practicing mindfulness makes it easier to develop clarity. These two capacities intersect when we are intentional about how we want to direct our minds. The more you practice one, the easier the other will be. A virtuous cycle is at your fingertips.

Parts of this post were adapted from the authors’ book Presence of Mind: A Practical Introduction to Mindfulness & Meditation.

About the Authors


Alissa Mrazek, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California’s Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential and the Chief Scientific Officer at Empirical Wisdom. She designs and evaluates interventions intended to optimize individuals’ performance and well-being through training in motivation, attention, and mindsets. Alissa is also a co-author of Presence of Mind: A practical introduction to mindfulness and meditation.

Michael Mrazek, Ph.D. is the Director of Research at the University of California's Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential. His research identifies innovative ways to increase the effectiveness of mindfulness training, particularly in high schools. He also tests the limits of how much a person can improve through intensive evidence-based training programs that target health, mindfulness, and self-control. He is the author of Presence of Mind: A Practical Introduction to Mindfulness & Meditation.


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