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Book Review: The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner

Bookworm is a weekly book review series from Future Startup where we share actionable insights from books to help you improve your life. We aim to publish 3-4 reviews per month.

This week 12 lessons from Thomas M. Sterner’s excellent book The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life

Rating: 10/10 

Everything requires practice 

"Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions. When the proper mechanics of practicing are understood, the task of learning something new becomes a stress-free experience of joy and calmness, a process which settles all areas in your life and promotes proper perspective on all of life's difficulties."

Failing to understand the inner mechanics of practice leads to failure in our many endeavors 

“Without an understanding of proper practice mechanics and without an awareness of our own internal workings, we are almost assured of using up the initial inspiration and motivation which propels us into any endeavor, leaving us feeling we cannot reach the goal that had seemed so worth striving for just a short time before. Why bother with any of this? This is a question I asked myself. I mean really, what is the relevance of this to how we live our life day to day? How does it impact what we experience moment-by-moment, what we accomplish, who we are? The answer is that it is everything. It is the blank page on which we draw our life. It determines not only what we draw but also what we are able to draw. It shapes every aspect of who we are, what we become and how we see others. It is self-discipline and self-awareness. It gives us patience with ourselves, with others and with life itself. It is certainly one of the most powerful and meaningful gifts we can give ourselves, and yes, only we can give it to ourselves.”

The practicing mind is quiet 

“At times we must do several things at once, but the problem for us is that we are so used to always multitasking that, when we decide we want to reel in our minds and focus ourselves on just one activity, we can’t. Our minds are so agitated, and that agitation has a tremendous amount of momentum. It doesn’t want to stop moving. It tires us out and stresses us out. We find we can’t sit still, and we can’t be still. However, the practicing mind is quiet. It lives in the present and has laser, pinpoint focus and accuracy. It obeys our exact direction and all of our energy moves through it. Because of that, we are calm and completely free of anxiety. We are where we should be at that moment, doing what we should be doing and completely aware of what we are experiencing. There is no wasted motion, physically or mentally.” 

Thoughts are the beginning of everything in our life 

“If you are not in control of your thoughts then you are not in control of yourself. Without self-control, you have no real power, regardless of whatever else you accomplish. If you are not aware of the thoughts that you are thinking in each moment, then you are the rider with no reins, with no power over where you are going. You cannot control what you are not aware of. Awareness must come first.”

We recognize it or not, we are always practicing one thing or another 

“If you have never considered it, think about how everything we learn and master in life, from walking and tying our shoes to saving money and raising a child, is accomplished through a form of practice, something we repeat over and over again. For the most part, we are not aware of the process as such, but that is how good practice manifests itself when done properly. It carries no stress-laden anticipation of “when is the goal going to be reached?” When we practice anything properly, the fact that we are engaging in a difficult learning process not only disappears, but more importantly it dissolves into a period of inner calming that gives us a rest from the tension and anxiety that our “get it done yesterday” world pushes on us every day of our lives. For this reason, it is important to recognize and be in control of the process and to learn to enjoy that part of life's activity.”

A good practice is all about focusing on the process 

“Let’s define what the word practice means in its simplest form. To begin, we will look at the difference between practicing something and just learning it. To me, the word “practice” and “learning” are similar but not the same. The word “practice” implies the presence of awareness and will. The word learning does not. When we “practice” something we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal. The words deliberate and intention are key here because they define the difference between practicing something and just learning something. If you grow up in a household where there is constant bickering and inappropriate behavior, you can learn that behavior without your knowledge. If that happens, then in order for you to change that behavior within yourself, you will have to be aware of the personality tendencies you possess, and practice a different behavior repeatedly and deliberately with the intention of changing. Practice encompasses learning but not the other way around. Learning does not take “content” into consideration. Keeping that in mind, we can also say that good mechanics require deliberately and intentionally practicing staying in the process of doing something and being aware of whether or not we are actually accomplishing that. This also requires letting go of our attachment to the “product”.”

Focusing on the process keeps us motivated and saves us energy 

“When, instead, your "goal" is focusing on the process or staying in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions because you are not judging anything.”

The rules for a practicing mind

“In summary, it comes down to a few simple rules. Keep yourself process-oriented. Stay in the present. Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer you efforts. Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and be aware of that intention. Doing these things will eliminate the judgments and emotions that come from a product-oriented or results-oriented mind.” 

Letting go of perfection will help you achieve true progress 

“Most of the anxiety we experience in life comes from the feeling that there is a point of perfection in everything that we involve ourselves with. Whatever or wherever that perfection is, we are not. We continually examine everything in our lives, consciously or unconsciously, compare it to what we feel is the ideal, and then begin to judge where we are in relation to that ideal. Having a bigger home, more income, a certain kind of car, are all a normal part of this routine.”

Stay on course, the result will be automatic 

“Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything. When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goal comes toward you with frictionless ease.”

Anything good or bad that we practice becomes a habit 

“Whether we observe our thoughts, or whether they just happen in our minds, is just a habit we have learned. We may consider some habits good, others not so good, but what is important to realize is that all habits can be replaced at will if you understand how they are formed. Habits and practice are very interrelated because what we practice will become a habit. This is a very important point because it underscores the value of being in control of our practicing minds. Our minds are going to practice certain behaviors whether or not we are aware of it, and what we practice is going to become habit for sure. Knowing this can work in our favor.”

The secret of achieving anything is simple

We want something like being more aware of our thoughts to be just a natural behavior to us, not something that requires a lot of struggle. Getting to this point is not complicated, but it does take some effort. The effort is minimal when we understand the process. What is required is that you are aware of what you want to achieve, that you know the motions you must intentionally repeat to accomplish the goal, and that you execute your actions with no emotions or judgments; just stay on course. You should do this with the comfort of knowing that intentionally repeating something over a short course of time creates a new habit and can also replace an old one.

You can buy The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus into Your Life on Amazon, we don’t get an affiliate fee as yet!

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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