How to Focus on Your Goals With 2 Breathing Exercises

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Way of the SEAL" by Mark Divine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you stay focused on your goals? Why are goals crucial for creating powerful leaders?

As a leader, you need goals to motivate you and your team to improve. In The Way of the SEAL, Mark Divine recommends using breathing exercises to help you stay focused and on track.

Check out how to focus on your goals with Divine’s helpful advice.

Focus Intensely On Your Goals

Divine says that to connect with your inner power and be a strong leader, you must learn how to focus on your goals with a high level of intensity—what the Navy SEALS call “front sight focus,” or, intensely and narrowly focused like you’re aiming through the front sight of a gun. When you place your whole focus on achieving each small goal in front of you you won’t get distracted by obstacles. This will allow you to stay calm and will give you a sense of accomplishment each time you achieve a goal, increasing your confidence and helping you operate at your best.

(Shortform note: Psychologists argue that while focusing intensely on one goal at a time can help you achieve them, pursuing one goal to the exclusion of others can lead you to act in unethical ways to achieve those goals. For example, when school districts use students’ standardized test scores to measure teachers’ performance, some teachers cheat and report false grades. To prevent poor outcomes like this, set a second goal to balance your first goal.)

Divine says the Navy SEALs used front sight focus to break large tasks into small ones and capture Osama bin Laden. The SEALS didn’t know where to find bin Laden, so instead they found and interviewed smaller targets who could lead them to him. Each person provided information that led to the next—until, eight years later, the SEALS finally located and killed bin Laden.

To focus intensely on your goals, avoid distractions, and overcome obstacles you encounter while trying to achieve your goals, Divine says you have to manage your squirrely mind.

Manage Your Squirrely Mind With Breathing Exercises

Divine recommends using two deep breathing strategies to tame your frenetic, distractible brain and keep you focused on your goals—one to navigate immediate anxiety and the other as a regular practice to keep you goal-focused. In each case, deep breathing helps you observe and neutralize extraneous chatter in your head and reduces physiological, fear-related responses sparked by uncertainty. 

Exercise 1: Deep breathing to navigate anxiety-provoking situations

Find a quiet spot to sit. Inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale slowly through your nose. Pay attention to your stomach and chest as they rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation. Do this four times, and repeat this any time you encounter challenging situations. 

Exercise 2: Deep breathing as a regular practice 

Find a quiet spot to sit and let yourself settle in. Picture yourself in a peaceful setting, like a quiet beach. Take five slow, deep breaths in and out. Then, picture light clouds drifting slowly overhead in a blue sky. Sit with this image for a few minutes. Then focus on 10 slow, deep, consecutive breaths. If a random thought pops into your head (for example, you wonder what’s for lunch) let it pass without judgment like a cloud drifting overhead. Then, refocus on your breath and start your count again, until you get through 10 consecutive breaths.

(Shortform note: Deep breathing not only reduces internal chatter and physiological, fear-related symptoms, it does your brain good. Research suggests that mindfulness meditation, which centers on deep breathing, supports learning, cognition, and memory by increasing gray matter density in the hippocampus and other front regions of the brain. It also benefits cognitive function, attention, and self-awareness by increasing gray matter in the anterior insula and in cortical thickness. To try it, close your eyes and mentally scan your body. Relax any muscles that feel tense, inhale deeply, exhale slowly, then focus on your normal breathing. If thoughts arise as you breathe, let them dissipate without judgment and return your focus to your breathing.)

Use a Hierarchy to Identify and Focus on Your Goals

While Divine advocates deep breathing to achieve your goals, in Grit, Angela Duckworth recommends a more concrete way to identify and stay focused on them: Frame goals as a hierarchy

At the bottom of the hierarchy are your low level, means-to-an-end, daily activity goals that help you get you somewhere else. For example, sending emails and going to meetings—small tasks that help you get larger projects done.

High level goals are at the top of the hierarchy. To identify them, each time you work on a lower level goal, ask yourself a) why you’re doing it, and b) why it’s important to do it. Each answer will bring you to your next highest level goal. Continue asking these questions until you reach the point where there’s no answer—you’re doing what you’re doing “just because.” When you reach this point you’ve achieved your highest level goal.

Your top goal should drive every goal beneath it. If you’re working on smaller goals that don’t help you achieve your top goal, stop working on them. 
How to Focus on Your Goals With 2 Breathing Exercises

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Way of the SEAL summary:

  • A former Navy SEAL's strategies to help business leaders
  • A mind-body technique that combines yoga, martial arts, and SEAL training
  • How to bolster and harness your mental fortitude

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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