3 Tips to Achieve the Focus of a U.S. Marine

Semper Fi! It’s the United States Marines’ official motto and conjures the image of a focused, disciplined individual who is effective under stress. As cultivating these attributes can help your employees become peak performers, Total Brain founder and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Evian Gordon recently spoke with former Marine captain and entrepreneur Will Semmes to get his top three tips to achieve these traits in our podcast episode “How You Can Achieve the Focus and Discipline of a US Marine.”

According to Dr. Gordon, “The beauty of speaking to a U.S. Marine commander is that it's all about peak performance in the moment.” Whether you are serving on a combat mission or working on a tight deadline, it is a high-stress environment, and as we learned from Dr. Gordon’s podcast episode, “The Role of Stress In Mental Health,” stress can hijack focus. Regardless of the job scope, failure to effectively handle stress in the moment can lead to non-task completion and poor performance.

Here are former Marine Will Semmes’ three fundamental steps to achieving focus:

Manage Distractions

The first step to focus is managing situational distractions as human brains have a safety-first instinct, meaning they are designed to seek out changes in their physical environment. “When there is a cue above or below that normal space, your brain is wired to pick that up,” Semmes explained. When the brain is picking up cues, it’s on high alert and taken out of the present moment, which disrupts focus and makes it difficult to finish tasks.

Similar to being on a tactical mission, the workplace and home functions in what Semmes calls an Operations Center, which is an area with multiple screens and lots of information being piped into the room – in a word: distractions.

“When I go into an Operations Center, I almost always see at least one or two TV screens with some news station on. The first thing I do is turn that thing off,” Semmes said.

The next piece is figuring out what information you need to complete the task at hand; anything unnecessary is a distraction. By eliminating those distractions, employees can improve their ability to focus.

Dr. Gordon added, “It’s managing your environment, but it’s also about what you let into your brain. You really are narrowing the bandwidth of what your brain is dealing with.”

Minimizing distractions is a type of discipline. “It’s sort of a chicken and egg situation, which is that discipline is about focus, and focus is about discipline,” shared Semmes. “It’s a discipline to manage the environment that doesn’t help you achieve the task. Fear and novelty are very challenging for the brain to ignore.” 

After managing external distractions, the next step to high-level focus is managing internal distractions.

Break Stress in the Moment

In the Marines, one of the key traits on a fitness report is effectiveness under stress, which is demonstrating presence of mind under the most demanding circumstances.

According to Semmes, the key to this is “awareness of your own presence and the awareness of your focus.” With this awareness, when stress arises, you are able to step back and go through a mental checklist to break stress in the moment: Are you here? Are you breathing? Do you understand what you are supposed to be doing? Do you understand that you are in control of your environment?

Having a similar strategy on hand to break stress in the moment is “fundamental to this whole conversation about focus and discipline,” he said. It’s about training the brain to have the awareness to deconstruct the moment ‒ which takes presence of mind in fractions of a second, not minutes ‒ and call forth strategies to keep yourself in the moment, which will lead to the larger goal of Marine-level focus for your employees.

“By managing distractions in the environment and breaking stress in the moment with things like breathing strategies of six breaths per minute, you can get your brain in a focused space. Then by nudging yourself with a brain focus tool, you can get to this issue of presence of mind,” Dr. Gordon said.

We have more than 50,000 thoughts a day, and we can learn to catch and nudge them towards more productive thoughts by building brain training habits. This can be done by regularly performing quick brain exercises like Stress Breaker, which rates your stress and then aims to break it by having you focus on positive visual symbols.

Tools like this combined with Total Brain meditation techniques that are designed to increase presence like Body, Breath, Thoughts can lead to the kind of focus and effectiveness of a Marine and other peak performers.

Semmes personally recommends Total Brain’s brain training game Slingshot, which trains target thinking by challenging users to hit a moving target under a time constraint. He advises regularly practicing it for short amounts of time to set yourself up for success. “I use it, and it sort of sets me in that mode of focus, the kind of discipline I need to adhere to,” Semmes explained.

Priming the brain to be ready to break stress in the moment and regain focus takes a bit of discipline. It’s about regularly taking small steps to build new brain habits, which is the difference between knowing and doing.

Focus on Quality

They say amateurs train until they get it right, and professionals train until they can’t get it wrong. Once you master the first two fundamental steps of managing distractions and learning to establish yourself in the moment by breaking stress, you are set up to enable a quality-focused experience. “If you look at professionals and peak performers, they have a defined process that works for them and that gets them into a state where they make quality decisions,” explained Semmes.

“In this hyperactive world we live in, everybody wants to make 1,000 decisions. But really, at the end of the day, are those quality decisions? I don’t think so. In the Marine Corps, it’s much more about having quality decision making to achieve what you are looking for,” he continued. 

“The spotlight of attention has gone from wide to super narrow on the decided upon goal and the small, disciplined steps to get there,” added Dr. Gordon. “That is what quality work is all about.”

Dr. Gordon further emphasized, “It’s the gap between knowing and doing. It’s so simple, but it’s the discipline, effectiveness, and focus that fascinates me with peak performers like the Marine Corps. When you really deconstruct what they’re doing in the moment...it’s these seemingly small things that converge and integrate into a powerful synergy that changes the brain and body state and puts it in a state of flow, which is, of course, the essence of peak performance.”

Having a clear, focused presence of mind for quality decision making leads to the big picture effectiveness of a U.S. Marine or peak performance employee.

Employees can work towards achieving this stress mastery and focus by heeding the advice of this well-trained, former Marine and regularly using Total Brain’s training tools. One can simply call back to the motto of ‘Semper Fi’, whereby staying faithful to these training techniques can lead to employees becoming “Brain Marines,” reaching new heights in their focus, discipline, and overall productivity. 

If you would like to hear Dr. Gordon and Will Semmes’ full conversation, catch the Total Brain podcast episode here: “How You Can Achieve The Focus and Discipline of a US Marine.

For additional insights and lessons on the impact of stress on focus and memory, download our latest ebook, “Stress: The Great Derailer of Focus and Memory.”

If you’re an HR or benefits professional charged with improving employee mental health, schedule a meeting to discuss how Total Brain can help.

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