Think back to how your mind operated during your work career. Your mental skills were divided into two types: hard and soft. Hard skills related to the technical knowledge you needed to perform a specific job. Soft skills consisted of everyday thinking, like making decisions, being a good listener, and having a positive attitude.
You might not need hard skills as much now, but maintaining soft skills will always be valuable.
“Soft skills are essential to continue practicing and developing as you age, as they help with so many everyday mental activities, like how you interact with people, perform simple tasks, follow directions, and solve problems,” says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist who specializes in behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
One way to improve soft skills is to practice the three Ms: mindfulness, meditation, and mantras. “These can help strengthen the weaker parts of your soft skills and in the process improve your everyday memory,” says Dr. Salinas. Here’s a look at these practices, along with strategies for incorporating them into your daily life.
An important part of mindfulness is being actively aware and giving focused attention to what you do, while you do it. You can improve mindfulness through active listening. When you listen fully to people’s words and voice, you keep your brain in the present, which helps it gather and retain information.
This skill comes in handy during important conversations, like when you hear advice from your doctor or are given directions. Here is how to practice active listening:
Focus on eye contact. When you look at someone as he or she speaks, you stay connected, which can increase your concentration. The action also gives you a central focus to keep your mind from wandering. Block any potential distractions, like your phone or reading materials.
Don’t interrupt. Let people finish speaking before you respond. If you focus only on what you want to say, you won’t be fully listening. “Instead, focus on what they’re trying to convey and build off of it by summarizing what you think they just said before moving onto a new thought,” says Salinas.
When you struggle with scattered thinking, you have what is called “monkey mind” — that is, your thoughts aimlessly jump around like swinging monkeys. This can interfere with completing the simplest tasks and making smart decisions.
Science has found that meditation helps prevent monkey mind by changing certain brain regions, such as the medial prefrontal cortex (which is linked with negative thoughts), and the amygdala (where your fight-or-flight response lies).
A simple and brief meditation can calm your monkey mind when it runs rampant:
• Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes, or if you prefer, keep a dull gaze with your eyes open.
• Slow your breathing enough so a full cycle of breathing in and out lasts six seconds. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
• Let go of your thoughts as best as you can. “It’s okay if you find yourself thinking about your to-do list,” says Salina. “That’s what your mind does naturally.” Whenever you become aware that your mind is filling with distracting thoughts, simply bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing.
• When ready, take a full inhalation and count “one” to yourself, and then exhale and count “two.”
• Continue until you reach 10, and then count backward back to one. Keep repeating this counting cycle for two to five minutes.
Lack of confidence can have a profound effect on your thinking skills. For instance, studies show that older adults often do worse on memory tests after they’re exposed to negative stereotypes and criticism about aging.
“You can offset our common tendency to speak negatively, critically, or disrespectfully to ourselves by talking to yourself as you would talk to someone you care about with deep tenderness, like a grandchild or a loving pet,” says Salinas.
Reciting positive mantras is one way to do this. This type of mantra is a motivating and inspirational message that reminds you of your many capabilities. Make a list of your favorite messages. Keep them short and simple, so they are easy to remember. When you need a quick confidence boost, repeat a mantra in your head, or read it aloud.
Another option is to write mantras on sticky notes and place them where you can see them every day, like on the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, and computer screen.