Chapter 3. Stimulus

You become what you consume. Manage the behavior triggers around you to overcome procrastination and distractions. Then curate empowering stimulus that helps you grow.



00:01 | In this chapter, we’re going to talk about Stimulus. It’s the second element of focus, and it’s one of the most overlooks one of all three. Stimulus is the trigger of our behavior. It could be the people around us, the book we read, or even the thoughts we have.

00:18 | Let’s start the chapter with a research study by a Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. He found something very interesting from one of his research examining the rate of salivation of dogs.

00:32 | Pavlov had learned that when a buzzer was sounded in subsequent time with food being presented to the dog in consecutive sequences, the dog would initially salivate when the food was presented. The dog would later come to associate the sound of the buzzer with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the presentation of that stimulus. With time, the dog would salivate when it heard the sound of a buzzer even without the food being present.

01:02 | Pavlov’s work gradually became known in the West, particularly through the writing of John Watson, an American psychologist. He viewed Ivan Pavlov’s conditioned reflex concept as the fundamental psychological mechanism that forms human behavior.

01:20 | In 1913, Watson published an article called “Psychology as the Behaviorist views it,” which stated that our behaviors are the results of stimuli and responses. This basically means that all behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to the simple stimulus-response associations.

01:43 | This finding shows us two critical insights about focus and distraction. First, as mentioned before, we’re too a stimuli response animals. When putting this into the context of focus, we learn that the lack of focus is a form of long-term response to the less ideal stimulus. This demonstrates the importance of stimulus in harnessing your ability to get and stay focused. And to maximize the output, we should optimize the input - which in turn, our stimulus.

02:18 | With the abundance of information today and ease of access to them, we’re getting bombarded with countless pieces of information at a frequency that’s impossible to keep up. And in the words of Herbert Simon, an American political scientist: The wealth of information creates the poverty of attention. The more information you consume, the less attention you have available for things that truly matter.

02:46 | And that’s where the first strategy in this chapter comes in. It’s I called the low information diet. Just like the process of eliminate, automate, and delegate, you always want to eliminate first. To practice low information diet, you first need to understand the differences between the circle of concern and the circle of influence.

03:10 | The circle of concern is everything you can and you are paying attention to but can’t control or change. For example the politics, the economy, and other people. Within the circle of concern, you have your circle of influence. This is everything you can control and manipulate, both directly and indirectly.

03:32 | People who are reactive, and getting distracted easily are individuals who have a large circle of concern and a small circle of influence. On the other hand, people who are proactive and focused are individuals who pay more attention and spending their energy on the circle of influence instead of the circle of concern. That said, low information diet is about reducing your circle of concern and spend more time on what you can control and influence.

04:02 | It could be hard if you’re used to reading newspaper, watching tv, and filling your time with a bunch of information that doesn’t contribute to your goals but only sucking away your valuable attention. However, you can always start small.

04:17 | Challenge yourself to go on an immediate information fast. For a week, stop consuming any information that doesn’t contribute to your current top priorities. No newspapers, news websites, magazines, radio shows, and podcasts. No web-surfing except it’s necessary for work. No television and movie at all. No reading books. This practice had helped many (including me) to declutter their thoughts and allow many to think deeply without external influences and bias. And really harness our focus on what matters the most.

04:46 | The next technique in this chapter is what I called the brain-dumping. It’s actually a fancy way of saying writing things down. Every human process average 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts, per day. That’s a lot. Brain-dumping doesn’t only help you to reduce mental clutters, it helps track your thoughts and ideas too. And by reviewing your notes consciously at the end of the day or week, it forces you to ask better questions and to give them a deeper thought.

05:29 | So, how to brain-dump? Here are the three things you need to know. What tools to use? You can use old-fashion pen and paper, or digital tools like Evernote and Workflowy. When should you do it? First, I suggest you do it in the morning to jot down fresh ideas for big, important questions about your work and life. Then, at night to jot down reflections and lessons you’ve learned over the day. And basically, any time when you see, hear, feel, or stumble across a piece of insight or idea.

06:05 | And then, what’s next after you record these snippets of thoughts down? Review and organize them weekly into distinct buckets. For example, you project queue, your bucket list, and you stimulus queue. So, what is a stimulus queue?

06:22 | Just like the big-three method, stimulus queue is a simpler version of that for all the information you want to consume. Some people keep a reading list, but stimulus is not just available in the form of written text. Watching a video, taking an online course, attending an event. All these are great examples of stimulus.

06:43 | To curate your stimulus queue, you first need to identify all the materials (in any format: books, podcasts, TV shows, movies, blogs) that you’re interested and excited in learning about. Then, select the stimulus that helps you get better at your BIG-THREE and put them into your stimulus queue. For the remaining that’s not related to your BIG-THREE, leave them in another list so you can attend to them later. I called this list the nice-to-learn information.

07:16 | Review them weekly and organize them into your stimulus queue when appropriate. Do allocate time for your stimulus queue every day. If you don’t have time, trim them down, so they don’t become baggage that divides your attention.

07:32 | Before I move on to the stimulus queue, let’s pause the video and take a five to ten minutes break. Get away from your digital device and come back later. Alright, we’re back.

07:56 | Now, we’re going to talk about the next item in the Stimulus chapter: Mental models. A mental model is an explanation of your thought process about how something works in the real world. It can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems and doing tasks. Here’s a quote by Robin Sharma: Everything is created twice, first in the mind, then in reality. With a clear and correct mental model, you get to direct attention to shape the reality you desired.

08:30 | You can achieve this in a few ways. First, mental models improve clarity and remove ambiguity. With that, you know why you’re doing something, what to do, and how to do it. Next, mental models eliminate options and analysis paralysis. Decision-making requires attention and energy. Create a clear mental model allows us to make low-priority, repetitive decisions faster. And lastly, a clear daily mental model makes saying “NO” easier. Having a clear mental image of what and how things should be, make it easier for us to say NO to distractions that get in the way.

09:19 | The next question is: How to create a clear mental model? The first method you can use to create clear mental models is visualization. Visualization is a technique widely used by athletes in sports and many top performers in business.

09:36 | Here are a few things you can visualize. Things you want to do and get good at. The process of solving a challenge in work and life. Things and people that you’re grateful for. The first visualization strengthens the desire to achieve your goals. The next create a thought process that prepared you for challenges and tough times. And finally, the last visualization help keep you in the abundance mindset — focusing on what you have and how far you have come, instead of how far you yet to go.

10:08 | One question many people have is when is the best time to practice visualization. The truth is, there is no best time to practice visualization. But I suggest you do it early in the morning before the reactive mode kicks in for work later the day.

10:25 | The next technique to strengthen your mental models in order to enhance focus is meditation. I know. They are countless articles about meditation out on the internet. And some of them even claim meditation is going to help you tap into the power of the universe. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about. Meditation is an excellent way to improve your focus because it’s literally a practice of controlling your attention.

10:52 | When you meditate, you focus your attention on ONE thing, for example, your breathe. It may sound easy, but many people can’t do that. In a few seconds, thoughts will start bubbling up. You start to think about something — maybe it’s your work. Or maybe something you want to do later. And meditation trains your mind to shift the focus back to your breath again. When transitioning to your day-to-day life, it makes you less reactive to distractions and more focused on anything you set out to do.

11:24 | I’m not a meditation expert. However, here’s a few meditation tips for you if you’re new to it. First, sit on a comfortable chair in a quiet environment. You don’t have to sit leg cross like a monk. What you want is the right balance of comfort — not too uneasy that disturb your focus and not too relax that you fall asleep.

11:47 | Start by scanning through your body from head to toes. While doing so, aware of the tension in your body and let go of them. Many people are living above their head. This process helps you check in with your body that is equally important — if not more — to your mind. As a beginner, I suggest to start by focusing on your breath. And don’t suppress your thoughts. Instead, pull your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders off. The key is to start small. Do it for 3 minutes, then 5 minutes a week later, and gradually increase the time to 10-20 minutes.

12:30 | If you need more advanced guided meditation, here are two of my recommendations. First, headspace. They have a free 10-day meditation guide for beginners. I love their approach to meditation, and this is where I learned all the basics of meditation from. And the next one is Stop Breathe and Think. This is what I’m using right now. They have many guided meditation tracks and mindfulness guides based on your goals and your current mental conditions.

13:01 | The last thing we want to talk about in this chapter is the direct opposite of focus: Distraction and procrastination. Managing your stimulus and training your mental ability of focus is powerful enough to reduce distraction and procrastination to a significant degree. But I have one last tip to overcome them directly.

13:21 | You see, distraction and procrastination are also a routine trigger by a stimulus. Based on the book the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, we can’t extinguish a habit. But you can replace the routine — in this case, distraction and procrastination — when you identify the trigger and the reward.

13:42 | And the most common trigger for distraction and procrastination is stress and boredom. When you’re stressed or bored, you get distracted or start procrastinating. So the solution is clear. Predefine a routine when you’re stressed or bored that provide the same rewards of relaxation. Some great suggestions are exercise, reading, or connect with friends.

14:04 | And that’s the end of this chapter. In the next chapter, we’re going to learn about the last element of focus: environment.


  1. Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It by John B. Watson.
  2. Highly recommend two of these guided meditation apps if you want to get started with meditation: Headspace and Stop Breathe & Think.
  3. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business by Charles Duhigg. This is a book that inspired me to write what I'm writing about right now. You can also read my reading notes for this book here.