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“Three good habits for optimal focus” with Dr. Sheldon Zablow

The following are three good habits for optimal focus, keeping in mind that focus is a multifaceted skill. Set a good foundation for optimal focus before your goals are set with pre-established habits of restorative sleep, good nutrient intake and a healthy level of exercise. Set clear, realistic goals unique to you, that is, push […]

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The following are three good habits for optimal focus, keeping in mind that focus is a multifaceted skill. Set a good foundation for optimal focus before your goals are set with pre-established habits of restorative sleep, good nutrient intake and a healthy level of exercise. Set clear, realistic goals unique to you, that is, push yourself but not beyond realistic capabilities, you can always push yourself a little more next time. And finally, evaluate your performance each time for areas of improvement for the next occasion optimal focus is required. You want your achievements to be well-organized, successful and maintainable.

As part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sheldon Zablow. He attended the University of Virginia on a wrestling scholarship, completed his pre-medical studies in 1973 and continued on to medical school graduating in 1977. During summer breaks, he participated in the development of an overnight camp for children with special needs established by the Department of Pediatrics called Camp Holiday Trails as a counselor then a nurse. This was one of the first summer camps for children with serious medical challenges such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, asthma, hearing deficits and muscular dystrophy. After completing his courses, Dr. Zablow taught school as a substitute teacher for grades K-7 in Charlottesville.

Dr. Zablow began a pediatric internship at Emory University Medical School. Upon completion, he pursued his residency in psychiatry at Boston University Medical School from 1978–80. In 1980, Dr. Zablow began an advanced fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at Children’s Hospital through Harvard University Medical School.

During his Fellowship, Dr. Zablow started a private practice in adult psychiatry and emergency psychiatry consultation at several Boston psychiatric facilities and completed his training in 1982. That same year he passed his Board Certification in Adult Psychiatry and in 1986 passed the board examination for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dr. Zablow moved to San Diego in 1982 and started a practice in adult, child and forensic psychiatry. Dr. Zablow has supervised Fellows in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as an Assistant Professor (voluntary) at the University of California, San Diego Medical School for thirty years, receiving two teaching awards.

Dr. Zablow had the privilege of flying out onto the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and speaking directly with active duty parents about their family’s concerns.

As his practiced progressed, Dr. Zablow developed a clinical interest in how micronutrients contribute to psychological and neurologic health. He will use his platform to explore the developments in the new medical science called nutritional psychiatry and its connection to healthy gene expression (epigenetics) and unhealthy chronic inflammation.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia with my older brother by my mother and father. I guess the thing that had the most influence on my life was when my parents took me to the YMCA to participate in their athletic education program when I was seven years old. It was run my Mr. Porter who taught a wide variety of skills most children are never exposed to. I learned trampoline, gymnastics, team sports, swimming, diving, wrestling, and how to teach these activities to those younger than me, which I had a talent for. These skills led me to their program in judo where I became an interstate champion in the teenage division and learned how to compete against adults. These skills led me to the top high school wrestling program in the country run by Billy Martin, Sr where I became an All-American wrestler and was able to attend college on a scholarship in pre-med.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I guess it was my father and Mr. Porter. My father was an amateur magician who used magic to entertain the children of his customers in his small furniture store. The longer he could keep them entertained, the longer he had time to make a sale. I saw him use his magic, his patter, and his humor to put children at ease. Mr. Porter taught me how to teach athletic skills to younger children with patience, positive support, and humor. It was these skills that I used every day for forty years as a child psychiatrist when treating children suffering from depression, abuse, and autism. The magic worked magic.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Billy Martin, Sr was probably the most influential person in my life. He saw my talent and encouraged me to push myself to become one of the top high school wrestlers in the country. He taught me how to teach others complex skills by breaking them down into their component parts and how to adapt to new challenges to learned skills. He also taught me sacrifice, persistent through pain and a self-confidence that has lasted me my whole life.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The most interesting mistake I made was getting on a C-2 cargo plane that developed a bad engine after it was catapulted off the USS Carl Vinson off the coast of California. I was a guest of the Navy and had landed on the carrier the day before to tour the ship and talk with some of the military parents of my patients. When it was time to leave, we were delayed because of engine trouble in one of the two turbines. I had a choice to stay until we were back in port or be catapulted off the deck in the “repaired” plane. I took the plane, and the bad engine went bad. Return to the carrier was impossible so we prepared to ditch into the Pacific if the one-engine powered-glide back to the base was unsuccessful. Thinking about impending death for an hour focused my thoughts on how to appreciate the life I had and how to make the most of every day.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

If you are going to choose a profession or activity that truly challenges you, you must do it from the heart. It has to be essential to how you define yourself, otherwise all the compensation and recognition will not counterbalance for the sacrifices.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It is a small little book that I would give to Fellows to whom I taught child and adolescent psychiatry called “Loving Every Child” by Janusz Korczak. He was the Dr. Seuss of pre-WWII Europe who eventually started the only orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and was martyred along with his charges. It is a compilation of his thoughts on how to understand and respect children from their perspective. His writings should be the core principles for working with children in any capacity and I have used them throughout my professional career.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

When faced with a difficult choice in life, it is usually best to pick the one that leads to more rather than fewer choices, keeping in mind, most choices are not right or wrong but simply different paths.

It is always easier to part with someone when you are angry or create a reason to be so. Take the harder and healthier way by not creating parting conflict.

These resonate because I have used these lesson so many times myself and taught them to others.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I just published a book called “Your Vitamins Are Obsolete” which explains the risk of relying on artificial poorly made vitamins supplements which can lead to unhealthy living and skyrocketing medical costs for all. I had a patient that had a gastric bypass and while she initially did well, she eventually declined and became seriously ill. None of her other physicians or I could figure out why she was so sick until I had her try a new formulation of bioactive B vitamins and she recovered quickly. The bypass prevented her from absorbing B vitamins. Many of my other patients with mental health and medical conditions that I prescribed them to also improved. I explored the science behind these recoveries and discovered the unique properties of these natural vitamins as optimizing agents of healthy living. Most B vitamin supplements are made with synthetic forms which need to be metabolized into the bioactive ones used by the body. These natural vitamins reduce chronic inflammation which leads to nine out of ten leading causes of disability and death.

Imagine a pyramid with a capstone and each level of the pyramid as a positive intervention toward healthy living, i.e. good restorative sleep, a healthy diet, cardiovascular exercise, strength training, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, supplements and prescribed medications when indicated. Now turn the pyramid upside down having the whole structure balance on the capstone. It is this capstone, which consists of bioactive B12 and folate, that supports all the other positive health components. If you are deficient in these two, all the other interventions will not be very beneficial. For instance, let’s say you take plenty of Vitamin D and calcium, but you are deficient in B12 and folate, you will still develop osteoporosis. Another example, if you are taking hormone replacement therapy (or birth control pills) as a step in your pyramid, this will deplete the body of B12 and folate which leads to blood clot formation and death.

My passion is to pass on the knowledge of using this inexpensive intervention to improve the health of people around the world by reducing disability and health care costs. As an added benefit, regular use of the bioactive forms of B12 will reduce our dependence on red meat as the primary source of B12 which would diminish ecologic damage to the earth.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

A habit can be described as any behavior that has been repeated so often, it has become an automatic unconscious response. Habits can be described as positive when they support good mental and physical health or negative when they are a detriment to health. (I have a whole chapter dedicated to this in my book.)

The creation of good habits promotes healthy living and healthy longevity by reducing the stress response to stressors we all experience. The stressors of illness, interpersonal challenges, dietary deficiencies, employment anxiety, monetary shortages, and even pollution can result in a stress response which increases chronic inflammation. Managing these stressors with daily habits that reinforce personal health is the key.

I had a patient that suffered from a significant biochemically based depression. Though antidepressants helped some, I told him that all the medications in the world will not help enough unless he boosted his neurochemistry by exercising daily. Though resistant at first, he agreed to replace a negative habit of sleeping in in the morning with a positive one. I had him set out his workout clothes and shoes at night next to his bed, set an early alarm and contract to do that for ten days in a row. I encouraged him to do it without thinking about it and not expecting to “like” it. He was reluctant at first but agreed. He reported the difficulty of the first five days, but once he accepted the routine through habit formation, it gradually got easier. He just got up and dressed without thinking about it. Slowly his depressive symptoms lessened and with continued exercise over the next several months he was able to reduce and eventually discontinue his medications.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

The suggestion I gave my patient was exactly what I decided to do for myself many years ago to handle the stressors of medical training and practice. I get up, brush my teeth, then get dressed to exercise right away as part of one morning routine.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

To develop good habits, it is important to remember that when you first start a new routine, the new behaviors are not unconscious habits but conscious decisions that need emotional energy to fulfill. There has to be a commitment for the greater good for yourself and others — it is work. If you are not expecting the expenditure of emotional effort, you will give up before you really start. To stop a bad habit, expend most of your energy on reinforcing the good habit rather than preventing the bad habit. I call this focusing forward.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

Wellness, positive performance, and focus are three interrelated goals which result from good habit formation. It is important that everyone have a toolbox full of these modulating habits that can be called upon at any time to reduce stress and optimize these goals. Three of the most important tools for optimizing wellness are a healthy diet incorporating natural vitamins through healthy food and optimal supplementation, good sleep hygiene which leads to full restorative sleep and a physical exercise routine that includes both cardiovascular and weight resistance training.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

The two most important practices are honesty and persistence. A person needs to be honest with themselves. I have had patients say they wanted to change their life by eating in a healthier way and exercising to lose weight. I ask them how important that is to them on a 1–10 scale and they always say a 10. Yet when I see them in follow-up, they are not exercising or reducing their carbohydrate intake — their behavior is a 2. Their actions showed they were not being honest with themselves. Any change in habits from negative to positive takes time and persistence, like weight loss. When trying to achieve a weight-loss goal there will always be ups and downs as the weight trends down. When stuck at a weight plateau, people too often give up just when they need to pull more tools out of their toolbox to redouble their efforts until the next goal is reached.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

If we define optimal performance as the ideal functioning for an individual with their unique talents and limitations aiming for a specific goal, then the following should be kept in mind. The goal is always unique to the individual and should be defined by that individual. For instance, when trying to achieve a better time on a run, it is important to redefine it on your terms. Whatever the world record is for a 10K, a redefinition would be to aim for your personal best, giving it your all and being honest with yourself. Have you truly prepared your mental fitness? Have you fully engaged your physical fitness in the flow of endeavor, and have you accepted the personal fulfillment in your achievement? Have you eliminated all distractions toward goal achievement? The three positive habits are defining goals for yourself, being honest with yourself and to fully engage in the flow of the occupational, emotional or physical activity.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

The most important practices are to be realistic with your goals with your own unique abilities and limitations, being honest as to how you have truly applied yourself towards these goals and to always re-evaluate your performance to improve, better your time, for the next challenge.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

The following are three good habits for optimal focus, keeping in mind that focus is a multifaceted skill. Set a good foundation for optimal focus before your goals are set with pre-established habits of restorative sleep, good nutrient intake and a healthy level of exercise. Set clear, realistic goals unique to you, that is, push yourself but not beyond realistic capabilities, you can always push yourself a little more next time. And finally, evaluate your performance each time for areas of improvement for the next occasion optimal focus is required. You want your achievements to be well-organized, successful and maintainable.

When patients come into my office with a particular goal, I explain that whatever changes they want to make, they have to realize that the benefit of learned skills are additive. One change might not make a big difference, and two might help more but ten added together will always help significantly.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

As I alluded to before, it is essential to have a toolbox full of tools that can be used any time to achieve set goals of optimal wellness, performance, and focus. The more tools you have, the more options there are for succeeding in each unique challenge you are faced with. Always look for new tools or improve the ones you have. For instance, meditation is a great tool, but it takes constant practice to get the most out of this habit.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

It is hard to set out to create a flow as opposed to setting up a circumstance which allows flow to occur naturally. The best way to establish a natural flow is to set up a solid foundation of wellness, optimal performance, and focus habits so most of your energy can be used for creativity when a flow develops. When it occurs, with your habits in place, all your energy can be used to maximize the products of the flow. Low performance and low interest lead to boredom and depression while too much arousal leads to anxiety, burnout, and impaired performance. The flow of efficient processing and fluid functioning occurs in the zone of optimal excitement which leads to optimal performance.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The idea I have to inspire a movement is reviewed in detail in my book. The essential idea is to optimize the cellular biology of as many people as possible to provide them with an opportunity for healthy living and healthy aging by lowering chronic inflammation while reducing wasted medical costs and shrinking the environmental load on the planet.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

My ideal dinner guest would be Ms. Huffington. With her background and understanding of medicine and the health and wellness challenges we all face, she would understand the benefits of optimizing each person’s physiology. She would understand the newly discovered mechanics of this process which is the use of bioactive B vitamins to optimize each person’s DNA epigenetic expression thereby reducing their inflammatory load. The following word equations sum it up:

Genetics, Stress, Hormones, GERD Medications, Metformin, Aging, Pollution, Weight Gain, Voluntary and Involuntary Veganism, Poorly Manufactured Supplements → ↓ B12 /Folate

↓B12 /Folate →↓Epigenetic Methylation →↓Gene Suppression (Expression of Pro-Inflammatory Genes)→ ↑Chronic Inflammation →↓Healthy Living (Dementia, Diabetes, Heart Disease, Cancer)

A more specific example;

↓B12/Folate →Hypomethylation →↓Gene Suppression →↑Expression BRCA→BreastCancer

Kim, S.J., et al, “Folic Acid Supplement Use and Breast Cancer Risk in BRCA1 and BRCA2 Mutation Carriers: A Case-Control Study,” Breast Cancer Res Treat, April 2019;174(3):741–748

How can we follow your work online?

My author website is sheldonzablowmdgmail.com

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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