Focus is our ability to keep our attention on a single task or object. It is an essential skill for learning, working, relating, and pretty much everything in life.
Many things impact our ability to focus. Some of them are mostly out of our control, such as our genes and our childhood upbringing.
Other factors are things that require deep lifestyle changes to be improved—such as our use of technology, the food we eat, the level of stress in our lives, the amount of noise around us, and the quantity of sleep we regularly get.
Then there are the factors that are purely internal—the way we use our mind. This is something that we can fully control, or at least can learn to fully control. And it makes the whole difference.
This article explores the three inner enemies of focus.
Enemy #1: Confusion
When you are fully clear about what you should be focusing on in your life (“macro focus”) or what you should be focusing on in this very moment (“micro focus”), it is much easier to maintain your focus. But the moment there is even the slightest confusion or doubt, your mind begins to wander.
To use the metaphor of the charioteer (introduced in this article), the horses (your lower mind) can move forward at full speed toward their destination if there is complete clarity about what that destination is—and the benefits of going there.
The moment your horses start wandering about whether they are on the right path or not, or what is the next step, or if there is a better path forward, or why should they be on this journey in the first place, they slow down.
This is where the work of the Aspiration pillar of Mindful Self-Discipline can be extremely useful. Having clarity about your values and the next steps toward your goals helps you be more focused. Likewise, having a day plan makes you more focused because it removes confusion about what you should be doing at any given time.
Enemy #2: Desire
Unlike confusion, desire in itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it is our desires—in the broadest sense of the term, including our goals and wishes—that tell us what we should prioritize and focus on in our lives.
The problem is when we hold on to too many desires, wanting everything at once. We have seven priorities, ten different projects, and five goals for each of the eight areas of life. We are trying to achieve twenty different things every week.
We want to improve our career skills, get into the keto diet, grow the marketing of our business across three different channels, learn French, deepen our meditation, invest in crypto, decide on the next big purchase in our life—and all the while we are also striving to be good parents, maintain work-life balance, and get enough sleep.
If this resonates with you at any level, it is no wonder that you feel overwhelmed and can’t really focus. Your attention is all over the place, your mind is spread too thin, and your energy is agitated. Even when you create time blocks in your day, dedicated to specific activities, you find that you can’t focus as deeply as before.
With all of this, your mind slows down, your willpower weakens, and you feel chronically exhausted. There is just too much competition for your mental resources.
The way attention works is very simple: the power of your focus is inversely proportional to the number of objects you have in mind. More objects = less focus. To reverse this, see every object that is not the main object as a distraction.
A similar problem happens when we hold on to contradictory desires. In this case, even if there are not too many, they still prevent you from truly focusing. You want to have the cake and eat it too. You want both the comfort of avoiding difficult work and the fruits of completing such work.
The solution to these two problems is complex, and fully exploring it is beyond the scope of this article. It involves, however, consciously letting go of as many desires and interests as possible, so that at least in this phase of your life you are focused on only a couple of things.
As to the contradictory desires, it involves doing the deep work of discovering your core values, increasing your motivation around them to the maximum, and then being willing to make the needed sacrifices. Going through the Black and White Exercise in the free Workbook is a good step in this direction.
Enemy #3: Fear
If part of you is afraid of missing out on other things, as you focus on your priorities, then you will never be fully focused. It is like you are trying to move forward with the handbrake on—it will take a lot of effort, and you may not go very far.
The fear of missing out interrupts your focus. It makes you constantly check your phone, your email, the news, and social media. You feel that if you don’t keep tabs on everything that is going on around you, you may be left out. And in a world where there is an infinite amount of information always available, this is a real problem.
The key to overcoming this is to develop courage. The courage to stay fiercely focused on a handful of things, and to purposefully miss out on everything else.
In every moment of your life, you can only be focused on one thing. In every moment of your life, you will inevitably be missing out on an infinity of things—however hard you try not to. Knowing this, just make sure you don’t miss out on what matters most to you, as defined by your aspirations.
Many factors affect our ability to focus, and we should do whatever we can to make our lifestyle and the environment around us conducive to focus. At the same time, our mind might be the only element that we can have full control over—and it’s the one that, with due training, has the power to compensate for all others.
I wrote a big part of this article in an Uber drive to my dentist, and another while waiting for my turn in the bank. These environments were not conducive at all, but the three internal enemies were kept at bay by determination—so I was able to focus. I was clear about what was the best use of my time, I had no desire to be doing anything else, and I was consciously and happily making the choice of “missing out” on all other things.
When we know what we want, when there are no other forces pulling us in different directions, and when we feel safe to miss out on everything else (for the time being)—then we can experience the power of focus.
Next time you are having a hard time focusing, ask yourself these three questions:
- Am I clear about what matters most in this moment?
- Can I turn off all my other desires and interests for the time being?
- Do I have the courage to miss out on everything else?
By asking yourself these questions consistently, and making the needed internal shifts to self-correct, you can keep your horses moving in a straight line to your chosen destination.
To help you have clarity on your core desires, create an action plan for them, and learn how to deal with potential distractions, check out the Mindful Self-Discipline book.
To train the ability to focus on a micro level, try out the Concentration Meditation section in the Mindful Self-Discipline app.
To make radical shifts in your lifestyle and make this the year of focus for you, contact us for coaching.