The art of focus isn’t in trying to remove the outside world from your mind, but to incorporate the world into it.
A cool thing happened to me the other day, I became a member of Mensa. For those who don’t know what Mensa is it’s a like a Meetup group for high IQ people, those who are in the top 2% of IQ scores. I haven’t been to a meet up, quiz night, lecture or even received my card yet so I have no idea what the people are like, I sort of hope they are like me, that’s why I sat the test. This had me thinking about giftedness, genius, and what some of the traits of being gifted are. The one I wanted to focus on today, as written in the title, is focus.
One of the traits found in a genius or a gifted person is focus, the ability to single-mindedly concentrate on tasks to the exclusion of everything else. This skill is found in almost all gifted people but it is a skill that I believe anyone can train and become more proficient in. In gifted people it is what gives them the ability to achieve things that seem incredible, a skill taken to extreme enabling them to achieve perfection where most other people would have long given up before coming anywhere close. It is a skill though, maybe not one you can necessarily get to genius level, but certainly something you can improve.
Now why did I call it anti-meditation? Some of you may have anxiety, and at some point have been told you can’t just stop thinking of something (and if you have anxiety DUH!!!). If I tell you not to think of pink elephants for the next 30 seconds, well you will be seeing them in your head anyway, little ones, big ones, ones with Dumbo ears, bright pink, dusky pink and no matter how hard you try because I told you not to think about pink elephants and because I keep mentioning them you will keep on thinking about them. Of course the very next trick a shrink will teach is something they call grounding, or possibly simply counting.
Instead of clearing pink elephants out of your head by trying to get you to think of nothing they get you to focus on something specific. For instance they will teach counting between your breathing, focusing on the feeling of the wind or the noise of the people around you. This is often the way a yoga instructor will lead you into meditation and it makes me smile every time I hear my yoga instructor do this. They lead you into meditation by asking you to focus, to think about something specific, like pink elephants, well actually usually specific parts of the body but you get my point (plus I wanted you to think of pink elephants one last time.) It stops you thinking of the things that stress you so you can actually empty your mind. They lead you into meditation via the path of anti-meditation.
So here are some points that most well-meaning people try to suggest you use to help stay focused.
- Do creative work first
- Remove distractions
- Set a routine
- Write a list
- Don’t procrastinate (or just do it)
- Limit outside interruptions.
I’m going to disagree with some of these, up to a point, because I don’t think these well-meaning people actually understand why we do or don’t do these points.
Now point one and five, creative work and procrastination, these are actually critical prior to initiating focus. Procrastination is simply the point your brain goes “holy crap that’s a big job, a sucky job, a god damned pain in the rear job” and at this point your brain is actively fighting you from starting because it knows you don’t have a plan, knows you haven’t worked out how to do this job. Your brain isn’t sabotaging you, it’s telling you that you need to do the creative part first. Daydream. This is the creative side, daydream about how you plan to perfect this job, lay it out in your head over and over again how you are going to master this job you have to do. Let your thoughts run wild, no impossibility is off the table, let your mind wander through the issues, the glories, the achievements and the failures. No option is too big or too small, so trust your brain to discard the impossibilities later. It takes me an hour to write an article but I probably spend between two and eight hours daydreaming about an article before pen hits paper. Even with this one, I probably had close to 20,000 words to write about this topic before I even started tonight.
Don’t remove distractions, add the right distractions. If I want to write a poetic piece during my daydreaming mode I will listen to a pile of songs until the beat I want presents itself. While writing I listen to that one song over and over and over again, that beat permeating every single thing I write. If I want to feel up beat and excited I will put an action movie on TV in the background. If I am trying to solve an astrophysics problem I will put on a YouTube discussion about something related and play it on my second monitor. The reason you do this is that if your distractions distract you, which they will, they are intimately associated with the thing you are trying to focus on. They link directly back to your task at hand because you chose them that way, they let the mind wander, but not too far, and they let the mind wander back. Your aim with focus isn’t to be on a straight-line to the goal but to use the mind productively zig-zagging towards your destination, always returning focus to where you want it to be. Use distractions as the equivalent of me repeatedly mentioning pink elephants.
Set a routine and write a list, hmmm. I suspect these two may be personality based, I’m not sure they help me in anyway shape or form on focusing. Lists help me remember things over a long period of time but my rule for lists is that the jobs on the list should be small enough to finish in three days and large enough to take more than a few hours. For me a job that takes more than three days should probably be split into smaller parts. I can focus on a job that takes less than three days, I find it much harder to do so once jobs are larger than that. Routine is simply scheduling enough of your time to do these jobs but I can daydream on a bus as readily as I can by sitting on a couch. Yet if I am scheduled to sit at a desk but I need to daydream then the routine doesn’t particularly work for me at that point in time. I’ll leave these as they are, if they work for you then use them, if they don’t then don’t beat yourself up and do what you need to do when you need to.
Outside interruptions, this is one thing I will agree with. I get quite grumpy, even though I try not to show it, when I am disturbed by outside interruptions. I have my distractions helping me focus, I have my goal, I have my plan, dammit all, leave me the hell alone so I can think of pink elephants. I can’t always do this in my job, unfortunately the people I report to have questions, need details or have priorities that override what I am focusing on. At home though I turn the phone to silent, don’t talk to other people; let them know I am busy if I need to. Nothing will set you 30 min behind faster than a five minute conversation.
Focusing is the opposite of meditation, it’s the filling of the mind with a goal, a job, a plan and the details you need to conquer it. Practice filling your mind and your environment with the things it needs and focus will come easier. If you are procrastinating then make it productive procrastination, create the plans and solutions you need. Fill your environment with distractions that will always let you find your way back to the task at hand. If you find it is still too big a job to fit in your head break the job up, there is no point focusing on something that overflows your brain. Focusing isn’t a straight line track; it’s more like a rubber band that draws you to the end no matter how much you get bounced away from it. I don’t expect most people can completely tune out the world like I can, but you can make it easier on yourself by making sure you don’t bounce too far as you are being drawn forward. Most of all the best way to forget about your stress and worry isn’t meditation; it’s to focus on something else, like pink elephants.
Photo: Flickr/Mark Hunter
*A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. The Modern Minstrel observes the world around him and shares it with us as lyrical story. This series was inspired by Luke Davis, whose eye for story and ear for lyrical prose are featured here.
Also by Luke Davis
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