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On the impishly elusive state of focus

Easily distracted? Prone to avoidance? Over-thinker? Try reframing what gets in the way of getting on.

Each morning, a former monk pours mellow reassurance directly into my ears via the HeadSpace app, reminding me that the hypothetical future wanderings drifting in and out of my mind, are actually quite inevitable.

And don’t I know it…

Your own private peep show

All it takes is one word or evocative idea and my imagination’s in orbit. 

Someone chit-chats about the weather; yet in my head I’m wondering what geo-engineered rain feels like. Or while buried in a good book, I’ll be orating a one-sided defence of post-capitalism.

Whichever distraction prompts it, my awareness rockets skyward only to plummet earthbound, crashing, disorientated, several junctures ahead of where I left off. 

It’s a bit like living in your own private episode of Peep Show. And it doesn’t half get in the way of being fully present and focused when I’m on-the-go. 

For others, it’s not quite so simple 

Luckily (or not) I’m a remorseless taskmaster so shit gets done – I’m just ‘not all there’ while I make it happen. 

But I’ve coached other folk who don’t even know where to begin because of their greasy focus. And then there are other poor souls who’ve made an art of defer and delay, succumbing to playful distractions, overanalysis or crippling perfectionism.

Whatever the reason and response – what’s so tortuous is that at a profoundly deep level, every one of us knows what really needs to be done. What matters most. 

Yet somehow, all too often, it rarely gets done the way we hope it will.

Quick, buy a book!

However elusive focus feels, if you’re trying to navigate a meaningful existence through the noisy shitshow that is modern life, chances are you’re in for some frustration and resistance. 

Cal Newport squeezed a palatable tome out of this de facto state of affairs, in one of those snazzy-covered, one-big-idea books that really only merit a chapter or two: Deep Work

In it, Cal argues that deeply focused, applied concentration…

…is becoming increasingly rare and at the exact same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. … the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

You’ve probably read or heard of Deep Work already – worldly soul on a journey of constant improvement that you are. So let’s not cover old ground. 

Instead, think how what Cal said makes you feel…

Like you need to fix this? ASAP? Because something’s wrong, there’s something you’re missing out on, or you’re not everything you know you could be. 

That’s a tricky place to learn and build from though, isn’t it? Perhaps awkward and uncomfortable.

It does, however, shift a lot of £12 books off the shelves.

What meddles with focus could be a way forward

Which brings me neatly onto one possible source of brooding malcontent with focus, or our lack of it. 

When a coaching client rocks up in knots, one way to create a bit of breathing space is to put a fresh spin on things as they are.

So, what if this royal pain in the arse focus thing is actually just an escape route in disguise? 

Seriously.

When I’m daydreaming-up dendritic dialogues of situations yet-to-be, instead of being enraptured by the task at hand (like I ought to), maybe my rocket-fueled imagination is just under-engaged. 

At the risk of sounding ethereal and wanky – I’ve not honoured a talent.

Perhaps if I took it for walkies in the park, let it have a shit if it’s a good boy (by journaling, for example), it might curl up by the fire later when I need to be wholly present and focused on whatever I’m supposed to be doing.

So under-focus isn’t a hindrance. It could be a signal. An itch that needs scratching.

  • What if indecision and overanalysis is really just a vivid mind in search of a fresh project to commit to? What do the subject matters you ponder over tell you about what makes you tick?
  • What if your happy-go-lucky, effulgent way of engaging with the world – flitting playfully from one sensation to the next, is just a hunger for responsibility or resolution? Do the activities you lose time in tell you something about yourself?
  • What if all these things are just double-edged swords? They’re what draw people to you; part of your character that make you a joy to be around, yet a nightmare left alone.
  • What would working with (rather than against) under-focus look like? If it wasn’t a problem, how would that change things? 
  • Could you nurture distraction, procrastination, introspection like a useful urge that deserves context and direction? And how can you get clear on that?

James Clear, another peddler of one-big-idea books (though admittedly a very good one), argues that focus frustrations often mask lack of clarity about what we really want. If we’re clear on that – what we want to be, do and have, focus tends to follow.

In my experience coaching, getting clear means saying no to more stuff. Some put their needs first instead of others a little more often. Others build more variety and routine into their week so they satiate that incongruent human desire for structure and freedom.

What we stand for presents options too 

If you believe personal responsibility is a solid principle, how in practice might you raise your hand and say “know what, I’m going to give myself permission to indulge daydreaming/ procrastination/ avoidance/ introspection on Friday afternoons.” 

Because responsibility isn’t the same thing as blame. You didn’t choose your mind, or those moreish thoughts and feelings that waft like farts through your cheesebox. 

But you can choose to own what you’ve got to work with, and hack it, gently.

Likewise, for cooperation, collaboration and community values. If you stand by them, how can you reach out to others when focus wanes? Know any other devout perfectionists or procrastinators? How are they getting on? Who’s taking the lead?

By way of example on both of these, I take the lead from a lifelong master of relaxation: my darling spouse. With or without me, she’ll have her feet up, guilt-free, whenever the feeling takes her. So, after some resistance I tried her way. I owned my tendency to never sit still (when that’s appropriate), but come 6pm it isn’t so I down-tools, and resist tinkering with my latest DIY distraction.

In my experience as a coach, inspiration and ways forward often lurk right beneath our noses. They only become apparent when we look beyond the struggle, and take on the role of curious and playful beginner – not weak, but daring, however uncomfortable we feel about the experiments that follow.

Beware toxic entrepreneurialism

Time for a pop at the rat-race, so here’s some vitriol…

There’s a subtext to this whole focus thing. It’s that all-encompassing productivity is a gold standard. And that growth and progress should be linear and relentless. Five minutes suffering the sermons of entrepreneur influencers on YouTube confirms this.

Sorry, but human progress isn’t like that (for most of us). 

It’s blindly lurching forwards through puddles of our vomit, followed by a kick in the teeth then a nice sit-down. Then the sun comes out again and we’re off, ad infinitum.

To put this in a more coach-like way, the mind and body seem to operate seasonally, with day-to-day emotional weather to contend with too. 

It’d be trite to suggest focus is all about balance – you’re a smart reader, you already know that. My point is that there’s something about planning your route forward with seasons and weather in mind. 

If the plan is to go pelvis-deep on Monday/Tuesday with wellbeing Wednesday for treats, then suddenly Tuesday arrives full of piss and wind; can you flex? Would you dare bring relaxation forwards when you need it most, shuffling other commitments with intention, and not give yourself too much of a hard time for taking such sensible, honest action? 

Likewise, if all is well on Friday; can you roll with it and work into Saturday while the world rues its hangover? There’s something sweetly rebellious about stealing a march on the rat-race when it dares not intrude…

All this demands responsibility, clarity and honesty with yourself – all themes that run deeper than what at first glance appears to be a localised bug in your focus software. 

Focus defies brute force

If trusty Buddhists like Andi Puddicombe of HeadSpace are to be believed, focus is less about being perpetually ‘on it’ – driven and productive. It’s more about “remaining undistracted”, apparently. 

Nor can we fix or find focus. We can only cultivate conditions it prefers. It seems (from my own experiments) that focus may be one of those impishly desirable states, like happiness. We’re all chasing it, when pursuit is the very thing most likely to scare it off.

It may well be that focus, like happiness, is a default state. Calm is already there within us, we just need to cut the shit piled on top of it, to make it more accessible. 

Now there’s a twist.

What if focus is neither good nor bad: it just is

Despite my best efforts, I can’t court ‘becoming more present’ into my life by being (even more) disciplined. I’m already sorted for drive and self-organisation. And I’m quite fond of having an overactive imagination too (sometimes).

Reading more books and how-to explainers won’t help much either (sorry Cal/James). That’s why I resisted the temptation to burp up yet another article littered with life-hacks on silencing your phone, pomodoro technique or working to binaural beats

These things might help, but substantive change only ever really comes about through identity shift – our relationship with who we authentically are (warts and all)

For me, that’s calling truce with my mind’s tendency to wander off into well-trodden hinterlands as I get on with things. It’s neither good, nor bad. 

It just is. 

I can only meet it as I do most professional challenges; curious, calm, compassionate, comic, contrarian, C-fixated coach I am.

With that glimmer of calm acceptance quelling any tension, I can toy with step two: alternative identities. And discovering which aspects of character are worth fortifying, any gaps, and how to go about that, before embarking on wild experiments, as a playful beginner.

To this end, I’ve got some upcoming befriending training that purports to embrace whatever (or rather whoever) is playing up inside our private box of frogs, when focus escapes us. As I understand it, a splash of compassion helps; checking-in with your interruptions. 

I’ll report back on what I learn; perhaps that’ll shed more light on this whole focus thing.

What next for you? 

As we’ve seen, waning focus could be a signal rather than a hindrance. So, what might it be telling you about who you are and what you really want? How might you meet it in a different way?

Chris Kenworthy | Coach

By Chris Kenworthy | Coach

I'm Chris. I'm a coach. I help green changemakers save the world. A world where people and the planet thrive.

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