One Thing at a Time: Overcoming Challenges to Focus
What you stay focused on will grow.
~Roy T. Bennett
Pay attention to one thing at a time.
It’s easy to say, but there is so much we have to keep track of. It’s also hard to stay focused—to keep our minds on what we are doing without getting distracted or letting our minds wander.
It’s important to remember that we are only capable of doing one thing at a time. At any single moment, our brains can only think about one thing. We may be under the illusion that we’re able to work on several things at once, but what is really happening is that we’re focusing on one thing for a very short time then moving on to something else. We may even be cycling through several tasks, causing us to think we’re focusing on all of them at the same time, but the bottom line is we can only focus on one at any given moment.
The evils of multitasking
We all experience an enormous temptation to multitask. Technology and modern work culture are geared toward having several things going at the same time. We want to be responsive, so we have our email open all the time. We’re working on a long-term project, but we still have to get ready for our next meeting. We’re just starting to make progress on a task, and we have to take a phone call. It can be very hard to truly focus on one thing for any length of time. But we have to find a way.
When we begin to work on any particular task, it takes us some time to build momentum. We have to recall what we were working on last. We have to bring to mind the context surrounding the task. We have to gather or reference sources, guidance material, etc. Whenever we are pulled away from the task, even for a short time, it takes some time to get back to where we were and get going again.
To avoid multitasking, you have to be intentional about your time management and your schedule. If you know you have a meeting that you have to prepare for, choose a time in the day during which you won’t have to interrupt something else. Block off time for tasks that take deeper thinking and dedicated attention. Set certain times of the day for checking your email, and don’t look at it at any other times. Don’t take unscheduled phone calls—if someone needs to speak with you, let them leave a voicemail, and schedule a time to talk that makes sense in your schedule. Multitasking doesn’t just happen—it happens when we let it happen.
The journey is more important than the destination
When we think about our goals, it is easy to let the mind wander to what it will be like to achieve them. We dream about finishing what we’re doing and getting to the end of the road. When I was in graduate school, I was working full time and going to school in the evenings. I had little time for anything else. During this time, I fantasized about what it would be like to be finished, to have my degree, and to get to do all the things I previously hadn’t had time for (I actually kept a list). While this might have been a natural reaction to a crazy schedule, it kept me from living in the moment and immersing myself in what I was learning, the relationships I was building, and the way my thinking was evolving. It also distracted me from focusing on the studying and writing I was engaged in.
Regarding any experience that feels overwhelming, we can EITHER dream about finishing and being free from the associated responsibilities OR we can immerse ourselves in the moment and fully experience it. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about the future and looking forward to achieving a goal we’ve worked hard for. However, we should be aware of that thinking. Our fixation on the destination should not distract us from fully experiencing the journey.
Challenges with focus and how to overcome them
Many of us have challenges focusing. For some of us, focusing may even seem almost impossible. We stare at something we’re reading, and it seems we’re reading the same sentence over and over again without its meaning coming to us. We find ourselves daydreaming about what we’re going to do in the evening or during the upcoming vacation. We compulsively scan our social media pages or watch sports videos (see Distractions). Before we know it, the whole morning has gone by and we’ve accomplished very little.
This scenario is very common. While there’s no magic button to help us focus better, the following techniques that can help overcome our distractions.
- Break it down. It can be overwhelming to think of everything you need to do in a day or for a big project. It’s critical to break a big challenge down into discrete manageable tasks. This allows you to set priorities and to ensure that you get the important activities done before the minutiae overwhelm you.
- Take a break. When you become less productive and it seems impossible to focus, trying to force yourself to concentrate is unlikely to work. Taking a short break can help. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a video on YouTube. Do something that will take your mind away from the task for a while. This will enable you to come back strong. It’s important to be specific and disciplined about your breaks, though. Give yourself a set amount of time then come right back to the task.
- Work on something else. If you’re struggling with something and can’t seem to gain any momentum, put it aside and work on something else for a while. This will allow you to switch gears and return fresh. Allowing your mind to think about something else may get you out of a mental rut and enable you to overcome whatever you were struggling with.
- Give yourself a time limit. It’s easier to be distracted when you have no time limit for what you are doing. A deadline has a way of creating urgency and, thus, bringing focus to any task. But what if you don’t have a deadline? Give yourself one! Only allow yourself a set amount of time to work on any given task. This does two things: it forces you to get somethingdone because you know you have to stop working on it soon, and it gives you a light at the end of the tunnel when the task is difficult or unpleasant.
Getting into The Zone
Once you develop good focus habits, you can work toward excelling at focus.: You can aspire to levels of focus that you hadn’t thought possible. Practice will help you achieve proficiency. And, if you’re dedicated enough, you may be able to achieve flow, also known as The Zone. Flow is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time” (from Mihaly Csikszentmihályi: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).
This state can be extremely rewarding and can help you achieve in ways you never thought possible. It is not easy to get into The Zone, and it is certainly easier when you are engaged in an activity you enjoy. I tend to enter The Zonewhen I’m engaged in music or art. However, with practice, it is possible to achieve this state during any activity as long as we’re intentional in our approach and dedicated in our habits.
When we are focused, our minds become clear. When our minds are clear, we are truly present.