Saturday, June 16, 2012
Focus: The Most Important Skill In Your Life
I’d like to invite you to join me in an experiment. For the duration of this blog post, I’d like you to ignore all the normal distractions that incessantly steal your attention throughout the day. Disconnect from chat, close your social network feeds, log off your email. If your phone gets a text, let it sit there unread. Turn off the tv. Take the earbuds out of your ears and pause your music. Don’t switch away until you’ve finished reading. I’d like you to simply focus on this post and nothing else for the next few minutes of your precious time.
Can you do it?
Over the past year, I’ve had an awful lot of time to reflect. I’ve been systematically trying to simplify my life - getting rid of burdening possessions and spending my time and energy on projects and people that I love. Yet what you have and what you do are only the outward manifestations of your state of mind. Simplification comes from within, and I consistently find myself returning to the following idea: that the ability to focus one’s thoughts is the single most important skill in your life.
In essence, learn to control your thoughts so that they don’t control you.
I stumbled upon this idea while exploring the fascinating lifestyle that we call “entrepreneurship”. The beauty about charting your own path through the world is that there’s no guideline, no set of prescriptions to follow. You build your day as you see fit. Yet as all entrepreneurs know, the creative life is at once both immensely gratifying and astoundingly lonely. The price you pay for going your own way is that you are the one holding the flashlight in the darkest part of the tunnel, shining the light on your immediate next steps while blind to what lies just beyond the edge of your own shadow. You take it on faith that you’re moving in the right direction, but steering through unchartered waters, you are forced into a constant state of making decisions, evaluating their effectiveness, and recalibrating the ship so that it stays on track.
This is what it means to step off the beaten path.
And if you spend enough time thinking about how you spend your time, you begin to think about the thinking itself. Why do we decide to do the things we do? How does the mind choose what to spend its cycles on? Why do ideas come rushing into my head as I lie in bed awaiting sleep? How can I get “into the zone” and plow through a week’s worth of work in a couple hours?
Why is my mind filled with the thoughts that it is, and is there anything I can do to change that?
The answer is a resounding yes; you can change the way your mind works, once you accept that everything you do, every second of every day, is a consequence of the thoughts that have been accumulating in your mind up to that point.
In today’s day and age, we’re fighting a losing battle against distraction. The reasons are diverse - it’s not as simple as blaming modern technology. Cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etcetera are merely tools for scratching the primal need to connect. Humans were evolutionarily designed to be around other humans, and once we developed ways to feel like we’re always connected without being physically proximate, we couldn’t get enough of it, despite the interactions becoming less intimate and more like shadows of the real thing. Yet it’s addictive, so we keep doing it, obsessively absorbing and consuming information at ever-increasing volumes in a never-ending 24/7 lifestyle that we call a miracle of technology-driven connectedness.
And slowly but surely, our ability to focus has been chipped away by a thousand tiny virtual cuts. Have you ever found yourself browsing the web while on the phone? Do you instinctively pull out your phone when you get to a crosswalk that’s not green? Have you closed a website only to open a new tab and reflexively go right back to the same site? Ever look at the clock and realize the entire work day has slipped by, but you can’t remember what you actually spent your time on?
These are all symptoms of a lack of focus, and the consequences are devastating. By spreading our mental energies over more and more targets with less and less time devoted to each one, we’re simply shortchanging all of our objectives. Study after study shows that humans can’t multitask effectively, yet we try to cram more stuff into each day with the mistaken belief that we’re getting more done. But the opposite is true - less gets done, with the unfortunate additional downside of increased stress levels due to more things to worry about. It’s an unsustainable way of life, but the good thing is that it’s completely reversible.
So, how can you improve your ability to focus, and why would you want to? Let’s start with the why, cause it’s more fun. If you develop a less distracted, more focused life, you may experience the following side effects:
- You’ll feel like you have more time. It may seem counterintuitive, but stopping to take a few deep breaths in the middle of a hectic day literally changes your perception of time and allows you to tackle your tasks more effectively.
- Your senses will become heightened. By learning to calm your mind, you can free it up to concentrate intently on sensory experiences. Music will sound better. You’ll notice details in landscapes that you never saw before (pop quiz: When was the last time you looked up above eye-level on the way to work? When’s the last time you stopped to examine a building, a tree, a bird while you were rushing from point A to point B?). You’ll be able to detect a more diverse array of flavors in the food you eat and the libations you drink. You’ll basically be able to derive more enjoyment out of the things you already do.
- You will become a more productive person. Work will seem easier, because instead of focusing part of your attention for more hours, you’ll focus all of your attention for fewer hours.
- You will become more creative. A lot of people grow up to believe that they’re not creative people, yet it’s total crap. Everyone is creative when they’re young, and years and years of rote schooling and work serve to blunt and kill that creativity. Yet it never really dies; it’s just lying in wait under the surface. The only way to unleash that creativity is to calm your mind and let it naturally come out.
- You will become a more compassionate person. By learning to focus your thoughts, you will improve your ability to relate to and understand other human beings. You will become more empathetic and sympathetic without explicitly trying. You will become a better listener. You’ll become a better friend, family member, and lover. All because you will learn to always be in the moment rather than with someone but mentally elsewhere.
- You will become happier. I’m certainly not original in saying this, but a calm mind is the secret to happiness. Really.
So, what can you do to embark on this new way of living? Well, old habits die hard, and this is a lifelong adventure, so it’s not easy, but I promise that it’s worth it. Some small changes you can start with:
- Turn off non-essential notifications on your phone. Do you really need your phone to buzz every time you receive an email or someone likes something on Facebook? Try reserving “immediate” notifications for texts and nothing else. If people insist on treating email as an immediate-response communication mechanism, train them otherwise by not responding immediately.
- Next time you have a one-on-one conversation, resolve to focus entirely on the conversation. Don’t glance at your phone - it’s not going anywhere, and you didn’t miss anything important. Listen to the words being said, and look for nuances beyond the words themselves. Listening is a skill, and it’s directly related to the ability to focus.
- Focus on the journey the next time you leave your home to walk anywhere. Look around you as you’re walking. Notice the other people going about their days. Listen to the sounds around you - a car passing, people shuffling on the sidewalk, a dog barking in the distance. Feel your feet making contact with the ground - when was the last time you thought about how your feet felt as they traversed the earth?
- Read a book. Becoming engrossed in a book is a fantastic way to hone your focus. Nothing exercises the imagination in quite the same way as getting lost in a great book.
- Literally stop and think. Focus on something simple, like your breathing. Start small - can you last ten slow breaths, concentrating solely on the movement and sensation of your breath? It’s okay if your mind begins to wander - simply return to your breathing and try again. You’ll get better over time.
- Exercise. There’s something about physical exertion that calms the mind and allows it to focus. Humans were not designed to be sedentary. Any exercise is better than nothing, but for me, it takes about 20-25 minutes of light cardio in order to “reset” and multiply my productivity.
Consider this the beginning of something great. A new way to look at the world. You, too, can learn to take back your life by calming your thoughts. And with that, I’ll leave you with one final thought:
Mindfulness is about more than simply living a better life. It’s about freedom. If your life is overrun by distractions and broken thoughts, then you’re a slave to your own mind. Take back the reigns and start living.