We all probably realize we need better focus in our lives to take care of what we feel we need to do or should be doing. The real issue for most of us is how to maintain that focus. Here are a few tips I’ve learned in my life.
Some Mental Downtime is Good for Long-Term Focus
In our family, we have a running gag about the ADHD most of us seem to suffer from. In my life, I know I can be super focused on a project for an extended period of time (to the point where I don’t notice anything else around me that is falling apart or being ignored), and then go through periods where I’m a spacey daydreamer watching idiotic YouTube videos.
I’ve come to the realization that this can be sometimes good for my long-term productivity if I keep it in check.
We can’t be on task 24/7. Even when trying to get into better shape from a fitness standpoint, much of the positive change happens after the workout, while we’re resting. In fact, I’ve learned (the hard way) that if I’m not resting enough between workouts, I run the risk of injuring myself or slowing my progress.
In terms of focus in other areas of our lives, from parenting and family life to our professional lives, if we don’t have some enjoyable diversion to rest our minds and release our focus, we’re going to wind up a hot mess.
In other words, don’t feel guilty about not being on task all the time.
Worrying is Bad for Long-Term Focus
In contrast, using your mental downtime to worry or create stressful potential scenarios in your head only serves to sap your energy and your creativity. Worrying doesn’t do anything to change the situation, and worry can never prevent the potential catastrophe from occurring.
Basically, worrying is like being on a hamster wheel. You’re busy wearing yourself out, but you’re not accomplishing anything.
I like to take a long term view of life, through setting goals and such, but when it comes to things that may or may not happen, I also have to take things one day at a time. Our family has been marked with seasons of financial insecurity because of manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas. This fact provides plenty of seeds for worry if I allow those seeds to take root. Instead, I have to do what I can do each day, as it comes, gathering my manna from God one day at a time, and praying for daily bread, so to speak. On the other hand, I try not to make any “living for today” decisions that are going to make my life miserable tomorrow, like going into consumer debt. Been there, done that, learned our lesson.
My friend Tamie K used to always tell me, “Don’t borrow trouble”. It’s a paraphrase of something Jesus said. Jesus said that today’s troubles are sufficient for today (Matthew 6:34). It helps me to think of worrying as borrowing tomorrow’s troubles, and bringing them into my life right now. I can’t change it. I can’t do a thing about what “might” happen. I can only take care of what I have to take care of today.
Focus in Keeping with Your Season of Life
When you’re a mom with little ones, it’s hard to keep your mind on too many other tasks apart from loving on and raising up these little ones. If you try to do too much that requires intense focus for long periods of time, you’re going to be frustrated if you’re trying to accomplish this in the same house as a young child (or children).
This just goes back to the seasons of life, and how they each have a certain, general focus. When my kids were little, I didn’t have enough focus to make dinner some days. Now that they are older, the seasons have changed, and “productivity” that can be more easily measured is now possible. However, those days were not for naught. I have awesome kids who are now young adults. That wouldn’t have happened if I had ignored them while they were little in favor of a to-do list.
If you’re going through chronic illness, or maybe have several small children, or you have elderly parents with health issues — whatever the case may be, your focus is not going to be on a list of external goals.
This past spring, my “best-laid plans” for the relaunch and rebranding of my site fell through when I got the phone call no parent wants to get, that two of my kids were in a horrible car wreck — so horrible I didn’t even recognize the car when we went to the junkyard. For most of spring and summer, my focus was on insurance paperwork, doctor’s visits, traveling to the hospital two hours away, learning how to operate a feeding pump, and generally dealing with the immediate needs that were dropped in our laps.
If you’re going through a season where life has thrown you a curve ball, sometimes it’s best just to put your focus into that emergency situation, and deal with it until you’re no longer feeling like you’re drowning.
Be All There
A few years ago, while at the beach with my kids, I noticed a very young toddler playing by the edge of the water, and the mom, a few feet away, playing on her phone. You guys, I used to be a lifeguard. I hate the beach because my lifeguard training from nearly 35 years ago does not allow me to rest at the beach. Toddlers especially can drown in an inch of water, and it can happen so fast. The baby girl was trying to get her momma’s attention. Mom would look up, “mm hmm, that’s nice honey…” and go back to the phone.
So now, my inner lifeguard wouldn’t allow me to just watch my own kids, and the kids they were playing with, but now my brain and heart took responsibility for the baby girl playing by the edge of the beach while mom checked Facebook.
A few years later, and it seems like we have a whole generation of parents who can’t seem to pull their eyes up from their phones and from Facebook. At restaurants, everyone has a phone in hand. I see people with their phones while driving.
It’s great to be connected, but it’s not necessary or healthy to be connected all the time. If you’re with other people, it’s actually rude.
I have nothing against Facebook. Some days it’s my mental relaxation, and it’s a great way to keep up with friends around the world. However, Facebook, social media, the telephone, and whatever new thing they come up with next can also be huge distractions from what’s happening now. These are things that can easily break our focus from where our focus should be at the moment.
There are some programs and browser add-ons (such as Leechblock and Stay Focused) which can block certain distracting websites from you while you’re supposed to be working, and those are helpful if you lack the discipline. Other tricks have helped me such as turning my phone off when I don’t want to be distracted (Gasp!), or screening phone calls on my land line.
Sometimes I even turn the Internet off at the source during part of the day, while I have to get things done, just so I don’t get sucked in.
If you’re out “enjoying the day” with your kids, then really enjoy it with your kids. Put the phone away, or turn off your data connection so that you can only get emergency phone calls.
If your focus is on your phone or the internet, that’s where you’re using up your energy. Tim Robbins once said, “Where your focus goes, your energy flows.” This is so true. If I’m expending my energy and my time on something that isn’t important long term, I’m going to have to give up time and energy on something that is important. Is it worth it?
Avoid Things that Fire You Up (unless it’s related to your goals)
Unless something is related to your long term goals in life, if a topic gets you fired up, fretting, upset, angry, and a host of other negative emotions, just avoid it altogether.
In my life, I try to avoid politics, political Facebook posts, “the news”, and anything that is going to get my blood pressure going. I don’t always succeed at keeping it out of my line of focus, but I attempt to.
As a Christian, God calls me to serve Him with everything I have (see Deut. 6:4-11). As such, part of my long term goals in life, as a Christian, are to love Him and live for Him in my personal life and to share the message of His sacrifice and the hope found in Him with everyone I meet. Getting myself and everyone else worked up about whatever political topic of the day doesn’t fit into that.
Getting fired up about something is only good if you are able to do something about it other than grind your teeth and stress out.
The media, political blogs, and even political parties (and politicians) themselves, on both sides of the political spectrum, market fear to stay in business, get donations (or page views), and make their money.
The political machines are selling fear and division like never before. Don’t buy what they are selling, for the sake of your sanity and energy levels.
Day by Day, Step by Step, Bite by Bite
When we were trying to get out of debt, a friend told us you get out of debt the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.
How do you achieve your goals, stay focused, and do what you need to do: also one bite at a time.
If you measure success by how fast you achieve your goals, versus how faithful you are to make progress in the right direction, you’re going to be discouraged.
I’m preachin’ at myself here.
I have a hard time biting off more than I can chew, so to speak, then get frustrated when I can’t accomplish things on the impossibly tight schedule I’ve given myself. That’s every bit as counter-productive as watching all of the blooper reels of your favorite tv show on you tube all afternoon instead of tackling your to-do list.
Focus on accomplishing the current step you’re taking, instead of thinking about the enormity of the journey.
What’s Your Secret?
Do you have something to add to this list? Share your secrets to staying focused in the comments.
If you’re interested, I also have a related post featuring 8 steps to focusing on what is really important to you.