Turning to the dictionary for understanding “focus” leaves room for improvement to say the least. Focus as a noun is the center of interest or activity, the main focus of attention (i.e. focal point). Focus as a verb means to adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. We’ve read about mindfulness practices that teach us to focus on what’s in front of us, to “be here now” with what we are doing, but what more does focus have to teach us as a skill?
Imagine you have awakened in the middle of the night with an urgent need to use the restroom. When you open your eyes, the dark is comfortable. It is not difficult to navigate your way. In the restroom, you turn on the light, and for a moment, everything is blurry and not easy to see. You have to wait for your eyes to adjust in order to begin moving forward again. After you’ve washed your hands, you turn out the light, and once more, your ability to see is hindered until your eyes adjust. Then, you can return to your comfy bed and sleep the rest of the night away.
Taking the time to focus is an important part of seeing the right path to take. Unless we pause for a moment and allow the details to resolve into discernable shapes—the root cause, the immediate effects, the long-term effects, the stakeholders, etc., we won’t know how best to move forward. Focus is what gives us the ability to observe a situation from a new perspective and adjust accordingly.
Here are some behaviors that can help you hone your ability to focus, to see clearly that which is in front of you, and to make good, informed decisions:
- Get enough sleep and wake up early enough to plan your day. Every day is a new opportunity, and if you have armed yourself with the big picture, any last-minute adjustments you need to make to your schedule will not be emotionally draining.
- Schedule “focus time” into your daily routine. Focus time is a time with no email or Teams or phones or text messages, so you can manage tasks that take more of your mental capacity. The average attention span for a single task is about 14 minutes. If you want to hone this skill, you must practice it! Start with 15-minute intervals and work up from there.
- Keep a list of your most important tasks (i.e. big rocks) and accomplish those first. This way, if you run short on time, you are not doing a less-than-stellar job on the important stuff.
- Limit your information intake. Information fatigue is real. Take quiet time, just like focus time, to allow your brain to rest and restore your focus energy.
- Reflect, remember, and regroup. At the end of the day, go back over your performance. Did you follow your schedule? Did you accomplish the goals you set for the day? Were you able to put forth your best efforts?
The first part of focus is clarity about how you feel, what you want to do, the pulse of those around you, and the potential obstacles in your path. The second part is letting go of other things you also want to do, whether that means putting them off until later or removing them from your to-do list altogether. As Steve Jobs said, “Deciding what NOT to do is as important as deciding what TO do.”
Focus on your inner self. Expand your focus to include those around you. Expand your focus even further to include the systems and environment around you. And let everything else fade away. From here, you will be your most successful and effective self.