Recently, the young boy who I home-school, and I, had a conversation about focus.
I told him to think of an ice-cream shop.
I said that right now, he’s allowing his brain to run a soft-serve machine on automatic - because he’s forgetting that the real power is being the scooper.
He needs to understand that he controls the button of the machine, and needs to help his brain focus on one flavor at a time. He needs to turn the swirling machine off and scoop thoughts up instead, and focus only on them, one flavor at a time.
I asked my teary friend what flavor he wanted to practice scooping together, and in his very emotional state, he spit out, “pumpernickel”, which made us both laugh.
We both know he meant pistachio - but now, when he’s getting distracted, we have a fun reminder to keep us on track…”Scoop the pumpernickel!”.
But, what I didn’t want to tell my sweet little friend just yet, is that unlike long division and essay writing, scooping the pumpernickel isn’t necessarily something that gets easier over time. In fact, I don’t remember struggling so much with focus until I was a full-fledged adult (sigh).
We do not live in a world that is kind to our ability to focus. So, how can we create the space to allow us to truly be present while immersing ourselves in a task, activity or conversation? Create a mindful ritual, using some or all of the ideas below, to prepare your body and brain to hunker down and stay present.
Calm Your Spinning Mind - Create The Space - Introspection
Calm Your Spinning Mind:
- Discern: Chances are, if you are encountering a spinning mind, you will be unable to devote your full attention to the task at hand. But not all thoughts end up being ones that we need to hold space for. Train your brain to ask the following questions before handing permission over for thoughts to enter the sacred space of your attention.
If you answered no to any of the questions above, consider practicing allowing those thoughts to go, temporarily or forever. I don’t mean to make this sound easy, but as someone who has been accustomed to taking things on that aren’t mine (other people’s emotions, others reactions to my own decisions, anticipatory stress) I know how much space can be salvaged in the mind and heart by the act of surrendering.
-Write It Out: Once you determine what is left, try getting it out of your brain and onto paper….not a little scrap piece of paper that you will lose and then stress about losing…(been there!) but a notebook or journal or Google doc devoted to catching your thoughts and creating your lists. This can be a quick bullet point list, a slightly more detailed Now and Later list or a list that is created by (1) a brain dump and (2) a numbering of said brain dump in order of priority.
- Respect The List: If you are attempting to accomplish something that is not an item on your list (perhaps something for relaxation or enjoyment), understand that this can require a non-judgmental acceptance of what may feel like the opposite of productivity. If you have read some of my other blog or Instagram posts, you will already know that I, historically, have not been great at sitting with the sense of being unproductive. So, mentally, if you need a crutch to defend the importance to yourself (ha!) refuse to make a list that doesn’t include the item, “Meet My Own Needs” as numero uno. Go ahead, actually add it to the list, I do it all the time!
Create The Space:
In school, we utilize the term, ‘least restrictive environment’ when we are addressing the needs of our students. What conditions might be most conducive to their academic, social and emotional growth….that’s where they belong. We deserve the same type of contemplation here. Depending on what you may be focused on at the moment, you may need to physically adjust your space (I’m leaving you some ideas below), if where you are currently situated is impeding your success.
Quick Adjustments for Space and Mindset:
If you feel like you have tried everything, and focus is still a pipe dream, it may be time for some deeper introspection. It could prove really helpful, long term, to institute a pause if you find a pattern of feeling scattered, unfocused or are pestered by the notorious monkey mind. What is really going on beneath the surface? What is weighing on you? I have found that my inability to focus is often only a symptom of something bigger - a truth I have been ignoring (denial is a river in Africa AND a state of mind!), an emotion that I have yet to sit with, old habits or stories that I have outgrown but have yet to remove from my life or a need that I have yet to meet. This could be as simple as someone trying to make themselves be productive, when what they really truly need (as much as they may hate it) is a day to relax and reset. Try using some of the questions below to diagnose and identify the root of the problem.
Whatever it is that is important to you to focus on, whether a big project, or just small everyday tasks, don’t forget to infuse joy, gratitude and love into each moment. It’s easy to allow stress or concern or frustration to take over, but we are in the trenches, doing the living...the living doesn’t begin when everything is in order, so make it all count. Elevate your tasks and don’t forget to live busually.