Many people are struggling with focus. It is because our world is full of opportunities. Once you have found one opportunity, another one likely comes up. This especially tends to happen when you are tired, demotivated and not sure about where you are going. You start procrastinating by shifting your attention to something else. Anything can catch your attention quite easily: A new business model, a new workout or a new blog article (like this one). This makes sense. Anything that is different from the situation or the piece of work you are stuck with is tempting. Of course you are excited about it.
New things excite us
Our brains are made to be excited by new opportunities. This is not necessarily negative as we would be hesitant to try anything new otherwise. Still, because our world today has such an abundance of things to do in each moment, the problem starts here. The ability to focus on what’s important is a skill to have that is increasingly valuable.
A new opportunity or temptation might rationally not make sense to you, still the excitement is there. Your unconscious mind is not evaluating whether the opportunity makes sense for you. The only rule it follows is new equals exciting. All the energy you had for your previous goal has suddenly shifted.
It feels like it would be unwise to go back to what you were initially doing. The word ‘feel’ should be highlighted here. Because it is actually only a feeling. Rationally, it often still makes sense to go back to what you were working on and continue with it.
Let your rationality kick in and guide you. Your feelings are sometimes misguiding you. This does need a certain degree of willpower, but your investment will pay off. Focus is so important that it is often titled as the key to success.
Focus is the key to success
There are countless books about focus. Daniel Goleman, a science journalist and psychologist, wrote the inspiring book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.
The key message of the book is that focus is not some innate ability a select few have and can make use of, but it is a skill that you can practice and learn. Much like a muscle your ability to focus needs practice. It is therefore understandable that it is difficult to work with this ‘muscle of focus’ when you are just starting out. Much like when you are going for an actual workout in the gym, you need to be patient to see results: You are likely doing everything right, it just takes time.
Postpone temptations and you will gain
You might ask if there are ways to practice your focus, why are so many people struggling with it. The reason is that you have to go against your feelings and temptations. That’s the way it is for everyone. It’s challenging, no denial of that. We are all struggling with it to some extent, no matter how successful in life a person might be. However, the only way to focus is to not follow temptations and take action on what you set yourself to achieve.
The great thing is that you do not need to set it off forever. Tell yourself that ‘you can have it some other time’. If you do this, the bad feeling is likely to be less tempting. This is called ‘unspecific postponement’. And yes there has been research done about this (paper). The hypothesis is that when you are saying that you will try something later, you signal to your brain that what you are tempted by is not highly valued by you at the moment. This way your desire to go for it will be reduced.
Staying focused – experiment what works for you
While you can give ‘unspecific postponement’ a go and try it out for some time, there are countless of other ways to exercise your focus. Some people swear by rigid planning, while others go for meditation or raw discipline. All of them have the potential to be helpful for you. So which one is right for you? I can’t tell and probably no one knows which will work for you. You have to experiment yourself and find out which of them best fits your lifestyle.
My last words and where to start
My advice for you is to actually stop researching and reading more about the topic (as long as you are not a researcher or learning about focus is your goal), but to start taking action. How to start taking action? Experiment with different methods to gain back your focus. Focus is like a muscle that needs exercise. You need to keep practicing it, even when it is challenging.
You can start with a method of gaining focus that has worked for you in the past, it is quite likely to work for you again. If you have no idea where to start, try ‘unspecific postponement’. Write down your temptation in a notebook or post-it note and tell yourself you can have it later. This is actually true, as you can come back to reward yourself with it once your other work is done.
When you do not see results immediately, do not be discouraged. The most common issue when training focus is not about wrong ‘exercise equipment’ (your strategy to gain focus), but most often that you are not exercising regularly. Keep at it for some time and you will see results. Or another way to say it could also be: Stay focused and you will succeed!