You need to get focused.
Come on, focus.
Just buckle down and focus on it.
How many times have you heard admonitions like these, either from someone else or your own inner voice?
Focus sometimes seems to elude us precisely when we need it the most: a looming deadline, an important project, a long to-do list. Some people seem to have the ability to force themselves to focus when necessary, but it’s a lot easier said than done.
Although we like to compare our brains to computers, there’s a key difference:
Our brains are not computers. They don’t simply respond to a flip of a switch.
Attempting to “get focused” when we believe focus is lacking can leave us frustrated and self-defeated, and caught in a spiral of shame, which only serves to further hinder our productivity.
Recently I had an insight about focus that has drastically changed my approach to my work.
This new frame around focus has fueled increased productivity and — perhaps more important — increased self-kindness and self-compassion.
It began with questioning the premise:
What if focus isn’t something we need to “get”? What if it’s not actually lacking at all?
An Insight from Yoga: Tools vs Goals
When most people in the West think of yoga, they think of the physical practice of getting into poses on the mat. Many yoga students approach yoga with the goal of “getting” a pose.
But yoga isn’t only about the poses. The physical practice of yoga is only one-eighth of the practice.
In his book Yoga Beyond Belief, Ganga White explains that we should consider asana, the physical poses, as tools, not goals.
He creates the distinction between the concept of attainment and attunement: Rather than a goal — something to be attained — the pose is a tool — a way to attune to our body’s capability in the moment.
It occurred to me that we can see focus in the same way.
Just like a yoga pose is a tool for exploring the body and the breath, our focus is a tool for doing our work.
Focus as a Tool
When we think about “getting focused” we set up a binary: I’m either focused or I’m not focused. I have focus or I lack focus.
If only focus were that simple.
In reality, focus exists on a spectrum: we may have different degrees of focus at any time. Also, we may have different types of focus. Sometimes my focus is obtuse, taking in everything at once. Other times I can be in hyperfocus mode, oblivious to everything except what is directly in front of me.
Considering focus as a tool rather than a goal takes us out of the false binary.
When we start with the presumption that we already have focus, our inquiry shifts to determine what type of focus we have in the moment and how to use that focus as a tool to serve our work.
Think about a camera lens, which is a tool we use for focusing.
A photographer has different lenses for different situations: a wide angle lens for taking in more of the scenery, a telephoto lens to capture a close-up of something far away, a macro lens for capturing the details on an object in close range.
In each situation, the photographer assesses which lens is the best one to use to accomplish the goal of the photo shoot.
Our focus comes in similar types. A wide focus helps us take in the bigger picture of a situation; a long-view focus helps us plan for the future; a narrowed, shortened focus helps us hone in on what we need to do in this moment.
Changing the Question About Focus
It can be frustrating when I seem to lack the focus I need to work on a particular project.
One lesson I’ve learned repeatedly is that beating myself up for not having the type of focus I need for a particular task is about as useful as beating myself up for not having the capacity to do a split in yoga. It doesn’t get me closer to doing it.
Shifting my view of focus from something I lack and need to get to something I already have is empowering. It restores my control over the choice of what tasks to work on in any moment and helps me be more compassionate and kind to myself.
Viewing focus as a tool rather than a goal changes the question from
How do I get focus? (which presumes a lack of focus, and is self-defeating)
What type of focus do I need right now?
Perhaps I can change my focus for the particular task I want to do in the moment, the way a photographer might switch lenses in the middle of a photo shoot.
But sometimes I am not able to switch to a different type of focus so quickly. Like a photographer who only packed one lens for a shoot, I need to work with what I have available to me.
In that situation, I can ask:
What type of focus do I have available to me right now?
The answer to this question helps me choose a task better suited to the focus I have available.
It’s been a revolutionary shift in how I approach my work.