Podcast 093: Being focused

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This is Podcast 93 and it’s about being focused. Last time I talked about being present. This time, right now, is all that you have. This time I’ll talk about being focused and utilizing that present time.

The kind of focus I mean is related to being present. It isn’t hyperfocus, where the house can be burning down around you and you’re so involved in what you’re doing that you don’t even notice. This may seem like an ideal condition to be in when there’s a task you need to finish.

But hyperfocus usually goes hand in hand with distractibility and stimulation seeking and those are at odds with being present. It also isn’t activated by tasks that don’t seem exciting, so it’s not effective for getting routine work done.

The focus I’m talking about is one flexible enough to remain engaged in the face of distractions. Not to filter them out, like hyperfocus, but to acknowledge them without getting sucked in. Or to indulge them in a limited way, and then return to the object of focus.

If that sounds like a big challenge, you’re right, it is. Humans naturally seek stimulation. We evolved to seek food, mates and shelter, to begin with. Seeking is likely also related to the reasons we explore, discover and learn. We want to expand our worlds.

Unfortunately, seeking behavior can lead us to desire more and more stimulation, past the point where our basic needs are met. The thrill of new sensations and an ever faster pace makes us feel that every day life, in contrast, is a bit boring.

We are also primed to be alert to novelty, again dating back to prehistory when we needed to be aware of changes in our environment that could be dangerous and then react to them quickly. Those two ancient responsibilities of your brain continue to be active; sometimes in not-so-productive ways.

Even if you have not been diagnosed with ADHD you’re subject to more stimulation every day than you can handle. So you need to have ways to manage stimulation in order to get things done, since it’s unlikely that stimulating events and things will go away on their own.

Being mindful, as I mentioned last time, is a good practice to help you slow down and be aware of yourself in the present moment. Meditation is a classic way to increase mindfulness, but you can do this at any moment just by bringing your attention to what is happening right now.

If you tend to hyperfocus, remembering to let the present moment in may be hard to do. But there are tools you can use. A simple one is to set a timer to go off at regular intervals, say 15-30 minutes. Make sure to use a timer that has a pleasant sound so it doesn’t startle you. Timed reminders for activities, like having lunch, are also helpful.

How do you know if you’re hyperfocusing? If you’re spending an inordinate amount of time on something that’s not necessary but you feel unable to break away, that’s hyperfocus. Anytime that you haven’t made a conscious decision to continue your focus, that’s hyperfocus.

The opposite of hyperfocus is hypo-focus. Instead of too much, you’ve got too little. It’s hard to get things done because your attention wanders away so quickly. Hypofocusers tend to daydream a lot.

Using timers and other reminders helps with this too. Instead of using them to break out of hyperfocus, you use them to remind yourself to refocus. Use physical distractions to capture your attention enough to stay focused. Doodling or squeezing a ball can help.

A physical distraction should occupy your hands but not your vision or hearing, or you’ll probably not be able to concentrate on anything else. If you’re a visual learner, a ball is better than a drawing you need to look at.

What you can do now: try one of the methods here to increase your focus. As usual, you may have to try a few to see what works best for you.