Working the Focus Muscle

May 15, 2015
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

When I started writing for this blog, it was easy. It was new and shiny and I wanted to sit down in the mornings and write for it. Eleven months into it, it’s harder.

I still have a lot of ideas to write about (49 currently, according to OmniFocus), but staying on task when I sit down to write has become a challenge. The “new” has worn off and the motivation that comes with it is gone.

But I’m writing more than I ever have in my life.

I made a decision that I was going to stick with this one. I can easily go start a new thing. Staying focused on something for an extended amount of time isn’t one of my strengths.

What I’ve learned about focus

The brain is a muscle. Focus is controlled by your brain. If you put a load on a muscle and let it recover, it will come back stronger. Focus works the same way.

The more you work at staying focused, the more you’ll be able to focus in the future. Your focus muscle gets stronger.

This is exactly what I did with my writing. I made sure that I had time every morning for writing. At first, I was only getting a few sentences down - I couldn’t stay on task much longer. Over time, I was able to finish a paragraph or two. And now I’m able to outline a post and write the majority of a first draft in a single morning.

Ways to flex the focus muscle

My journey of writing is one example within a specific arena. You could apply that method to anything you want to improve.

I did some research a while back and found that these three methods work well with increasing my ability to focus:

1. Meditation

Every morning, I take 10 minutes to just sit. I try not to think - literally. The intent is to sit in silence and not think about what happened yesterday or what’s getting ready to happen today. It’s so hard to do this and most days I spend 8 out of those 10 minutes thinking about something. That’s ok. As long as I’m getting better at letting thoughts go, I’m good with it.

2. Hang out in nature

Going for a walk through town doesn’t count. The intent here is to be in nature without having to pay attention to anything specific. It’s amazing how little your brain has to work to go for a walk through the woods or plant a garden. There’s so much to take in that your nagging thoughts tend to fade.

3. Set a timer

I don’t do this a lot, but it helps when I need it. There are days when I’m just tired and easily distracted. It’s those days that I use a timer. The timer is usually set for 30 minutes and the plan is to work on a single task or project until the timer goes off. After those 30 minutes I take a break and do whatever I want. It’s a lot easier to build focus when I know there’s playtime coming.

Taking breaks

Athletes take breaks in order to recover from a workout. You need to do the same thing with your brain. Runners can’t sprint for 4 hours straight. You need to make sure that you have time to let your mind wander and jump from thing to thing.

Areas where focus matters

1. Personal

You’ll always have things that you wish you did for yourself. Whether it’s reading a book, exercise, or even taking classes. In any of those cases, you need to stay focused on your goal as opposed to spending time on Facebook. Unless that’s your goal… (in which case you should read this)

2. Home

I’m bad at this one. I love to start new projects around the house. But I’m terrible at finishing them before I start another. I need to focus on one or two projects at a time and stick with them until I’m done.

3. Business

Similar to the home, businesses need to stay focused on the products and services that they want to deliver. Expanding too far and doing too much means a potential loss in quality to the customer.

4. Relationships

We can only maintain so many relationships. Decide on the ones that matter to you and build into those. Focus on the friendships that build you up and that you enjoy. This doesn’t mean you can forgo all the others, but you can’t have a close friendship with everyone.

Focus is one of my biggest struggles. I love jumping from thing to thing and starting new projects. My goal is not perfection, but to keep pushing and building my focus muscle.