Johnny can’t focus in class because he has ADD. Every time he absentmindedly stares out the window, he’s jolted back to reality by his teacher’s stern voice, “Johnny – focus!” So Johnny tries to focus. He tries really, really hard. And that’s actually his problem. Within a few minutes, he’s staring out the window again. Most of us try hard to focus when we think we need to. It rarely works well or for long. But there’s a much better, easier way.
How Do You Hold Your Pencil?
Try this simple exercise: Pick up a pencil or pen in your hand and just hold it the way you would naturally. Now look at how you’re holding the pencil. Most likely, you’re holding it somewhat loosely, applying just enough pressure that it won’t slip out of your hand. If I asked you to continue holding the pencil like this for another five or even ten minutes, you could easily do it.
Now grip the pencil. Squeeze it tightly. Really squeeze it. It probably doesn’t feel that good to hold the pencil like this, but continue to squeeze it anyway.
See if you can keep holding the pencil with a vise-like grip for the next ten minutes. If you’re like most people, squeezing the pencil for the next 30 seconds would be challenging. You can’t sustain this kind of grip for long.
And that’s exactly the problem with how you focus. We all do it. You need to pay attention in a meeting, or finish a report, or help your child with her schoolwork. And your mind keeps wandering. So what do you do? You “buckle down” and really try to focus intently. You perform the mental equivalent of gripping the pencil. And just as when you grip the pencil tightly, your mind cannot sustain this kind of gripped focus.
Take a look at Johnny again in the picture above. He’s trying to focus – but he doesn’t look very happy. He’s kind of stressed. And chances are he’s going to zone out pretty soon. Because his mind – and yours – isn’t designed to focus this way for very long, any more than your hand is designed to hold the pencil this way for very long.
Go With The Flow
Fortunately, there is a much better and easier way to focus, one that feels pleasant and relaxing, that you can sustain for long periods, and that allows you to perform at peak levels. It’s called flow. Much has been written about flow, and the conditions that need to be present for a flow state to occur. But there are few resources telling you how to actually do it.
We’re not going to cover everything you need to get into a flow state all in one article (but stay tuned, as I will be writing about many aspects of the flow state in subsequent articles, giving you some of the same techniques I give my clients). However, to start, I’m going to give you one little exercise that can help you quickly approach a flow state. At the very least, it will help you to release your vise-like attentional grip whenever you need to, and move you toward a more relaxed state where you can be effortlessly attentive.
See The Space
Read this set of instructions and then try it: Look at the words in the paragraph below. Throughout this exercise, we are not aiming for specific reading comprehension, but for getting you into a state where you can focus more optimally (on the words and everything else). So don’t worry about trying to process every word. That’s not the point of this exercise. Takes several seconds or more between each instruction.
Look at the words in this paragraph, and begin to become aware of the space between you and the words on the screen. Just notice that space. Allow your attention to fill that space between you and the words. Then notice the white space in between the rows. Next, notice the spaces in between the letters. Now broaden your awareness to include the space to the right and left of the paragraph. Next, keep your awareness primarily on the white background behind the words, so that the words are almost the background to the white space. Then move the words to the foreground, and the white space to the background. Now see if you can look at the words and the space equally.
There are some fundamental neuroscientific principles at work behind this awareness of space and the flow state, which I’ll be delving into much more deeply in future articles. For now, just know that becoming aware of the space will quickly bring you into a more expansive state of awareness, where you can perform far more optimally than when you are trying hard to focus (you can apply this awareness of space off the page as well, to the same effect - in the room around you, the space around and between objects, or even within you).
This expanded relaxed attention is the kind of attention you will see in peak performers in just about any discipline. You’ll also see it in people who appear happy and calm. When you’re tempted to buckle down and try really hard to focus, just ask yourself – will you feel better if you grip the pencil tightly, or if you hold it lightly? The same holds true for your mind.
Try shifting your attention by noticing the space around the words as described above, and notice the impact it has on you whenever you're stressed and struggling to focus. Share your experience – in the comments below or on the Change Your Focus – Change Your Life Facebook page.