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Focus: Being Fully Present in the Moment

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand - Alexander Graham Bell

Most of the time, I’m about as focused as a squirrel-obsessed dog in the woods during nut-gathering season. I’m chasing one idea, but then another pops up and I follow it, until another thought distracts me again and I’m off in yet another direction. But every once in a while, I get into the “zone”. Usually it happens when I’m writing or doing something creative – something that totally absorbs my attention in the moment, something so absorbing that it silences the incessant chatter in my brain. It’s an amazing feeling: I’m relaxed yet totally focused, in the flow, productive yet totally in tune with the experience in that moment.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of finding your North Star – a goal or dream that inspires and motivates you, an area where you want to excel. That’s big-picture focus. But equally important in the quest for excellence is developing the ability to focus in the moment on the task at hand – what we would describe as attention or concentration.

According to experts who study performance and achievement, the ability to put yourself into this state, which Terry Orlick, PhD (In Pursuit of Excellence) refers to as “a positive and fully connected focus”, is crucial to fully developing your talents and performing to your highest potential. Orlick describes this quality as being fully connected with the activity you are involved in at that moment, with what you are trying to do, and with what you are experiencing.

If you want to see this kind of focus in action at a high level, the Winter Olympics are coming up – this year as you watch the events, study the athletes and notice how intense their focus in the moment is. This is a skill they have to hone as sharply as their physical and technical skills. When you’re slaloming down a mountain or doing a triple axel on the ice, there’s no room for thinking about a to-do list. And allowing themselves to be distracted by an email they just read or a conversation they just had, or even thinking about the mechanics of their technique, can mean the difference between being at the top or the bottom of the leaderboard.

OK, it’s probably obvious that athletes at that level need to develop that kind of intense focus if they are committed to excellence in their sport. But what about the rest of us? What if you’re pursuing excellence as a salesperson or a business executive or an accountant? What if you’re working towards excellence in your relationships? What if you just want to improve your golf game or cooking skills? Do non-Olympians really need to develop their ability to concentrate?

In short, yes.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence”, “while the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”

When we’re fully focused on what we’re doing, we learn new material or skills more quickly, we’re less likely to make mistakes, and we’re more efficient because our brain doesn’t have to keep switching back and forth between channels. We’re more likely to catch that obscure detail that allows us to stand out from the competition, to clinch the sale or impress a potential employer or avoid a costly expense. When we’re interacting with other people, we listen more closely, picking up on subtle cues and truly hearing what the other person is saying, enhancing and deepening connections.

Our ability to focus our attention impacts the quality of our performance and our experience in every single area of our life. So the next question is, can we improve our ability to concentrate? And if so, how?

Thankfully, concentration is a skill, and like any other skill, it’s within our power to improve. Refining our ability to focus in large part is a matter of eliminating or managing distractions. The strategies that are most effective depend on the type of distraction(s) we’re dealing with, which may be different in different situations or at different times.

Distractions fall into two categories: external (noise, clutter, undone laundry, email, social media, games and other apps, etc…) and internal (fatigue, mental chatter stemming from self-doubts and limiting beliefs, worry and anxiety, etc…). You may recognize one or two of these, or maybe all of them. Personally, I struggle with each and every one of these distractions at one time or another. In my next series of blog posts, we’ll explore each of these types of distractions, along with possible ways to eliminate them. It’s a topic worth spending some time on, since distraction control is another of Orlick’s pillars that support excellence.

The first step is to simply become aware of what is distracting you from being focused at those times and in those areas where you would like to improve your results. Over the next few days, try to notice how focused you are at different times throughout your day, like when you’re working on a project on the job, or spending time with family and friends, or participating in your favorite hobby, or taking action to move toward to your North Star.

  • When are you most focused?
  • When is your attention at its lowest?
  • What’s going on at each of those times?
  • What are you thinking about when you are most focused versus least focused?
  • What’s keeping you from being fully focused in situations that would benefit from your full attention?

After doing this exercise for a few days, take a look at what you discovered. Is there a pattern? Does one type of distraction stand out? Or like me, are you distracted by all or many of them at different times?

As we dive into figuring out how to reduce our distractions, remember the basic principles of habit change (because distractions are really nothing more than habitual behaviors). Start small. Don’t try to eliminate every distraction in your life at once. Pick one to target – maybe the one that is causing you the most problems and keeping you from making more progress toward your North Star dream, or maybe the one that seems like it will be the easiest to eliminate, to build your success muscle. Use the principles of kaizen and microresolutions to start whittling away at that distraction, and it won’t take long for you to begin reaping the benefits of your increased focus!

18 thoughts on “Focus: Being Fully Present in the Moment”

  1. I started doing a group meditation class and I’ve found it extremely helpful in terms of reducing stress and overall anxiety. I think everyone should make it a regular practice!

    1. Kumamonjeng, that’s great – just start by becoming more aware of the distractions in your life, and then start to eliminate them one by one – go at your own pace – every little improvement in focus will help!

    1. Devendra, you’re not alone – I think we all struggle with this, and strengthening our focus is one of the most powerful things we can do to get better results. Give it a try 🙂

  2. Evelyn Lo Foreman

    I am with you on this very practical post to remember not simply the importance of focus, but what our distractions are, and when distractions arise. I especially love your advice on focusing on elimiating just one habit at a time.

    1. You’re right, Chana – focusing is simply a skill that we can improve with time and practice, just like any other skill. Just keep trying different things, noticing what works for you and what doesn’t, and you’ll certainly improve!

  3. I am quite like you are like a squirrel . I focus best when I am practicing yoga or just when I take a break form thinking so much . This is the second article I have read today about being more mindful . The Universe is definitely trying to tell me something. I think I will try your exercise to see what disrupts my focus .

    1. Thanks Lucy 🙂 I think phones are probably one of the biggest distractors, if not the biggest, for most of us these days. One trick I’ve tried is to deliberately turn it off for a set period of time when I need to concentrate, and I leave it in my purse when I’m at a social event (not on the table where it’s easy to see texts come in).

  4. I think “now” is the only one time that is important for a person. Do you know- why? Because it is the only time that an individual has any power. Keeping focus on present is quite hard to keep up. Staying at present is not a magic pill that can resolve all your complications. But it can improve your concentration level and allow you to tune out possible distractions in your surrounding. To improve your social skills, creativity, and reduce your stress level- , you need to keep your focus on the present moment.

    1. Yes, you are so right Jae – we can’t change the past, and we can’t predict or control the future, but in the present moment we have control over our thoughts and actions. Focusing empowers us to be more intentional about our thoughts and actions, and align them with our values, priorities, and goals.

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