Stop Obsessing About Focus: Here’s What Your Mind Really Needs
The real meaning of mindfulness, and how to become less reactive, more creative, and less distracted
I’ve been meditating for years, and yet for most of that time, all my efforts felt fruitless.
I felt frustrated because I could never focus on my breath for more than a few seconds, let alone stop my thoughts completely — which, according to so many instructors and articles, was the goal of meditation.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I was doing it all wrong.
What Mindfulness Really Means
Buddhist meditation teacher and neuroscientist John Yates Ph.D., aka Culadasa, explains in his book The Mind Illuminated that our conscious mind has two ways of knowing: attention and awareness.
What’s the difference between attention and awareness?
“Whenever we focus our attention on something, it dominates our conscious experience. At the same time, however, we can be more generally aware of things in the background. For example, right now your attention is focused on what you’re reading. At the same time you’re also aware of other sights, sounds, smells, and sensations in the periphery.” — Culadasa
At any given moment, our conscious mind distributes its capacity between these two processes. Therefore, the stronger our focus, the weaker our awareness, and vice-versa.
For example, if you zoom in from simply reading these words to closely examining the size, color, and pattern of the pixels on your screen, your awareness of your surroundings will likely decrease. On the other hand, if you consciously expand your awareness to include more elements (such as the song you’re listening to, the pressure of your legs on the chair, or the tension you feel on your chest from something that’s worrying you), then you won’t be paying so much attention to the words in this article anymore.
However, according to certain meditation traditions, there is a way to increase awareness and attention simultaneously without having to sacrifice one for the other. This is done by training the full capacity of the conscious mind instead of constantly redistributing resources.
That optimal balance between attention and awareness is called mindfulness.
Focus Is Only Half the Equation
Imagine that you’re carrying a full teacup across a busy coffee place.
In order not to spill its hot liquid contents, you need to pay close attention to the cup and the way your hand holds it. However, if you disregard the movements around you, someone might walk into you and then your concentration efforts will be useless. Without peripheral awareness to support your attention, it’s likely that you’ll spill the tea anyway.
The more I noticed the need to combine attention and awareness in my meditation practice, the more I realized how necessary this is in other areas of my daily life, such as creativity, ability to prevent distractions, relationships, and wellbeing.
In the rest of this article, I will give you practical examples of what I mean, and I will explain how you can use mindfulness to enrich your life, your productivity, and your emotional stability.
Avoiding Distractions and Doing Work You Love
Nowadays, productivity and personal development niches seem to place a disproportionate amount of importance on our ability to focus.
As a freelance writer and entrepreneur, I thought that the key to success was to “get in the flow” every day, to choose the most focus-inducing and distraction-free writing app on the market, or to zero in on my goals and never let go until I achieve them.
So for a long time, I tried to force my distractions away in order to stay focused.
Of course, this didn’t work.
You’re probably heard of Dostoyevsky’s claim that trying not to think about a polar bear will only make you think about it more often than ever.
More recently, social psychologist Daniel Wegner took this even further. He conducted a study where a group of people were told not to think of a polar bear for five minutes. Not only did they think about it on average once per minute, but later, when told to intentionally conjure its image, they did so more often than a group who hadn’t previously been told to suppress it.
In other words, trying to suppress distractions from your awareness can actually damage your focus and make you more distracted.
So how can we effectively deal with distractions?
Although it may sound counterintuitive, an effective alternative to suppressing distractions is to purposefully remain aware of them, so that you can spot them on time and keep them from disrupting your focus.
To do this, choose a task that you want to focus on for a specific amount of time, such as writing, mowing the lawn, or doing your taxes.
Then, before you begin, commit to focus your attention on your chosen activity, but at the same time keep your awareness open to potentially distracting elements.
Let’s say you set a timer for one hour and focus on writing an article.
Your attention is directed at the words you’re writing and the thought processes that originate the necessary ideas, sentences, and arguments.
However, as you do that, try to remain aware of anything that might trigger a distraction.
Usually, it all starts with an emotion.
For example, as you struggle with writing a difficult sentence, you might feel frustrated or bored, which might turn into an urge to open a new tab on your browser, and suddenly you end up scrolling through Facebook, all in a matter of seconds.
Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, explains that “procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem”. In a 2013 study, Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois describe procrastination as being a method of short-term mood repair. In other words, we procrastinate as a quick way to escape unpleasant emotions, such as boredom or anger.
Therefore, in order to avoid the lure of distractions, you need to be aware of your emotional triggers.
Distractions might also originate in external stimuli (the smell of food makes you want to eat), or even diverging into secondary thoughts that are related to your current task (a word you don’t know, which leads you into a Google search rabbit hole).
These triggers make you forget your task, and then divert your attention to something else — therefore creating a distraction.
Your aim is to keep your awareness open to identify these processes as they happen. At first, you might only notice them after they’ve already happened. But as your mental skills develop, you will gradually catch yourself earlier and earlier. When you spot the beginning of a distraction, gently but diligently redirect your attention to your chosen task.
We can also use awareness to optimize our work by adapting it to our current circumstances or natural rhythms.
For example, after a long time of observing my energy level patterns at work and asking myself questions like “why do I feel so tired?” or “when was the last time I felt like this?”, I came to adapt my schedule to my circadian rhythm and my menstrual cycle. That has been much more effective than simply trying to push through or using social media binges as a way to compensate for burnout.
Focus is important, but its effectiveness is limited on its own.
Everything we do is much more complex than the task we’re currently focused on: each of our actions is always inserted within a context and environment, and our choices are constantly influenced by our thoughts, our sensations, and our emotions. Therefore, productivity is not a matter of control: instead, it’s a matter of awareness, and the possibilities we open once we can see wider and further.
Improving the Quality of Your Conversations
Another area of my life that changed with my discovery of mindfulness was my relationships with others.
I realized that the reason I was getting triggered by other people’s words and behaviors so easily was because my perception scope was way too narrow.
What do I mean by this?
Next time you’re listening to someone, direct your attention towards their words and the meaning behind them.
While you do that, let your awareness explore everything that’s going on in the background.
You might be surprised when you find yourself mind-wandering into related thoughts (“Oh, that also happened to me!”), sudden emotions such as anger or deep connection, or judgments about the speaker. Sounds familiar? It happens to me all the time!
Whenever you notice those thoughts and feelings, simply keep them in your awareness — but don’t let them steal your attention. This will keep you from telling yourself stories about what’s happening (such as “this person clearly dislikes me”) and instead develop in you the qualities of curiosity and attention that make for a great listener.
Because conversations are obviously two-sided, you will eventually want to speak, too.
When this happens, first become aware of what is making you want to speak. What is your intention? Do you just want to sound smart? Do you want to help that person with your advice, or simply introduce a new topic to enrich the conversation?
For example, when I started becoming aware of my intentions when speaking to someone, I started noticing that I have a tendency to try to coach people whenever they talk to me about their problems (professional hazard!). As soon as I realized that, I was able to change this behavior and focus more on empathizing, sharing my thoughts and feelings, or simply listening and trying to understand with genuine curiosity.
By being aware of your intention, you will have more control over the things you say: they will be a reflection of your true character, instead of just impulsive reactions to heated emotions or habitual impulses that might direct your relationships in unwanted directions.
Something as simple as a conversation is actually an infinitely complex exchange of information. Therefore, remain aware of as many aspects as possible, such as body language, intruding thoughts, or what you perceive the other person might be feeling but never forgetting that your attention should be filled with a genuine curiosity to listen and the willingness to share authentically.
Explore Your Mind and Increase Your Creativity
Journaling has always been one of my favorite ways to process my thoughts and brainstorm problems and ideas.
However, especially as a writer, I often find myself frustrated with my journaling practice because I get easily stuck in linear, diary-like entries that end up looking pretty much the same every day.
When I write traditional, longhand text, what happens is that I adopt a narrow scope of attention where my focus jumps from one idea to the next and keeps placing word after word in the format of sentences.
Don’t get me wrong, this can be very useful. For example, I love journaling tools such as Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, which consists of “three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning”, and it’s a great way to explore specific ideas and get the brain running.
However, I feel that in order to unlock my most creative ideas and access the bigger picture of my current state of mind, I need something a bit broader.
Therefore, recently I started incorporating more non-linearity in my journaling practice, especially in the form of mind-maps.
Here is how I do it:
I place an initial idea or concept in the middle of the page. This will serve as a prompt for my exploration. I use this both for specific projects I’m working on as well as for analyzing my state of mind or ideas at any determined moment in time.
Then, focusing on that prompt, I expand my awareness to explore all the related ideas on my mind.
When I find an idea that I want to exploit, I draw a branch coming off of the main prompt and I write down the new idea. Then, I let myself dive deep into it for as long as I like. In other words, I move it from my awareness and into the scope of my focused attention.
Once I feel that I’ve explored it enough, I zoom out again and scan the bigger map of my thoughts to find the next relevant idea.
In her book A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley calls these two different ways of approaching a problem “focused thinking” and “diffuse thinking.” She claims that both of them are crucial for analytical and creative thinking, and that switching between the two modes is a great way to get unstuck when you’re facing a difficult problem.
The point of this exercise is to develop brain agility by intentionally switching between the two modes of conscious thinking. In other words, we’re using our awareness as a broad light-torch that shows us the terrain that we can explore, and then using our attention as a magnifying glass that allows us to zero in on areas of interest.
Don’t Let Your Thoughts Control You: Take Ownership of Your Mind
Despite today’s obsession with the wondrous benefits of focus — whether it’s for getting things done, losing weight, getting rich, or whatever else — the truth is that focus without awareness can be a trap.
If we lose awareness of the bigger picture, we are more prone to distractions, to cognitive bias, as well as to becoming reactive, short-tempered, and less creative.
The solution? Practice mindfulness as a way to perfect the relationship between both attention and awareness. You can do this through meditation, but the truth is that every waking moment is an opportunity to train your brain and become mentally stronger and more resilient, and as a consequence, also a kinder person.
Most Buddhist traditions use mindfulness as a key practice to prepare the mind to receive the insights that lead to Enlightenment. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get there by simply following the instructions in this article, but the principles are the same.
The smallest changes can make the biggest difference if applied with dedication and commitment, and I hope that what you’ve read will be as useful for you as it has been for me.