Michael Townsend Williams on how to restore focus and clarity
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
— Theodore Roosevelt
Often we think of focus as the ability to keep our attention on one thing. The real power of focus though comes when that one thing is aligned with a greater sense of direction and purpose. So when you focus on something, make sure it’s the right thing. You don’t want to climb a ladder only to find it’s leaning against the wrong building.
When Paul McCartney was asked about his relationship with his wife Linda he said, ‘I’m the wide-angle and she is the zoom.’ For me, ‘focus’ is both. The ability to zoom in on a particular task and also to take in the bigger picture at the same time. You could call this an informed focus, an intentional focus as opposed to an obsessional and narrow one. This negative side to focus — when we become obsessed with a video game, for example — is called hyper-focus. Let’s see if you can develop a more healthy focus.
What Do You Care About?
When designer Frank Chimero was asked, ‘How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?’ his answer was simple: ‘You do one thing at a time.’ On his 43 Folders blog, Merlin Mann, writer, speaker and star of my favourite podcast Back to Work, qualified this with what he called ‘Step Zero: First, care.’
If you find yourself frequently distracted, maybe there’s a good reason. Maybe you’re not doing what you really want. So before you focus on anything ask yourself: Do I even care about this?
One way of finding out how much you do care is to ask yourself, ‘What would I stop focusing on to do this?’ Maybe to focus more you need to ‘unfocus’ and let other things go. What would be on your ‘not to do’ list?
As Mann says: ‘Own your distractions, resist fiddly half-measures, and never for a minute allow yourself to believe that productivity systems, space pens, or a writing app that plays new age music while you stare at a blank page in full-screen mode can ever teach you anything about how to care. That’s all on you. So, first: care. Then, as you’ll happily and unavoidably discover, all that “focus” business has a peculiar way of taking care of itself.’
Let’s be honest though. Most of the time our minds are all over the place. And long ago, yogis knew all about that.
A Yogi State of Mind
The word yoga refers to both the goal (self-realisation) and the means of getting there (the practices). According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which is one of the key ancient texts, the goal of yoga is ‘the stilling of the mind’: Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. On the way there he refers to the five states of the mind. Thousands of years later, I think we can still relate to them.
1. Scattered (kshipta) — You feel disturbed, restless and troubled. Your mind wanders constantly. This is the most uncomfortable state to be in.
2. Dull (mudha) — You feel dull, heavy, depressed and forgetful. You want to do nothing and feel really lazy.
3. Distracted (vikshipta) — You can only concentrate for short periods of time. This is the monkey mind or noisy mind. This is where we spend the most time.
4. Focused (ekagrata) — Your mind is one-pointed, focused, concentrated. When the mind is in this state, internal and external activities are simply no longer a distraction. The mind is fully present in the moment.
5. Mastered (nirodhah) — You have mastered your mind and found inner stillness.
All the advice in my book Do Breathe is geared to moving you out of the first three states into the more focused and harmonious ones with the tools you need to navigate that journey.
How Meditation Improves Focus
One of the fundamental exercises for improving your focus is meditation. World-renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says there are two key scientific benefits to meditation practice:
1. It strengthens the brain’s ability to move from one focus of attention to another
2. It improves the brain’s ability to resist distractions
These are essential aspects of self-control and becoming more focused. At the end of this extract is a simple breathing exercise that leads you into this more focused meditative state.
‘If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is,’ Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. ‘If you try to calm it, it only makes things worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things — that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practise it.’
Personally I found a symbiotic relationship between being more organised and focused in my everyday life and my meditation practice. As I meditated more my life became more organised, which in turn helped my meditation.
Film director Martin Scorsese has this to say about his meditation experience: ‘For the last few years, I’ve been practising meditation. It’s difficult to describe the effect it has had on my life. I can only mention maybe a few words: calm, clarity, a balance, and — at times — a recognition. It’s made a difference.’
Whether you like the idea of meditation or not, it certainly makes sense if you want to find focus and get stuff done.
Breathing Exercise: Counting your breaths
Most people struggle with meditation. They either try too hard or are disheartened by the scattered nature of their minds. This simple breathing exercise can help bring you into a meditative state more easily. At first you might find it difficult to stay with the numbers and not wander off. If you do, just guess where you last were and keep going. You are training your mind to focus. See if you can get closer to completing the exercise each time until you master it.
Find somewhere relatively quiet where you won’t be disturbed for fifteen minutes. Sit with your back straight and your eyes closed.
There are four phases to this exercise:
Count silently to yourself both your exhalations and inhalations starting from 50: 50 as you exhale, 49 as you inhale, 48 as you exhale, 47 as you inhale … all the way to 20.
Continue to count silently but only count the exhalations and then observe the inhalations without counting: 20 as you exhale, observe as you inhale, 19 as you exhale, observe as you inhale … all the way to zero.
Just follow your exhalations and inhalations for a few minutes mindfully.
Just sit with your breath without any conscious effort. Just be. This is meditation.
For more on breathing yourself better, click here for tips and videos from Michael Townsend Williams in collaboration with Lululemon.