When I was thirteen years old my Dad had a heart attack in front of me. I was in the living room watching TV with my mother. Dad was across from us in his easy chair reading a history book.
I remember going to the kitchen to get something to drink and my mother screamed, “Johnny, come quickly! Daddy’s not feeling well.” The urgency in her voice frightened me. I ran to the living room and saw my father’s perspired face. “I think it’s my heart,” he said.
We helped Dad lie down on the couch, and my mother ran to the phone to call for help. “Stay with Daddy,” she yelled back to me. I sat beside my father on the couch, as he labored to breathe. I was scared but glad to be there, reassuring him as best I could.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” -Eckhart Tolle
Thankfully, the paramedics arrived quickly and set to work on my Dad. He was conscious and breathing, but clearly in discomfort. As they transferred him to a gurney and prepared to wheel him outside into the ambulance, he looked up at me. “Keep a stiff upper lip, Johnny,” he said to me.
A blessing for the whole day
My father survived his heart attack and embarked on a slow convalescence. He learned that his driven nature and impatience reflected a Type-A personality. He was taught how to manage his hard-charging nature, by slowing his breathing and putting things into perspective. The most beneficial health practice he adopted, to strengthen his heart and manage his Type-A qualities, was long walks.
In the mornings he would slip on his walking shoes and enjoy a long stroll through our neighborhood. Because we lived in the hills of Los Gatos, California, the homes around us were spread out among winding and often steep roadways. I used to worry that maybe the inclines my Dad tackled were too much, but somehow he managed.
“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” -Henry David Thoreau
I asked my Dad once if he got bored on those long walks, and he replied, “Not at all, Johnny. The walks help me forget about work and worries. I just relax and focus on the fresh air, exercise, and peacefulness.”
I’m sure it was hard for my Dad in the beginning. He always had things to do, and long walks probably felt like annoying interruptions to his productivity. But he stuck to the walks, lost a lot of weight, got fit, and grew to look forward to his morning jaunts. All of which improved his health and mental focus at work.
“Walking takes longer…than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed.” -Edward Abbey, “Walking”
It would take me many years before I grew to appreciate the valuable lesson I learned from my Dad’s daily walks. Namely, that if you want to stay healthy and effective in your life, you must learn how to focus. How to set aside all the urgency and noise in order to accomplish the things that matter most.
Trouble with deciding
Best selling author James Clear has written that focus is all about saying yes to one option and no to all the others. By saying no to all the other options, you open the door to optimizing productivity.
The challenge comes down to deciding what’s most worthy of your focus. James Clear has written:
“Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.”
A lot of people fall under the false notion that they can multitask in order to get more done. This might be true of activities that are cognitively not demanding, like watching TV while unloading the dishwasher. This type of activity is shallow work. However, if your goal is to focus on deep work, like doing your taxes, then it’s much harder to multitask. What’s nearly impossible, according to James Clear, is to concentrate on two tasks at once. Multitasking is inefficient for deep focus and concentration.
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love- is the sum of what you focus on.” -Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Ever notice how deadlines tend to focus your energy and efforts? It’s because urgency forces you to abandon unimportant, shallow work in order to focus deeply on the work you need to get done. But how do we improve our focus when there are no deadlines? How do we achieve the important things in our lives without getting distracted by the shallow stuff? Is there a super simple strategy for greater focus?
It turns out, Grammy Award-winning music superstar Tim McGraw has an answer for us.
Grit and grace
I’ve been a fan of Tim McGraw for a few years now. Beyond his inspirational music, his personal transformation motivated me to improve my own health and life. Like a lot of big stars, McGraw was not immune to the late nights, parties and drinking. The problem was that such a lifestyle is not conducive to a strong family life, not to mention one’s personal health. So McGraw made some big changes.
He quit drinking cold turkey. He dedicated himself to exercising, every day. He changed his diet, hired a personal trainer, and embraced an exercise regimen known as functional fitness.
Recently, McGraw published an excellent book titled: “Grit & Grace: Train The Mind, Train The Body, Own Your Life.” Only a decade ago McGraw was struggling with his health, and his book details the path he followed to get in the best shape of his life. The book offers guidance and inspiration for people who want to improve themselves physically and mentally.
There are many great takeaways in McGraw’s book, but one in particular resonated with me. It had to do with focus, and although it seems super simple, it’s profoundly useful.
McGraw discusses the endless chatter in our minds that often derails us from working out or even going on a simple walk. He notes that our brains want to conserve energy and avoid exertion. So our brains focus on anything but the workout or exertion. In fact, our brains trick us into thinking that all these distractions are “super compelling.” As McGraw writes:
“Look left-the TV’s reporting breaking news! Look right- that person is way fitter than you! Look down- I bet work has e-mailed you and they need an answer now! There’s nothing that will tempt you to change the channel on what you’re doing- or hit pause entirely- like asking your body to perform harder than normal.”
So how do we sharpen our focus? McGraw has a favorite saying: “I go where I look.” Let’s face it, we live in a day and age of endless distractions. TV, social media, e-mails and more all vie for our attention. McGraw writes:
“If you look down and get caught in distraction or comparison or endless bad news, that’s where you go- down and stuck. If you check your phone between sets or take sly selfies at the weight rack, it doesn’t just disrupt your personal effort, it sabotages any chance of achieving a sense of flow, it disconnects you from your body, and if you’re exercising in a gym, it also drags down everyone else in the room.”
We go where we look.
It’s such a simple truth. Just five words, but its wisdom holds the key to achieving greater focus. According to McGraw, we need to look ourselves in the eye, accept where we’re starting from today, push aside all the noise and negative self-talk, and go where we’re looking.
Maybe you’re looking at improving your health and looks? Perhaps you’re looking at starting up your own company?
Start paying close attention to where you’re looking. Is it the TV news, or that book you’ve always wanted to write? Are you looking at endless cat videos on YouTube, or tackling the “work out of the day” at your Crossfit gym?
For my father, his transformation began with morning walks. He simply looked at the road in front of him and walked his way back to good health.
In his book, Tim McGraw encourages us to “Look up at the horizon. See an imaginary finish line farther out than you ordinarily might.” Then McGraw adds, “If something’s worth doing and spending your precious time on, you might as well get the most out of it.”
Learn to embrace this super simple strategy for greater focus. Repeat the mantra, “I Go Where I Look,” to yourself. Doing so will remind you to focus on the prize, resist shallow distractions, and become the amazing person you were meant to be.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint and write about life. Get my free, weekly newsletter here.