The One Skill You Need to Win in The Age of Busyness
We are living in a novel time. Take a look around: Everyone is multitasking (or at least trying to). In the first time ever, we are able to be plugged in whenever we want. With no blueprint on how to manage oneself in the technology age, we fill in every blank space of our lives with something. Anything. The art of focus has been lost in everyday life.
The result? Many of us are busy, but few are focused.
But also for many of us, the gift of full focus has also been experienced. Bring yourself back to remember such a moment. Maybe it was a long run, a stretch of deep work absent of interruption, or simply slowing down to enjoy dinner with your loved one. The decision to live a life of focus is to have more of these moments and less of the unproductive, brain-draining, soul-sucking busy ones.
What we are battling here is not a new challenge. Ancient traditions and modern struggles all point to one thing: Managing the temptation of distraction.
I’m not here to fix anybody or prescribe a rigid, unrealistic plan to combat busyness in order to live a life of focus. Instead, I’m offering a cultural concept that leverages focus that you can take and make your own.
Zanshin is a word and cultural concept practiced throughout Japanese martial arts that is defined as “the mind with no remainder.” Meaning, the mind is in full focus and calmly alert on the task at hand.
In practice, Zanshin is a accessible discipline that allows us to do one thing at a time instead of falling victim to a reactionary existence that often pulls us in 1,000 directions all at once.
Secondly, Zanshin influences us to place the value of our efforts on the process rather than the outcome. Kenneth Kushner, author of One Arrow, One Life, highlights the mastery of legendary archer Awa Kendo. Contrary to Western ideals, Kendo had little interest in hitting the bulls eye. Instead, his goal was to bring full focus into the process — where he placed his feet, how he held the bow, the cadence of his breath — and hitting the bulls eye was simply a by-product. He used Zanshin to set himself up for the best possible result.
In life, we are vulnerable to put all our attention on the outcome and invest little energy into the process. The irony in this positioning is that we have more agency in the process than we do in the outcome. Like Kendo, we too can bring Zanshin into our everyday lives in order to set ourselves up for the best possible result. Bringing full focus into each activity pulls our worry away from the target and hones our attention to what we can control. Then, hitting the bulls eye will simply be a by-product.
Focus as a way of life will by default, lower our overall accomplished tasks that is accompanied by busyness. But in the few tasks we commit ourselves to, the effectiveness will go way up. Each thing we do will receive all of our attention which might seem elementary but has turned into an art from in our age of distraction.
We will slip up and fall back to busyness. This is human. But adopting focus as a way of life is not about perfection. Instead, it’s about honoring the endless invitation to bring all of ourselves back to the present when we’ve noticed that our steps have gone off track.
To leverage Zanshin and adopt focus as a way of life:
- As a moment to moment exercise, ask yourself, “What am I doing right now?” This simple question has the potency to reveal how scattered we can be at any one moment. If you find yourself attempting too many things at once, respectfully bring yourself to focus on one thing.
- Develop a flow trigger with clear daily goals. Flow is the state of complete immersion in an activity. This experience feels like the world has disappeared and time has melted away. Author Steven Kotler says flow follows focus. By developing clear daily goals you trigger flow. Kotler found in his research that “executives in who live high-flow lives are about 500 % more productive than those who don’t”
- Edit life on a weekly basis. An editor is ruthless in the aim to make every word count. The editor’s job is to eliminate the trivial, irrelevant and insignificant so that the body of work is clear, focused and readable. By doing a weekly edit on our lives, we can too, eliminate the nonessential so that our life’s work is clear, focused and readable. Keep in mind also that sometimes slashing will not be needed. The best surgeons are not the ones who make the most incisions.