A stranger fooled me 20 years ago.
I was eight years old, walking down a Florida sidewalk on a clear, sunny day. Bingo! I saw a quarter on the ground. I reached down to pick it up, imagining the candy I could buy with it (I was eight), but my fingers were rendered ineffective by a gob of clear glue securing the quarter to the sidewalk.
Cue George Michael’s “sad walk.”
Similar to a coin glued to the sidewalk, focusing looks attainable – all you have to do is pick one thing and concentrate on it. But it’s not often easy to focus when the time comes. We’re quick to blame distractions for ruining our focus, but that’s kind of like blaming ice cream for eating it.
Have you played the card game “war?” When a distraction threatens to pull you away from your current task, it’s a game of war. The strongest desire wins (unless you override it with willpower). Most people won’t stop having sex to check their email. No, don’t tell me that one story, I said most. So instead of blaming distractions, let’s explore the possibility that maybe the problem is inside us.
The REAL Reason People Struggle To Focus In The Moment
If you can’t focus in the moment, I’d bet it’s because you’re out of focus somewhere else. There are three focus levels in life that must be aligned in order for you to focus effectively in the present moment. When they are aligned, you achieve clarity of mind, which is one of the steps of focusing your mind instantly. Clarity of mind is to distractions as kryptonite is to Superman.(tweet this)
In a Deep Existence poll, 27 of 43 respondents (63%) said that internal distractions (tangent thoughts, too many ideas, etc.) are the hardest part of focusing. This suggests that most people struggle more with internal clarity of mind than with external distractions (only 14% said external distractions were the hardest aspect of focusing).
The three focus levels are (also see the graphic at the top of this post for examples):
- Your life’s focus: What do you want out of your life?
- Your intermediate focus: What are you focused on accomplishing in the coming days, weeks, and months? What habit(s) are you developing?
- Your immediate focus: What are you focused on this very second?
How Focusing Is Like Money Glued To The Sidewalk
If focusing is a coin on the ground, the transparent glue that prevents you from picking up the coin is formed by your ill-defined higher focus levels. Being off in just one area muffs the whole operation. It’s just like the coin glue trick, as you think you see an incentive, but when you go to pick it up (try to focus), the appeal drops immediately. Without well-defined life values and intermediate goals, you’ll lack the motivation to follow through. I don’t believe getting motivated is the best way to do things when you don’t feel like it, but this is different – this affects your baseline level of motivation to focus on worthy things.
Here’s how aligned focus levels improve your ability to focus…
The incentive starts with your life goals and values, trickles down in the form of an intermediate goal, and finally hits you in the present moment, and that’s when you “get it.” That’s when the full weight of the incentive hits you. Your reward for focusing is that you’re doing something connected to what you care about (life values), something you’ve chosen for the near-future as being most important (intermediate goal), and because of this, you’ll know you’re making maximum progress in life when you focus on it. This is a fulfilling and significant reward for focusing. But what if something is missing?
Example: You want to focus on writing for 20 minutes.
- If your life values are muddled and writing hasn’t been established as a key part of your life, where’s the incentive for you to write? I know it’s not the money (writer’s joke! High five! Anyone?). The reward to write is small when it isn’t something you see as a big part of your life down the road. Life values determine where we want to invest our time. If you don’t know or haven’t decided that writing is a life value, this makes you less interested to focus on it.
- If you’re missing intermediate goals, you’ll question if writing is really the best way to spend these 20 minutes. Even if writing is an iron-clad life value, you can still have doubts about what’s best right now or this week. What about the other 15 ideas you have? If writing isn’t important enough for you to single out as a predetermined focal point for the near future, it’s thrown into the mix with all other possible activities, including such irresistible temptations as watching cat videos on youtube. Your incentive to focus is greatly decreased in this scenario because you haven’t decided that writing is important to to you right now (even if it needs to be).
When you don’t have a great reason to focus, you won’t. (tweet this) Focusing is mental labor, and we don’t like to work for nothing.
When a task is aligned at all levels (life, intermediate, right now), those pestering “should I really be doing this right now?” doubts are muffled. You have already decided how it fits into your life and your plans, and the time to do it is now. There are no further questions.
Some people recommend visualizing your end goal. Visions, however, are not enough; they lack crucial intermediate goals such as: I’m choosing to focus on writing 300+ words a day in the coming days/weeks/months. You can have a long term vision of writing seven published books in your lifetime, but if you’re not convinced that this is the time to start, you might as well forget the vision until you’re ready.
Intermediate goals connect your life values to the present moment. (tweet this)
How Failure At Each Focus Level Impacts Your Present Moment Focusing Ability
Focusing (as a verb) only happens in the present moment, and that’s why this form of the word gets the most attention. But if you’re not focused in the “inactive” areas of life, then your present moment focusing will suffer greatly. Do any of the following scenarios sound like you? If so, getting focused in that area will improve your daily focusing. (We’ll also discuss how to deal with daily focusing struggles despite having all focus levels aligned.)
If you find that you lack focus in one or more of these levels, no problem. Each one contains a 5 minute fix to get you back on track quickly. Fine-tuning your focus doesn’t take much time, it only takes intention.
The three levels of focus are lenses for life. If they are out of alignment, life gets blurry and confusing. When they are aligned, where to spend your time becomes clear, decisions become easier, you can focus better, and
nothing bad will ever happen to you again you’re more productive.
Level One Failure: What happens when you don’t know what you want in life?
No Life Focus = The Cascading Waterfall Of Uncertainty
In this example, the person has no life focal points. This “top-level uncertainty” flows down like a waterfall and impacts every area of life. It’s no good.
Life focal points: undefined
The impact on intermediate focus: Without well-defined life focal points, you will frequently doubt your near-term focus choice, and it will be VERY difficult to choose one in the first place. You’ll wonder if your near-term goals are really the best ones for you right now because you haven’t thought through your life’s purpose. This causes “flip-flopping” between near-term focal points, and you’ll pivot around circumstances and whims instead of deciding from the clarity of knowing what you want in life.
The impact on present moment focus: With no life focus, which causes a weak-at-best intermediate focus, you’ll “go with the flow” in the present moment. You’ll react more than create. Life values are the anchor of life – they tell you who you are and what you want to do. If you frequently find yourself quitting projects early because you’re not sure it was a good idea in the first place, then you need to spend more time thinking about your life’s focus.
Possible signs that you need life focus…
- You only forge your own path when you’re “inspired” (a myth like the big creativity lie). This is essentially waiting for the world to tell you what to do with your life. Don’t wait for inspiration to come to your rescue; it’s already within you.
- You have more bad habits than good ones and waste a lot of time. If you’re not in control of your brain, intentionally guiding it, it will dominate you – your brain is either a powerful ally or a potent enemy. Left to it’s own devices, your brain will cause you to seek short-term pleasures and put you in a prime position for addiction.
- You hate your job or situation but don’t do anything about it (because you don’t know what else to do).
- You have “so many ideas,” but take very little action.
5 Minute Fix: Start writing. Write. Write. And then write. Write without judgment. Dump your mind onto paper. Be very intentional about writing down your frustrations in life (frustration can reveal what’s important to you that you’re not getting), what you really want to have, how you want things to be, and write about things that are important to you or interest you. From this mess of scatterbrained thoughts, certain words and concepts with jump out at you. Latch on to these and write them down on another piece of paper to form your list of life values.
There isn’t a science to this process – you’re simply deciding how you want to spend your limited time on Earth. It doesn’t matter what has happened in your life up until now, because the present moment is neutral. You’re here right now. What direction will you head next? This could take more than 5 minutes, depending on how fast you think and write. If it takes longer, it’s time well-spent. Decide to spend 5 minutes on it and take it from there. Easy.
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. (tweet this epic Gandalf quote)
Level Two Failure: What happens when you don’t define your intermediate focal points?
No Intermediate Focus = The Multi-tasking Maniac
In this example, the person has clear life focal points, but has not chosen intermediate focal points. This creates problems with transfering life goals and values into daily life.
Life focal points: be fit, write frequently, eat healthy, love everyone, learn to tango, travel the world
Intermediate focus: undefined
Impact on present moment focus: If you have no intermediate focus, you will probably rely on getting motivated to do things (and getting motivated doesn’t work). When there’s nothing on the calendar and no intermediate life plans, you’re going to do what you feel like doing, when you feel like doing it. You’ll look to your life values for direction, but they’re too vague for your mind to easily convert into daily action. Again, intermediate goals are what connect your life values to the present moment.
Life values without intermediate goals are a problem for two reasons. First, they aren’t directly actionable. If your life value is to eat healthy, you can’t physically “eat healthy,” you can only eat an apple as a snack or eat salad for dinner. If your life goal is to write, you can’t just write – you have to write about something. Second, it is excruciatingly difficult to choose between 10 vague life goals in the moment. You’ll want to tango, travel the world, write, exercise, and eat well all at once. So on top of deciding between 10 desires, you have to convert them into something actionable (supporting your family is the value, browsing jobs online is the related action). It’s too much information for the brain to handle at once, and it will make your brain embrace distractions like a lost friend.
We just mentioned distractions, but what happens when you try to be productive without having intermediate goals? That’s simple. Urgent, but relatively unimportant tasks such as email or doing laundry will take up all of your time, because unlike your 10 vague life goals, they are “sure bets.” In a strange twist, it will feel like a waste of time to try to figure out your life in the moment, so you’ll choose less important tasks.
Without an intermediate plan, when you can take action related to a life value, you’ll do things like exercise for a week while you’re motivated, and then decide to travel, which throws off your exercise regimen and ruins your momentum. People face more resistance to exercise while traveling because it’s less convenient. This is why an intermediate commitment is important. When I took a two day trip recently, it had no effect on my intermediate goals that require daily action. I still read and wrote each day. I still exercised. It was because my life is aligned at all levels and my intermediate goals are unflinching.
It kills me that some people know what they want in life, but don’t set mid-range goals to bring themselves closer. You’ve got the foundation, so build! If you feel unconfident, it doesn’t matter. Confidence comes after taking action, rarely before it. You can even “cheat” by using confident body language to change your brain.
Not choosing a near-term focus is like saying, “we’ll just see what happens, bro” your entire life. (tweet this, bro)
The lack of a near-term focus makes your mind a crowded place full of vague life desires and present moment distractions. You’ll have too many ideas because all of your life goals will be on your shoulders to pursue in the near term. Don’t let this happen!
Possible signs that you need intermediate focus…
- You rely on motivation to get yourself to work towards life goals.
- There is a lot of inconsistent and insignificant “dabbling” in the actions related to your life values.
- You don’t schedule or plan much of your life (yes, you can plan and still be spontaneous).
- You know the things you want in life, but shift your focal point frequently between them (usually based on what appeals to you at the moment).
- Biggest indicator: If you don’t have a your intermediate focal points written down, you probably don’t have any at all.
5 Minute Fix: Choose a select few intermediate focal points related to your life values and prioritize them over everything else. This doesn’t mean you won’t get laundry done, it only means that you will definitely get these done. If you’ve already got your life values and goals sorted out, then this is the easy part. What intermediate goals would you like to pursue? Which ones get you the most excited right now? Which ones are most plausible right now? Barrage yourself with these questions and pick about three intermediate focal points (ideally, you would then convert these into “Mini Habits,” which is the topic of my book slated for a December release).
Choosing 2-3 intermediate focal points gives you distinct targets to aim for (that are based on your top desires in life) in the coming days, weeks, and months. The key to choosing comes down to how important they are to you and how conducive your situation is to pursuing each one. Right now, my situation and desires have made reading, writing, and exercise my intermediate focal points. Weekly exercise (3x) is already a habit for me, and reading and writing are developing habits (33 straight days of reading/writing as of this post). Once these are solid habits, I’m going to switch my focus to something else, because you don’t need to focus on things you already do out of habit. Do this step and focusing gets a whole lot easier. You no longer have to decide what to do each moment when you make the decision beforehand.
Saruman: Against the power of Mordor there can be no victory. (This quote isn’t relevant, but I like The Lord Of The Rings. Those who make fun of me will be sent to Mordor for timeout.)
Level Three Failure: What happens if your focus skill is weak?
A Weak Present Moment Focus Skill = A Bird Without Wings
In this example, you have clear life and intermediate focal points, but still can’t focus. This creates frustration, because you see the path, but can’t walk it.
Life focal points: be fit, write frequently, eat healthy, love everyone, learn to tango, travel the world
Intermediate focus: write 300+ words every day, read 10 pages every day, exercise 3x a week
Present moment focus (with a weak focus skill): If you struggle with present moment focus despite being focused in the “inactive areas,” you likely have a habit of indecisiveness. People who can focus well know how to make firm decisions and “just do it.” If you can decide to do something, but aren’t motivated or able to force yourself to do it, then you need to stop going for motivation and start using willpower correctly.
It’s frustrating to look back on a day and think about what you could have done with your time (I’ve been there). It can happen even if your life is perfectly aligned (but is far less likely).
The focus skill is largely rooted in willpower – do you have enough willpower to you force yourself to concentrate on just one thing? We’re talking about a skill here, and there is only one way to directly improve a skill permanently (and it is not a 5 minute fix). But after the long term fix, we’ll cover the 5 minute fix to help you get from here to there.
Long Term Fix: Practice. Professor Roy Baumeister found in 1999 that those who he asked to try to improve their posture showed a significant improvement in self control after two weeks over another group that had not practiced. Those who practice willpower (such as resisting distractions and forcing yourself to focus) will strengthen their willpower over time. And if your willpower practice is in focusing, you will also improve focus-specific skills like making quick, firm decisions, catching distracting thoughts, etc. As for the best way to practice, I’m writing a book about that (look for “Mini Habits” this December – sign up here to stay updated).
5 Minute Fix: There are some great tricks to help you overcome weak willpower and build it up. The first one is to use “stupid small” steps to preserve your willpower. If you’re new to Deep Existence, “stupid small” steps are steps so small that they sound stupid (i.e. “I’m going to do one push-up.”). The second trick is increasing your interest (aligning your life does this). People who can’t pay attention in school can often pay attention to video games because the latter is of interest. Here’s a list of ideas to enhance your interest.
How can you make intermediate focal points more fun and interesting?
- Align your life’s focus levels (what this article is about) – this is the first, most important step for increasing your interest.
- Reward yourself – allow yourself to watch TV for an hour if you exercise for 20 minutes.
- Use imagination – you’re on a spaceship, and a giant evil penguin is going to blow up the ship unless you write 500 words right now. Imagination is too powerful a tool to leave behind in childhood.
- Set stakes- bet a friend that you can read 30 pages of a book in 5 minutes and still understand it.
- Make it a game – my friend and I used to have pull-up competitions. Sports are games that result in great aerobic exercise. Games work!
And of course, make sure you know how to focus your mind instantly.
Focusing is the unrivaled way to squeeze the most out of your time and your life, both in enjoyment and productivity. Even watching a movie is more enjoyable with deeper focus (unless it’s a bad movie). If you find yourself struggling to focus in the moment, don’t blame distractions. Succumbing to distractions just means your life isn’t aligned and/or your willpower is too weak or isn’t being used correctly. If you work out the kinks internally, you’ll face distractions with greater success.
This guide was meant to show that external distractions are only one side of the coin (which could be glued to the sidewalk). If you get distracted, it means that you weren’t enamored with your focal point. When you define your values and intermediate goals, and practice your focus skill, you’ll create a powerful sense of purpose and clarity in your life to pull you strongly toward your desired focal point.
The more aligned your focus levels, the less power distractions will have over you. If distractions are Frodo’s ring, you will respond like Gandalf below…
Frodo: Take it!
Gandalf: No, Frodo.
Frodo: You must take it!
Gandalf: You cannot offer me this ring!
Frodo: I’m giving it to you!
Gandalf: Don’t… tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it.