You will find what you focus on, until you try to find focus. Frequently, when we sit at our computer staring down a deadline or hoping to maximize our free time, we are reminded that we need a snack or that the dishwasher needs to be emptied. But there are tools to work with our brain and body to increase our capacity to focus on our goal.
Anxiety avoidance is the first step, as this heightened emotion can lead to “brain fog” and decrease our cognitive abilities. Looking at the big picture before you begin work can manage anxiety. Where does this task fit in with your larger goals? Why are you choosing to spend your time on it? If it is for work, zoom out and recall that your work is sustaining you today. Even if this is not what you would prefer to be doing, it is your way of presently caring for yourself.
Right-sizing the task in your life will also manage anxiety by avoiding catastrophizing and black or white thinking. This is important to you, but it is a task. No goal or work defines you, and indeed, your ability to focus in this moment does not define you, either. Putting your goal into perspective helps keep it from gaining unwarranted importance.
Once anxiety is at bay, organizing your day’s tasks helps to manage the deluge of inputs competing for your attention. One helpful framework centers the phrase, “If you are hunting elephants (to look at!), don’t get distracted by rabbits.” Elephant tasks are those that require a time and focus commitment. Rabbit tasks are those quick, intrusive pulls on your attention, like emails and texts, that you think you can handle quickly. If you allow yourself to become distracted by rabbit tasks, you may get to the end of the day and realize that is all you have done. Prioritize your elephant task time and set an intention to close unneeded tabs and put away your phone.
Finally, although it may seem counterproductive, take breaks if you notice that you start to lose focus. Listen to your body. If brain fog creeps in, set a five-minute timer and get outside for a brain break. Even looking out the window and letting your mind wander will allow your brain to relax and recenter when you resume work. Scrolling on your phone does not count as a break. A movement break with a stretch, walk, or a short warmup works when you are tired- I like Up to the BEat Fit with Gina B on YouTube.
Be mindful as you attempt to increase focus, and evaluate the different tools you try. Your journey toward focus may take some time, but it will be worth the effort when you begin to tackle your days efficiently.
Stephanie Barca helps clients in transition at Benjamin Holmes Counseling.