Power of Focused Attention
I recently sat down with several highly enthusiastic achievers, all of whom have many ambitions. These casual chats revolved around the theme of, “How do I turn my ambitions into reality?”
I deeply admired their energy and drive, but it became clear as to why they were not seeing their desired results: Trying to do too much at once.
Despite the social illusion that we can have it all, we only have a limited amount of energy and time. Even if we think we can achieve it all during our heightened state of enthusiasm and inspiration, when reality hits, we’ll find that striving to achieve it all at once will result in exhaustion and disconnection with our inner selves.
Instead of striving to achieve it all, how about striving to achieve what’s most important to us? How about striving to be fulfilled and happy? How about striving for personal wellbeing and meaning?
Doing Too Much …
Given that we have a limited amount of resources; attention, energy and time, how we divide our resources greatly affects the success of our desired outcome. The more focused we are at any one thing, the more energy gets concentrated into that thing.
Attention can be compared to the sharpness of a knife. A knife is sharp because energy has been focused at the blade. Thus, the more focused the energy is at the blade, the sharper the knife, the higher the cutting power, and the stronger the knife. If energy is not focused at the blade, we end up with a dull knife, with lowered cutting power – weaker knife. A dull knife may be good for spreading butter, but if your goal was to cut through soda cans, you have missed your desired outcome.
When we try to do too much, it is as if we are trying to sharpen too many knifes in our limited time. We juggle between the sharpening of the different knifes, and in the end, not one knife is sharpened enough to be deemed useful. We can be much more effective if we spend our time and focused energy sharpening one knife, and move on to another knife only when the first one has reached its desired outcome.
One example of doing too much is having many goals that we are trying to achieve in the same short period of time. The term many is subjective, and we have individual thresholds for what that means for each of us. There are exceptions to this, and there are people who are exceptional at multi-tasking. I happen to know that I am not one of those people.
If you are like me, then perhaps you can relate to the feeling of doing too much, and how that tension can take us away from what matters to us most. Here are some potential effects that can arise from doing too much. Becoming aware of these is the first step towards adjusting our life situation and priorities towards a more balanced lifestyle.
- Mental Noise – Constantly thinking about the things still left to do can clutter our inner space. They become mental noise and are very distracting.
- Unable to Focus – When we are distracted by too many things, we feel overwhelmed, our focus becomes diffused, and things appear ‘foggy’ from our perspective. In this state, it’s tough to focus on our current tasks, think clearly or make fast & rational decisions.
- No Personal Life – We can become consumed by all the external achievements we are trying to obtain for the prized title of success. In so doing, we can forget to experience Joy. We forget to look after ourselves, our health, and our personal life. We become unbalanced.
- Exhaustion – When our energies are not properly managed, we feel exhausted and dis-eased in our bodies. This can physically manifest in different ways. For me, exhaustion translates to lower back pain, sleeplessness and dehydration.
- Self-Inflicted Guilt – When we become too ambitious, we tend to underestimate how long things will take and this will result in an overloaded plate. We commit ourselves to this overloaded plate, and set ourselves up for failure, unconsciously. When we realized that we haven’t done everything we’ve set out to do, we become subject to the guilt inflicted by our own minds. This can be destructive to our motivation and self-esteem.
- Hurt Relationships – When our attention is fully occupied with too many targets, we don’t have room for other important life areas, such as developing and maintaining relationships with people.
- Unsatisfied – When we have too much on our plate, we are constantly chasing after the things we haven’t done yet and forget to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. Our attention is spread out so thin, that we cannot really excel at achieving any of our goals. We become dissatisfied. Similar to self-inflicted guilt, this feeling is not conducive to healthy self-esteem.
- Failed Partnerships - When we over commit ourselves to more than we will have time and energy to do, we end up sacrificing certain goals. If we have goals with other people, such as partnerships in a startup business, we may end up disappointing them. They may end up concluding that you’re an unreliable and flaky person. At the extreme, friendships may be hurt as a result of failed business relationships. I’ve personally been on both ends of such a scenario, and I would advise anyone to try to avoid this.
Four years ago, I was an enthusiastic cookie fresh out of school, ready to take on the world and to finally “Achieve Something!” I saw other people’s successes and strived to do the same. Problem was, I was finding inspiration from several people more experienced than me, saw their results and then attempted to attack all of my goals at once.
While is it essential to feel inspired and to take massive action, this diffused focus on several major goals resulted in my not getting very far in any one goal. I also felt exhausted, unsatisfied, and lived an unbalanced lifestyle. I hated how it made me feel.
Things started to turn around when I remembered that life is about Joy. Life is about experiencing, sharing and the spreading of Joy.
I scraped myself off the floor, focused on getting well, and then dove in with complete focus on one goal at a time. That’s when I started living, and accidentally started achieving.
Choosing Your Focus
Q: Are you saying I should drop everything and only work on one goal?
A: I am suggesting from personal experience that having one primary focus and diving into it completely with all your being will give you a higher chance at success. Having said that, you are free to work on multiple goals at the same time, some people can pull it off without stress, most cannot.
Become sensitive to your inner state and observe your results carefully. If you are not getting the results you are looking for, or are experiencing any symptoms from above, you may be doing too much. Consider cutting back and focus solely on one thing at a time.
Photo by Cindy Loughridge
Q: If I focus completely on one goal, how will I have time and energy for other areas of my life?
A: I’m a fan of dividing up major life areas and having one major goal for each of these areas to focus on. More than one goal in each area will usually result in disaster. My personal major life areas are: Business, Relationships, Spirituality, Physical Health, and Personal Growth. Create time for each major area. I’m still working on integrating all five areas into my daily life, which has been a challenge. As part of my integration, at the start of each week, I would select two areas I want to focus on this week. For example, focus on my major goals in Business and Relationships, or Physical Health and Personal Growth.
Q: How do I choose what to focus on? There is so much I want to do.
A: Choosing what to focus on can be a challenging task, especially if you’ve already invested resources (time, money, energy) in other projects. The following is a serious of steps and questions to help you get started.
- Define Life Areas – List out the major life areas you wish to spend time on.
- Define Goals – For each life area define above, list out goals you like to achieve or improve upon in each of these areas. Do this on paper. Make sure that each goal is defined with a measurable target. Example, instead of saying “I want to exercise.” state, “I am running 5 miles twice weekly.” Optionally, list out your goals in present tense, as if you’ve already achieved them.
- Insert Meaning – For each of your goals, understand why each one is important to you. What will you gain if you achieved it? Write a one word description beside each goal in brackets. You can put Money as a one-word description, but it is too general. What will that money mean to you? What will it translate into for your life? Perhaps Comfort? Security? Sex-Appeal? Happiness? What does achieving this goal mean to you at the most basic level? This exercise will help us in understanding the drive behind doing what we do.
- Prioritize – Go through the goals in each area to select which is most important to you. Which do you want to work on most? Which gets you excited?
- Go down each item and ask the question, “If I had all the money in the world, would I be working on this?“
- If your answer is yes, mark it with a P for Priority.
- Review all the items with P markings, ask yourself, “If I can be granted the realization of just one goal and I must pick now, which would I select?“
- What’s the first thing that came to mind? Listen to your instant gut reaction. Circle the number 1 next to this goal. This is your highest priority in this life area.
- When & How? – For each goal you plan to focus on, make sure that its end result is clearly defined and are measurable. Add a date to it for when you will achieve it. Make the goal achievable but slightly more challenging than comfortable. Write the goal down in present tense on a piece of paper or index card. Stick the index card on a wall or someplace where you’ll see it. Review it often. List out a battle plan and dive into massive action, now!
- Starting with the End in Mind – What will you do once you achieve it? What’s next? Will you move on to another goal? Will you expand on the current goal? Understanding your exit strategy and planning out your next step can add clarity into understanding your motives.
- Trimming the Excess – For all other goals in each area that are not your highest priority, do your best to cut them out. Cutting out tasks for goals that are not working, or tasks not worth doing. Dropping commitments which are not working for you, but involves other people can be challenging, since you feel obligated to stick around. Just because you’ve committed to doing something, does not mean that you must do them right now. If something is not in alignment with your life goal, drop it or set it aside. Communicate clearly to your partners why it is important for you to either set the project aside or withdraw from it. Honestly will save you and others lots of wasted energy in the long run.
- Creating Time – Answer this question, “If I tell you that your goal will become a reality if you give it enough attention and action, how much time a week are you willing to commit to it?” Schedule time slots throughout the week for when you’ll be working on this goal, and do this weekly. I like to spend 15-30 minutes every Sunday evening to review my progress, goals and schedule tasks for the following week.
What is your major goal right now? What other life areas are important to you? Other thoughts and ideas? Share your voice with us in the comment section. See you there!