In his autobiography Even This I Get to Experience, Norman Lear relays a story told to him by a therapist. He says to imagine a crowded room with about fifty people in it. Suddenly there’s smoke and someone yells “fire.” Some people escape, but others are jammed in the doorway and can’t get out.
The lesson: “Your thoughts are no different from those people who rushed to the door and are crushed there. Let the people out one or two at a time and everyone gets out. . . . Same thing with your thoughts, Norman.”
Someday I’ll come up with a less gruesome example. But it really struck me that this is an important lesson about our brains. So many people complain that their brains are over-active. They can’t think straight because of self-diagnosed ADD. Or their lives are just busier than everyone else. Or they can’t meditate due to monkey mind.
Here’s the deal: We’re all like that. We all have a million thoughts a day. We are all super-ridiculously busy. We all have monkey mind.
And for all of us, focus comes when we begin choosing to address the situation instead of using it as an excuse to be parallized by a tangled ball of thoughts. Despite all the research verifying that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, many people embrace it. For some, this is because it keeps them in the middle of the whirring, buzzing busy-ness and doesn’t require them to take responsibility for not making progress.
Everyone can focus. Everyone. When my daughter was born, I was amazed at how she could entertain herself watching the ceiling fan, or the faces of people going by. Then, I was amazed at her ability to play with blocks or books for hours. At every stage – even when the world said “Kids at that age are impossible” – she had periods of intense focus.
For some reason, many people don’t acknowledge their own ability to focus. Whether it’s reading, gardening, carving wood, painting, or just working really hard, we all have periods of great focus. But we don’t notice what’s going on in the moment.
When you’re focusing intently, you don’t notice that your brain has quieted down. You don’t notice that the thoughts have moved to the background and are forming a nice, orderly line. That’s because, once you’ve set your sites on the one thing that needs attention, your brain relaxes a bit and digs in. You choose to focus and it works hard to help you.
Intellectually, we know this is happening. We know we can do it when we need to. But we really love the story about millions of competing thoughts and monkey mind. That story gives us an excuse not to be focused.
Here’s the reality. If you know you can focus once, then you can focus again. You can choose to take a little time and be aware, in real time, how your brain and body feel when you’re focused. You can almost step outside yourself and catalog what’s going on. Try it.
The next time you are doing something super focused (anything from frosting a cake to balancing your books), do a quick cataloging exercise. How does your brain feel? How are your emotions? Are you relaxed? Is your heart going fast or slow? Are you muscles tight or loose? What does this kind of focus feel like?
Note: Focus can be very different for different situations. If you’re mountain climbing, your physical senses might be very highly tuned in and hyper aware. If you’re much safer and less intense, such as planting flowers, you are more likely to be very relaxed with a lower heart rate.
Once you’re aware of these moments of intense focus, you can start figuring out how to get back there. What’s the setting? What’s the task? What time of day? etc.
One of my favorite rules of life is Slow down, get more done. This is certainly an example of that. In the end, you get a lot more done when you only try to do one thing at a time.
Next time I’ll talk a bit about setting priorities. As long as you’re going to line up those thoughts single file, you might as well figure out which is at the front of the line!