Whenever I sit down with my son to work on his math, he begins to work away from the subject. The time is spent on blunt pencils that need sharpening, loose compasses that needs to be fixed, a runny nose that has developed a sudden bout of phlegm, thirst that deserves to be quenched, or a rush to the bathroom to find relief. And the in-between time is cluttered with complaints about school, questions about dinner, snide smiles and sudden laughter.
After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to instil a sense of discipline into his work, I began to think about what could be happening inside his mind during a time when the mind should have been paying undivided attention to the task on hand.
So, why do we find it so difficult to focus?
I understood that there were several lines of parallel thoughts running through my son’s mind as he sat down to do something that he was not interested in.
The one thing that is in common with distracted minds, whether they find the task easy or difficult, is the same thing. The task on hand is not interesting. I have no problem thinking about the words I am typing out right now, as does my son about his game, when he is playing sports. That is because of the interesting tasks that we have set out for ourselves.
Focus is easy when the job is interesting.
But, every task that we do cannot be interesting
Of course, we can’t think about the iron box every time we plug it in to straighten out our clothes. I have a train of several thoughts running thorough my mind as I hang out the laundry to dry or fold the laundered clothes. And none of the thoughts have anything to do with clothes and laundry.
Why is it so?
It can come as a bit of a surprise, if you don’t know it already. But the speed of thoughts can be measured, and turns out it is faster than the speed of light. Which means, thoughts keep zipping through our brains at extremely high speeds, all the time. That explains why we can move from thinking about coffee, to wondering about the neighbor’s sudden disappearance, to getting agitated over the incessant barking sounds that are coming from across the street, all the while forgetting that we were supposed to be thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight.
In other words, our thoughts are our real distractions.
And how do we get rid of them?
Nope, no can do. We can’t get rid of unwanted thoughts, because the brain cannot be switched on and off. What we can do is a bunch of other things that can train the mind to catch the most wanted thought and stick with it.
Avoid excessive information download
One of the main reasons why our ancestors did not have to worry about focus “issues” was because they were not as connected as we are today. Remember any news, whether it is about Trump’s latest tweet or a grandmother’s tryst with google, is information. And the brain is a sucker for information. More information = More neural connections = More thoughts. So, choose what you want to absorb as information.
Select your focus points
Figure out the things that you want to focus on. Then, break them down into smaller focus points. For instance, my son’s goal would be to focus on math. But math is a bigger topic. So, the next thing he would have to work on is defining the smaller topics within this bigger topic. Defining matters, because the brain understands defining. There is a clear difference between learning how to solve ratio-related problems, and solving math problems.
Think in steps
“What next” is a brilliant phrase that the brain gets. But to get to this phrase, we have to overcome phrases like, “God! This is so boring,” “I have no idea how to go about this,” or “This is the scariest thing that I have ever seen.” These thoughts come from that part of the brain that has gotten used to our feelings over a particular topic. So, they form a pattern and send us that information first. What we need to do is, Overcome, every time this happens, and go to “What next.”
Set time frames
Our best work happens during crunch periods. Ask an athlete what he thinks of when he is running. His answer would be “running!” And that, is focus. Some people thrive on crunch periods, while the rest of us run away from it. When we make a habit of running away from our time-frames, we make a habit of running away with our thoughts. And when we make a habit of running away with our thoughts, we will never make a habit of staying with the thoughts that matter. So, get into the practice of setting time-frames to complete a task. It could be as small as watering the garden. But starting small is always the best place to start.
Do it, do, do it
Keep doing what you want to do, and what you need to do. Focus does not happen overnight. It needs to be worked upon. And practice makes perfect.
Here’s to catching the thoughts that matter, and making them work for you!