4 Foolproof Ways to Stay Intensely Focused

Half of the day, we are not thinking about what we're doing.

Posted Sep 10, 2018

Jasper Graetsch/Unsplash
Source: Jasper Graetsch/Unsplash

As children, we were one with each moment—crying one moment, laughing the next—always intensely present and going along with the flow. As a result, we had an abundance of energy and enthusiasm. As adults, we stand amazed before the energy of children, and attribute it to their age. While biological age may have something to do with their vivaciousness, their ability to remain in that total focus on the present moment, moment to moment, also does. After all, some adults have the same energy and enthusiasm as children, and those are the adults who can sometimes mystify everybody else. They too are able to remain in that flow. What is their secret?

Being Really Present

Half of our waking hours, we are thinking about something other than what is right in front of us. Of course, time spent planning for the future is useful. Meandering thoughts can also lead to creative insights and aha moments that are delightful. But many of our other mind-wanderings are not. Ruminating over the past is often linked to regret, anger, or nostalgia for things to be as they once were. Focusing on the future and thinking about everything we have to do or worrying about what will happen is linked to stress and anxiety. No wonder, then, that research shows that we are never happier than when we are in the present moment, attending to what we are doing—even if we don’t actually enjoy the activity! 

Here’s the rub: If feelings are unpleasant, we want them to end as soon as possible, and if they are pleasant, we want to hang onto them for dear life. As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar reminds us, we long for what we don’t have and live in fear of losing what we do have. Instead of being in harmony with the moment as it is, we struggle against it, pushing and pulling rather than embracing the inevitable fact of impermanence. Tough times pass, as do the lovely ones. Unhappy feelings fade, and so do happy ones. Everything moves in an ebb and flow, the constant and rhythmic movement of time. When we stop resisting what is happening and simply embrace it without trying to change it or hold on to it, we can remain in the childlike flow of being. 

Drop the Protagonist

We swirl in a sea of thoughts involving me, myself, and I—and it’s not our fault. After all, we are at the center of our own lives. As a consequence, however, we are easily upset: because someone criticized us, or wasn’t considerate to us, or didn’t give us that promotion (or that date or that favor)—and so we spend a lot of time ruminating and dwelling in negative emotions. Research shows that most negative emotions are indeed linked to self-focus. 

As important as we may seem to ourselves, we are but one among billions, and our life is short and relatively meaningless. Rather than getting down on ourselves or becoming nihilistic, we need to have a sense of humor. Imagine that we are watching ourselves as an actor on a movie screen. Observe—rather than get lost in—the emotion. Hold on to that perspective of an onlooker who knows that “this too shall pass,” who understands that ups and downs are simply part of life (and good movie plots), and who doesn’t forget to enjoy the popcorn.

Quiet the Mind

The philosophy of yoga is powerful here. It is essentially moving from doing to being. So start by doing. Do physical exercises to reduce the jitters (or lethargy) in the body. Do breathing exercises to calm the mind. And meditate to rest in the being. The more centered you are, the less the mind will get caught up in self-centered thoughts, the less it will be seduced or irritated by the outside world, and the more it will be present and harmonious. Even when your mind loses its cool, a regular practice will allow it to return to center more quickly. While physical exercise can help build your physical strength, yogic practices help build your inner strength. You are more easily able to go with the flow, to observe rather than react. Sometimes “yoga” involves physical postures, while sometimes it means taking a nap.

In addition, we need to quiet our daily lives, to value downtime. You don’t need to block more time out on your calendar, but turn off the music when you’re in the car, put your phone away when it’s not needed, and go out into nature every once in a while just to breathe and walk aimlessly. As we read in Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” 

And This:

Whether you are offering a helping hand to a person in need or caring for an infant, you’ll feel the surge you feel in your chest—and that is all you need. There is both agony and ecstasy in love—it is a heart-wrenching quickening of the soul. And in that moment, you are truly and fully always in the totally focused presence that was so natural to you as a child.

For more, check out Emma's book The Happiness Track.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine