Around our house, this exclamation has become the signal that someone has wandered off topic. If you've ever seen the movie "Up", you'll remember "Dug" - the dog with attention issues.
The truth is, most of our days are filled with "squirrel" moments. Our external environments provide endless opportunities for information-overload and distraction. Our internal environments, left unmanaged, are at the mercy of our "monkey-minds", wilding swinging from thought to thought and often prompting us to behave reactively.
There is an old Asian proverb that says: "The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.".
So how can you master your mind and find focus in the midst of chaos? Over the next two weeks, I'll share eight approaches that can help.
1) Develop a mindfulness practice - The latest research on neuroplasticity teaches us that our minds can be trained, and that practices like mindfulness can strengthen our brains - improving our attention and enhancing our ability to focus on what we choose. Whether you do these mental exercises in a formal or informal way, they will strengthen your ability to notice when your attention goes elsewhere so that you can choose to bring it back (or not). The Mindful Awareness Resource Center at UCLA is one resource that offers free recordings if you'd like to learn about this kind of attention training.
2) Schedule your "non-negotiables" - Identify the activities that you are committed to doing regularly and put them in your calendar. Putting things on a calendar does a couple of important things. First of all, it affirms what is valuable to you by making it real and providing it space in your life. It also provides an "accountability structure" for you to be reminded of what you said you're going to do. So, make sure that your calendar includes the things that you want to do for yourself as well as the commitments that you have for others. Making time for self-care provides you with the energy and strength to fulfill all your other commitments. You can't run on an empty tank!
3) Start your days with a "brain dump" - A brain dump is nothing more than a physical way of putting everything that is rattling around in your head in a written form. Just start writing (without editing) a list of everything that pops into your head — to-dos, questions, worries - whatever is taking up your mental real estate. Write until you feel like you have it all down. Once you get it down, you may notice a certain sense of clarity or completion. Once the list is in physical form, you can choose what to do with it next. Productivity experts like David Allen (author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity) offer specific ways to organize your next steps, but the first thing is to get your thoughts out of your head.
4) Choose 3 things — Start your day by identifying 3 main actions that you want to complete before the day is done. You may be tempted to choose more (and you may indeed accomplish more) - but just name three. Schedule time to do them. When you start to feel "scattered", check in on how you're doing on accomplishing your list. At the end of the day, celebrate your accomplishments. This habit gives you practice at setting priorities, estimating workload, refocusing, and owning accomplishments. All of these can contribute to a sense of order, purpose, and satisfaction.
Next week, I'll share four more ideas about how to find your focus. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. What are your biggest challenges in maintaining focus? What focusing practices have you found most helpful? Please share your comments with me below!