Have you ever felt that you would be so much more productive, efficient, successful, if you were able to focus better? I have been thinking about what “focus” really is, why it might be important, and how it is cultivated. I wrote a draft of this post on Halloween, hence the themed blog title.
What does it mean to be focused? I think that a person who is focused on something is able to block out distractions–to turn on their tunnel vision–during critical moments in pursuit of the object of said focus. The technical definition of the noun focus is “the center of interest or activity” while as a verb, to focus means to “adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly.”
The verb “to focus” as described by the above definition involves adaptation. To focus is something that is done on purpose, not at random or by accident. I also like that focus involves the unveiling of our object as it becomes increasingly clear to us. If we want to make something our focus, we have to choose to fix our eyes on it, and to adjust our eyes to see all of the finer details.
How can this focus be applied to athletic pursuits? I liken my focus to a goal. I want to purposely keep my eyes on my goal. At first my goal may seem vague, but as I take each step to sharpen my line of vision and cut out the peripheral distractions, it comes increasingly into focus. Eventually it is perfectly clear to me. I must keep it in focus or risk getting off track.
The geometrical definition is equally cool: the focus is “one of the fixed points from which the distances to any point of a given curve, such as an ellipse or parabola, are connected by a linear relation.” If the focus is an athletic goal, it becomes a goal toward which every aspect of your life must draw a line to. To me this means that if I proclaim something to be my goal I must align everything in my life toward that ultimate goal. For example, if my goal is to finish an Ironman triathlon, I have to train my body and mind, sleep well, eat well, have a plan, sign up for a race, etc.
I believe that we are all focused on something at some point, whether it be ourselves, others, possessions, power, politics, problems, gratitude, wonder, dreams, etc, our mind is focused on something. I admit that most of the time I am in a state of mental ambiguity and distraction. My mind often wanders and things that I want to focus on become blurred by random imposters. Focus takes a lot of mental energy! But, when done right, we can enter the gloriously productive and creative “flow state” where we become so purely present with our work that we seemingly become the work itself.
I like sport because it allows us to put away other life things to be purely present with our physical task. Breathe. Step. Kick. Pedal. I like the simplicity of it. Athletic goals challenge me to improve my ability to stay in the moment even when my mind wants to run off and consider how nice it would be to be back in bed. They challenge me to make the small and seemingly insignificant decisions everyday that are connected by a linear relation to my goal: Pack your bag. Wake up. Put on your socks. Walk out the door. Dive into the pool. Drink. Eat. Go to bed. Believe in yourself.
Now that we have a working definition…why is the ability to focus important…?
If we can’t see our goal clearly, how will we know what our goal looks like–let alone how to arrive at it? Without the ability to focus on our goal, all of the distractions of life (and there are many!) are going to get in our way. We are going to get off track. We will end up in the wrong place and not even know where the right place was to begin with. We will be shooting at an ambiguous, ever-moving, target.
…and how can we improve our ability to focus?
By practicing it. We don’t suddenly end up in the most critical moments with magical laser-focusing capabilities. If the goal is clear and in focus in all of the small things everyday, it is more likely to be in focus in defining moments. If it is out-of-focus more often than not, we may walk off the course and straight to the hamburger stand in the middle of our next Ironman (not to mention any names…). Focus takes practice! When things get blurry, look again. Change your angle. Squint your eyelids. Adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly.