“I love watching you work,” my wife said to me this morning. I was blown away by this statement, and I asked her to digress, which she did only willingly. “I love your process because it’s so… focused.”
I had a paradigm shift moment, because that hasn’t always been true for me.
I have struggled most of my life to become focused. It’s hard in a noisy world, filled with an overwhelming amount of data and distractions. But something clicked sometime in the last few years, and I’ve become more and more focused on my goals.
What is it, I asked myself, that makes up the parts of a good focus?
I arrived at the answer in a round-about way, with a lot of trial and error, but focus is really not that difficult to understand as a concept. We all know what focusing looks and feels like. We depend on it to thrive and to meet our goals, and we dread that focus being interrupted.
Sometimes deep focusing has a formula, and below, I’ll talk about what’s worked for me so far in life.
Chances are that you, dear reader, already know the importance of a good environment for a good level of focus. Think about the last time you were at a coffee shop or a library, where you got some serious work done.
But what components make these environments so inviting?
The answer, again, is simple. These environments are “work” environments. Both a library and a coffee shop trigger a “this is where I work” programming in my brain, though in different aspects. The coffee shop is where I get collaborative work done while the library is where I do more of my introspective, solitary work.
But because I fundamentally understand the importance of a good environment, I’ve actually stopped needing outside programming to trigger this mindset every time I’m ready to work.
At work, I’ve made sure to separate my area from other people for my solitary work. If I need to focus on a project only I am responsible for, I work in a room where others are not present. On the contrary, if I need to work on a group project where I need input from others, I tend to go back to my work’s traditional open-floor setting. (As an introvert, I bet you can figure out which I usually prefer.)
At home, I’ve learned not to do work in the same space I sleep. There are countless articles on the web, such as this one, claiming that working in your bedroom results in less quality sleep and less restfulness in general. I’ve found that the latter to be the most true for me. I never write in bed anymore, and I definitely never bring my laptop in bed for work purposes.
It can be challenging to create a good space for work, especially if, like me, you live in a small apartment without the luxury of a separate office space. But just being mindful of your environment sometimes goes a long way in the focus game.
As remnants of my college years, I’ve learned that classical music is one of the quickest ways to get my monkey brain to stop throwing a fit and allow my human brain to think in peace and quiet.
An interesting USC article urging its students to listen to classical music while studying for finals points out a prominent reason why this might be true: “The researchers speculated that the music put students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information.”
I do not pretend to understand all the scientific minutia of music and the effects of it on the human brain, but experience has definitely taught me that classical music, specifically piano, allows me to relax and catalyzes my brain’s optimal focus mode.
Tea (or hot drink of choice)
When I pulled a wisdom tooth in January, I had no idea that my focus was in danger.
I’ve grown up with hot drinks as my one of my focus triggers, especially hot black tea. So when I was recovering from a wisdom tooth extraction, I suffered from a severe lack of focus for several days since I was only permitted room-temperature drinks.
Eventually, I came up with a bit of a hack. I would make hot tea, and I would let it grow cold next to me while I worked. Magically, my focus was back.
Intentionality in Art
Having focus in your work process, whatever that work might be, isn’t magical so much as something that is practiced. It’s a muscle that gets practiced by setting clearer, more bite-sized goals.
And I’ve learned about it through watching other artists. One of my favorite YouTubers and late-night show hosts, Lilly Singh, advocates this kind of focus by setting intentions. I’m especially fond of her vision-board tutorial which encourages clear goal-setting to manifest personal aspirations.
Beyond looking for tutorials and watching vlogs, I’ve learned to pinpoint an artist’s intention in their work. Focus and intentionality are intimately tied together in art, and I’ve found this to be a profound but beautiful truth. In most forms of art, focus comes from intention. If I have a clear intention in mind as an artist, then focus will follow a lot easier than if I don’t hold that specific intention.
To that extent, I’ve become more intentional with consumption of art as well. I select books, music, TV shows, and movies with care. While there is nothing wrong with pure entertainment, I try not to get distracted by “hypes” or “trending” subjects. There is nothing wrong with what is popular, but intentionality is a personal and, I would argue, a sacred ritual. It creates a mindfulness to living a life of growth rather than an automatic, unquestioned one.
The bottom line is that we create from the deep creative well inherent to all of us. It matters what gets put in that well, and a balance of understanding focus and setting intentions both seems crucial for creating art that is meaningful yet enjoyable.
I’m curious to learn, what are your core values? Leave a comment or tweet @yasaminnb on the Twitterosphere. Special thanks to Grace @gwasserst for reviewing and editing my posts.