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The Holy Grail of Focus

You want to focus.  Perhaps you made it your one word of the year.

Focus, focus, focus.

This is the year to focus and get things done.

Except… the world seems to be conspiring to keep your mind splattered.  Emails, pings, tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, newsletters, text messages, phone calls, breaking news, advertising.

Except… your mind seems to be conspiring to keep your mind splattered.

Even when you set aside the time.  Even when you create a distraction free environment.

Particularly when you set aside the time and create a distraction free environment.

Your mind starts to chatter.  Should be doing this.  Should be doing that.  Mentally checking off lists.  Fingers itching to check, to browse, to click, to type something short.  Starting to self-criticise.  Should focus, why can’t you focus, what’s wrong with you, you’ll never do it, attention span of a gnat, focus, focus, why can’t you focus.

It’s not pleasant.  It doesn’t help you to write.  And it becomes a vicious circle.  We start to avoid the times we’ve set aside as ‘focus’ time, because it doesn’t work and the guilt that comes with it isn’t worth the bother.

I started out this piece intending to find resources that would help you to focus.  (And I will, still, later.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe we’re chasing after the wrong end goal.

When I think about focus, I get uncomfortable.  Physically. I  start to squirm.  My mind starts to chatter.  I realise that I will come up with as many distractions as I can to avoid those times when I’m ‘supposed’ to be focused.

It’s different when I think about flow.

When I think about flow, when I think about working and writing in a flow state, I want to go there.

I want to be in that state, when I’m energised and creating, when I feel my heart beating faster, when the words are pouring out of me, when there’s not the slightest desire to check or browse or email or ping I just want to be there, in that moment when my fingers are connected to my heart to the ground to the source, when I’m hard wired to the source and the words emerge hard and pure and deep and truthful.

And yes, I know that’s the writing part and there’s still work to be done to edit and finish and get the stuff out there, and that requires an element of concentration, but I can do that, more easily, with material that has that spark within it.

Material that talks to me.  That I hope will talk to you.  That reminds me of that state of flow, and invites me to dive back into it.

I will happily sacrifice all of the distractions of that modern world for a few minutes of that pure experience.  I don’t need to make an effort to get there.  I don’t need to set an intention or write a mantra or construct blog posts or read e-books or manuals.  I just need to do the things that give me that feeling.

Go for a walk in a beautiful place.  Read poetry that talks direct to my heart.  Take photographs with the eyes of the heart.  Look out for moments, tiny moments of kindness, wonder, love.  Journal a moment when the world seemed to be on fire, or bathed in kindness.

So, now I’m wondering.  Are we chasing after the right thing at all?

Can we swap one f-word for another?  Could we ditch the obsession with focus and feeling bad about not having it, and jump into the pleasure of flow instead?

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  1. Tweets that mention The Holy Grail of Focus | Confident Writing -- says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joanna Paterson. Joanna Paterson said: The Holy Grail of Focus: You want to focus.  Perhaps you made it your one word of the year. Focus, focus, … [...]

  2. Jens P. Berget says:

    You’re absolutely right. I have been thinking all about focus lately, and it doesn’t help at all. I’ve done close to everything to get rid of the clutter, and I’m still unfocused, or focusing on many things at the same time.

    Flow is different, when I’ve reached a state of flow, I don’t think of anything other than what I’m doing right then. That’s what matters.

  3. uberVU - social comments says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by DarrenH1221: RT @PublishingGuru: RT @joannayoung The Holy Grail of Focus - thanks, I needed something like this (or some meds) :)

  4. Sid Prince says:

    Joanna, you’ve hit me right between the eyes with this one.

    Makes me want to curse…

    Damnit! Why didn’t I think of that?

    I have no self control.



  5. LS Murphy says:

    I don’t think “Focus” and “Flow” are mutually exclusive. Sometimes you need one to get the other. If I focus, I can find that flow. If I have the flow, I have problem focusing. It’s kind of a all or nothing issue for me.
    .-= LS Murphy´s last blog ..The Fear of Twisters =-.

  6. --Deb says:

    I like this idea … especially since I have the attention span of a fruit fly these days!
    .-= -Deb´s last blog ..Review of an Important Offer! =-.

  7. Meredith says:

    Focus *is* my word of the year, and it was such an appropriate choice for me, on so many levels. The ultimate focus is when I narrow down on this moment, on exactly what I’m doing right now; that kind of attention helps me to contact the flow — or rather, to realize I am already embedded in it. :)

    But you are so right, that none of us will get there by beating ourselves over the head and telling ourselves to focus, focus, focus, or else! Forcing is so counterproductive, really.
    .-= Meredith´s last blog ..rainy day sunshine & ten tidbits =-.

  8. Tyrean Martinson says:

    Flow instead of focus . . . or flow that leads to focus?
    I often find that when I set aside that “UNDISTURBED” writing time, I struggle to write.
    Yet, when my kids and I are working on a project, the dogs are laying by my feet, and my cat jumps up on the table, some idea takes spark, and I am compelled to write, and write, and write.
    The flow of life leads me to focus which leads me to a flow of writing and life.
    .-= Tyrean Martinson´s last blog ..Reflections and Hopes =-.

  9. Davina says:

    I’m grinning, Joanna… because I understand. The analogy of a dartboard just came to mind. When you’re focused your view is much more contained and well… to the point. When you’re going with the flow, your circle is bigger and you’re gathering the focus to make the point. Shall I get to the point? Ask yourself… what is your point? I dunno… I’m kinda being silly here… and, kinda not ;-)
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..Don’t Block the Sun =-.

  10. Paula says:

    You’ve nailed it once again, Joanna! Flow is easier to aim for, especially for creative people, whose memories of “you need to focus more” are related to being in trouble in school for daydreaming and mind-wandering into places far more interesting than *pick your schoolroom topic* . . . thanks for another super post, can’t wait to see where else you take this! :-)
    .-= Paula´s last blog ..the Creativity Switch =-.

  11. Andrew Heaton says:


    Good lateral thinking.

    I’ve personally lost count of the amount of times which I’ve set aside for ‘focused’ work, yet been tempted into distractions.

    But ‘focus’ is not a problem for me once I’m in the groove, and outside distractions seem to magically fall by the wayside when I become absorbed in my topic.
    .-= Andrew Heaton´s last blog ..Toyota Part 2: Behind the poor response =-.

  12. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jens it’s interesting isn’t it? We think, or we’re told, that focus is what we need to do but forcing that tends to make us (or some of us) go in the opposite direction. Flow seems to be able to get us there (focusing on the thing in hand) without the restlessness that goes with the attempt to focus!

    Sid sorry! ;-)

    LS I agree, they’re not mutually exclusive… but perhaps for some of us it’s easier to get to focus by falling into flow, rather than making focus the focus…? (if that makes sense)

    -Deb I think it’s worth a try anyway… I know so many of us feel frustrated about that attention thing, it made me start thinking about why that was… if it was proving so challenging is there something about the way we’ve set it up that makes it inevitably so (like the diet industry, which makes us all fatter…;-) )

  13. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Meredith I agree, forcing things doesn’t help, or allow us to get to that state… i like the way you’ve put it, to be focused in exactly what you’re doing right now… It’s a good feeling isn’t it?

    Tyrean yes it might well be flow that leads to focus… as others have said, part of what we feel and enjoy in that flow state is a moment of pure focus. I suppose I’m really just trying to explore how we get more of it, and wondering if making FOCUS a big focus makes it harder rather than easier. I love this: “The flow of life leads me to focus which leads me to a flow of writing and life.” It has such a lovely rhythm to it.

    Davina thank you… you hit the nail on the head with this one ;-) I think that’s a big part of where the resistance comes from - a focus on focus makes it feel like you’ve narrowed the gaze too much, which is a different kind of feeling to that we enjoy in creative work which is more expansive… Maybe we just need to let ourselves focus on the whole dartboard (and surrounding area for rogue darts? ;-) ) PS I was interested to see your post on the muse after I’d written this…. I think some of your musings will help me make sense of this conundrum

    Paula oh another light bulb moment, thank you! Of course, it’s part of the assocations with the language, not least those times we were forced to focus on things that held no interest for us, or wasn’t / isn’t the way our minds work. What I’m learning from this exploration is how important it is for all of us to figure out what works for us and go with that, rather than chasing after ways of doing things that other people have laid down (teachers included…)

  14. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Andrew thanks… it’s an interesting challenge isn’t it? I’m enjoying learning how others feel / respond to it too. The feeling of being in the groove, that flow state, is such a great place to be working and writing from… like you say, other things fall magically by the way when we’re in that state. I like the word ‘absorbed’… that seems be to more appealing than focused - more dream like and creative, more room to explore - but still cut out the distractions. I’ve a post in the series on the opposite of distracted - I didn’t end up with ‘absorbed’ but I think that would be a good opposite, and very positive state to aim towards.

  15. Jeanne Dininni says:

    This is so true, Joanna! Trying to focus (aka, focusing on focus) makes it a chore and creates a stressful, guilt-driven state in which we become more easily distracted, defeating our entire purpose. On the other hand, allowing ourselves to enter into the wonder of an idea, a feeling, a sight, a sound, an experience, inspires us, creating a natural focus that isn’t difficult to maintain at all because the power of inspiration, imagination, vision, possibility, and promise drive it, rather than sheer willpower (which so often fails us when we need it most).

    Flow is a wonderful word to describe this state! Thanks for a thought-provoking-and inspiring-post!

  16. Solababe says:

    Powerful and attention grabbing word, I was distracted lately by the sad event that happened to my family! It was bad, but I turned it round for my good.

    I started writing about the events and how I felt about it.

    Distraction sometimes has got details and information within it, Nowadays, I look more deeply into what is happening around me, whenever my mind started going the other way, I looked carefully in that wide path and bring something out of it, something to write about, something that is trying to get my attention, I gave in to it, I allowed myself to travel more in my thought, gave back to that information and continue with what I left in the first place.


  17. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jeanne I’m glad you enjoyed it. Does seem to be that focusing on focus can be counter-productive, and that we can maybe more easily achieve the desired end result by going about it another way round…

    solababe thanks for sharing that experience, and how writing helped you work through a life event (it’s amazing how we can use writing to do that isn’t it?) I like the idea of going deeper in to catch the details - including some of the things that might appear to be ‘distractions’ from the main story - this reminds me of part of the earlier conversation about leaving room for breadth, width, depth and absorbtion into something. Maybe focus can let us do that, but for a lot of us it’s a word that implies a narrowing of the perspective, which I suspect isn’t always what we want to do

  18. I’m Sorry, What’s Your Name Again? | Career Management Alliance Blog says:

    [...] know I’m guilty of a lack of focus at times. In fact, I love this concept of flow vs. focus. However, remembering names isn’t about flow it’s about focus - outward focus [...]

  19. [...] 1: The Holy Grail of Focus Part 2: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 1 Part 3: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part [...]

  20. [...] 1: The Holy Grail of Focus Part 2: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 1 Part 3: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 2 [...]

  21. [...] 1: The Holy Grail of Focus Part 2: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 1 Part 3: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 2 [...]

  22. [...] 1: The Holy Grail of Focus Part 2: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 1 Part 3: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 2 [...]

  23. Lauren Doyle says:

    Thank you. I think that we tend to think that we’re all alone in things like this. That other writers just WRITE while we sit at our desks fretting over our lack of focus, our inability to PRODUCE. When, you know what? We’re animals. We’re not designed to focus. We’re designed to live. Your beautiful post is a great reminder of that.

  24. [...] 1: The Holy Grail of Focus Part 2: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 1 Part 3: What Distractions Allow Us to Do: Part 2 [...]