Episode 59: Focus is Not a Skill

Good morning, everybody! Welcome to The Work Of Becoming podcast! Today, I’m gonna talk about focus, and I wanted to talk about focus because I recently had some experiences where I came back from Christmas break, and the first week was a little bit of a shitshow for me. My emotions were all over the place, my schedule was all over the place, and I was having a really, really hard time focusing. I was kind of beating myself up over it, and then somebody commented on my YouTube video, and they said, “Hey, Karin. I’m looking for help because I’m trying to develop this skill of focusing.” I replied to them, and what I said to them is what I’m gonna say to you in this episode which is: “Focus is not a skill. Focus is a condition of the brain,” and that is important for a couple of reasons.

Number one, if we try or expect ourselves to improve our focus over time in a linear way, that’s not going to work. It’s not like other skills where you’re gonna get better and better and better at it and, eventually, you’re gonna focus for eight hours at a time. That’s not how it works. That’s unrealistic, okay? That’s the first reason.

Second is that when we understand that focus is a condition of the brain, it is a brain space we can be in, then we can control the factors that might influence us or help us click into that brain space which is what I’m gonna talk about in this episode.

So, there are three things that I’m gonna mention that impact your ability to focus. I’m gonna give the quick caveat here that I am not an expert on ADHD, and I do not discuss ADHD in my content. So, if you have ADHD, it might work a little differently for you. But, for the most part, even if you do have ADHD, these concepts are going to apply.

So, number one is that focusing requires cognitive resources, and cognitive resources come from what we are giving our bodies in terms of basic self-care. Sleep, hydration, and food. If you are not eating enough, you will not be able to focus. If you are not hydrated, you will not be able to focus. If you are not in a hormonally healthy place, you will not be able to focus. If you are not sleeping and getting good quality sleep, you will not be able to focus.

Now, I tell you this because I have seen it time and time again where I have these really stressed-out people who are sleeping six hours a night because they’re trying to get more stuff done, right? They’re eliminating sleep because they’re trying to put more into their days. Yet, they’re working, like, 12 hours a day, and they feel like they’re constantly distracted, and they can’t function. And it’s like, well, you’re not sleeping, you’re skipping your lunch break, and you haven’t drank water or anything other than coffee in four days. If that’s the situation, my friend, it’s like you’re in a car, and there’s a hill in front of you, and the car doesn’t have any gas but you’re slamming the gas pedal over and over and over again going, “I’m pushing on the gas pedal! Why isn’t this car going up the hill?” You have no fuel, my friend. You have nothing to get you up the hill. And so, that is why neglecting self-care for the purpose of working more is a completely backwards way to do it.

So, that’s foundation number one that I want to tell you in this episode is focus is a condition of the brain. You have to be eating enough, sleeping enough, and hydrating enough in order to make it to focus.

Thing number two is that because focus is a condition of the brain (it is a very taxing condition of the brain), your brain cannot do it for eight hours a day. So, a lot of us expect ourselves to sit down a and focus for an entire eight-hour workday, and when we can’t do that, we’re either like, “Oh, I have a willpower issue and I need to focus harder,” or we think it’s an environment issue or we think it is a skill issue and we’re like, “I need to build my focus skills.” No, no, no, no, no, my friend. If you couldn’t hold a barbell above your head for a full day, would you tell yourself, “Oh, I just need to be more disciplined?” No, you wouldn’t. You would be like, “Oh, I understand that holding a barbell above my head is very taxing on my body, and my body can’t do that taxing thing for very long periods of time.” Focus is the exact same way.

There is some neuroscience that shows that the average amount of time that our brain can be in deep focus is an hour and a half. And so, if you’ve been working for three hours already and you find yourself distracted, guess what? That’s not the fault of your discipline or that’s not the fault of your social media device that’s enticing you. That is the fault of you having wildly unrealistic expectations of what your brain can actually accomplish.

So, if I have one piece of advice for you today, is to look at your calendar and be more realistic, give yourself more breaks, do self-care better, and limit the amount of time you’re expecting yourself to be in deep focus, okay?

That brings us to the third thing which is that your brain is also influenced by what’s going on around it in your environment. Some people have a really high need for stimuli in their environment in order to focus. Other people need that stimuli to be very low. So, for example, my partner works really well with the TV on. If a TV is on, I cannot possibly even focus for one second.

And so, I would encourage you to think about focus as a state your brain is gonna click into, and it’s gonna click into that state if your internal conditions are correct and if your external conditions are correct. And so, the best thing you can do is put your effort, not into your willpower or discipline or focusing harder. Your best effort is to look at the other parts of your life. Look at what’s going on inside of your body and what’s going on outside of you around in your environment, and can you control those things and control those factors and then the focus that you want will be a strategic byproduct.

That is what I’ve got for you today. I will talk to you in the next episode!


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Hi, I'm Karin

I’m a funfetti flavor super-fan, a loving dog mom, a PhD expert in mindset and behavior change… and I’m here to help make personal development and transformation a process that’s actually fun.


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