By Leo Babauta
Our work lives are filled with busyness, distraction, procrastination, responding to messages, checking on messages, and getting lost down rabbit holes.
We struggle to be mindful and to focus on our meaningful work.
And yet, many of us want to create a life of meaning, focus, and mindfulness.
We know this, and yet we struggle. Why? What keeps us from this life of mindful focus and meaningful work?
In this guide, I’ll talk about why we get pulled away, and then how to bring mindfulness to the process to find focus and create an impact with your work.
Why We Can’t Focus
If you think about how you spent your last few days, most of us would say we’re more distracted than we like. We procrastinate more. Or we’re super busy, responding to a thousand things, making lots of decisions, and not very mindful during this chaotic work day.
What’s going on? A number of things:
- We’re actually afraid to focus. The work we want to focus on is hard, full of uncertainty, uncomfortable. We want to do it, but we’re putting off the moment we have to enter into this uncertain space. We’re going to the “comfort food” of our distractions instead of the discomfort of the focus.
- We’re afraid to simplify. To focus, we have to clear away all our distractions, say no to social media, our phones, our messages, our email. We have to say no to the easier tasks that we’re really good at. This kind of simplicity is uncomfortable for many people, and again, we go to “comfort food” distractions and easy tasks instead.
- We’re constantly pulled away. You might put yourself in a space of simplicity and focus … but then your attention gets pulled away. We have so many notifications, so many messages, so many shiny distractions … and our attention is like a little monkey jumping from tree to tree. In some ways, this is because technology is designed to grab our attention. But we allow this to happen.
- We’re unsure about what path to take. We know we should focus, but shouldn’t we also be doing this other important task? Or those three pretty important tasks? Or checking for an important message/email that might come in? We have fear of missing something important, fear of choosing the wrong thing, fear of taking the wrong path when there are many available. This uncertainty can freeze us, or cause us to constantly switch.
OK, so it’s fear, uncertainty, discomfort, and pulled attention. How can we bring mindfulness to bear on these four horsepersons of distraction?
Bring Mindfulness Into the Arena
Armed with the knowledge of why we’re not able to focus, we’re going to further arm ourselves with mindfulness and walk confidently into the arena of meaningful work.
The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s OK to be afraid, OK to want to comfort yourself with easy tasks and distractions, OK to feel uncertainty. We’re not horrible people for being this way … we’re human. So we can look at our habits and smile on them with unconditional friendliness.
Let’s practice mindfulness in our workday with a series of questions.
QUESTION 1: What’s the best way to structure my day?
In this inquiry, we’re wondering if it’s best to constantly switch from messaging app to messaging app, from email to social media, from news sites to blogs, from small admin tasks to other quick tasks … filling up our day and not focusing on our most meaningful work.
In my own inquiry, it brings mindfulness to how I spend my time, how fragmented I allow my attention to be … and then it brings me to an intention to simplify and focus. I still need to check email and messages and do the smaller tasks … but I can lump them together at certain times of the day, and clear space for big chunks of focus and meaningful work. This intention isn’t always met, but the inquiry brings me closer to it.
QUESTION 2: What do I want to focus on?
This isn’t a question many people ask themselves each day. Ideally, you’d ask it at the beginning of each day, but also at various points throughout the day. It shifts you: you go from, “What should I check right now” or “What can I quickly do right now?” to “What is the meaningful work I want to do now and give my full focus to?”
In other words, what do I care deeply about? What kind of dent do I want to make in the world, and how can I start to make that dent right now?
It shifts from saying yes to your million things and messages, to saying no to those million things … so you can say yes to your meaningful work. So you can say yes to complete focus and mindfulness.
QUESTION 3: Why am I not focusing on it?
If you picked something to focus on and you’re working on it, great! But if you’re not … why not? What’s getting in your way? What are you afraid of? What are you comforting yourself with?
If you can identify the fear, instead of allowing yourself to habitually run from this fear … lean into it. Go towards it. Allow yourself to feel the fear, and stay in it, befriend it. Then go into your focus zone, in the middle of the fear, and let the fear be your guide and your friend. It means you are alive, that you are pushing yourself into discomfort for the sake of what you care deeply about, that you are creating meaningful work instead of running. Beautiful!
QUESTION 5: What is my intention as I focus?
As you get started with a focused session, even if it’s only for 10-20 minutes … it helps to ritualize it. Have a clear beginning, and even a clear end. What will you do to mark the beginning? Maybe stretch, smile at your work, and set an intention. An intention isn’t a goal, but how you want to go about doing the task … for example, I might say, “I want to stay focused on this task, put myself into this uncertainty for the sake of the people I care about and serve, and stay present in the middle of it.”
Keep this intention in your heart as you put yourself into this focus session.
QUESTION 6: What is this moment like, as I work in stillness?
Now you’re in the middle of the focus session … bring mindfulness to that task. That’s simply a matter of awareness and curiosity.
Bring awareness by asking: what is it like right now? What sensations can I notice? How does my heart feel as I take this gorgeous action, filled with uncertainty?
Bring curiosity when you feel like switching tasks and running … by asking, “I want to run from uncertainty, but what would it be like to stay?” The truth is, we don’t know. We think we know that we won’t like it, but actually we don’t really know until it happens. So take the curiosity stance: seek to find out. Come to this task with an open mind, and you might find a gentle wonder that you didn’t expect, in the middle of your meaningful work.
Now, you can do this for your meaningful work, but you can also do this for any task — responding to an email, answering a text message, reading an article online, contemplating a decision with care.
Bringing purpose and mindfulness to your work can be a place filled with joy, if you allow yourself to move into that space with intention and curiosity, inquiry and love.