Feeling like you can't focus? You're not alone.
According to a 2015 research report from Microsoft, our attention spans are shrinking and may now be on par with goldfish. Since 2000, our ability to concentrate has shrunk from 12 seconds to about 8 seconds. A goldfish has a 9-second attention span.
Citing a possible evolutionary response as we shift to a multi-tasking, multi-screen digital world, the Microsoft report seems to suggest that we can't focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time.
So explain to me why binge watching Netflix is on the rise (and feels so good), and how my kid can stay rapt in his Minecraft world for hours on end?
In Daniel Goleman's book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, three types of focus are identified. Goleman uses scientific method and extensive case studies to show that these three types of focus are needed at different times for different reasons. Too much focus in one area for too long creates an attention deficit that makes it hard to focus in other areas. What are these types of focus?
According to Goleman, "Inner focus attunes our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions." This is our opportunity to look within, serve our own needs, and make sure we have our own oxygen mask on first. I dedicated an entire chapter in Creative Freedom to what I call the I-Matter paradigm, and it begins with knowing what really matters to yourself.
This isn't being selfish. I've said before that self-care isn't selfish. We've got to make sure we're taking care of our basic needs, and so often, that doesn't happen. Binge-watching releases dopamine, which triggers feelings that make us feel good. Emotional eating does something similar. Many creative entrepreneurs put their own dreams, desires, and needs on the back burner in order to serve the needs of others. The result is a form of personal deprivation. It makes sense, then that the only thing you want to do after a long day at the day job is sit on the couch for a little "Netflix and chill" time. You've got to re-fill that Inner Focus "tank".
Goleman writes that "outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world." You've got to be aware of your surroundings, your environment, and the constraints under which you're operating. Otherwise, it's difficult to be a citizen or a creative entrepreneur. Like trying to walk blindfolded through a dark room you've never been in before. If you don't know what's in there, you're probably going to bump into a lot of stuff before you make it across the room.
As a creative entrepreneur, you serve a market. That market exists in a larger environment. Can you create whatever you want? Sure, but creating in a vacuum doesn't usually pay the bills. You've got to be aware of what the market wants, and make key decisions about how you're going to respond to those needs. Can't do that very easily if you don't know what's going on in the world. Plus, for many creatives, the world at large is a great source of inspiration for your material.
Lastly, Goleman says that "other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives." Some people are jerks who couldn't care less about the people in their world. Some people have mental health issues that prevent them from being able to connect with others. But empathy, emotional intelligence, and the ability to read people and respond appropriately are valuable tools for any person - including creative entrepreneurs.
When you make that deeper connection with your customers, you develop Raving Fans. These people love you to pieces, recommend you to their network willingly, and share your Great Work with the world without being paid to do it. Aside from the financial benefits, it's the kind thing to do. Developing compassion for the people in your community (virtual or otherwise), gives you greater perspective and developing stronger connections helps your own emotional and mental health as well.
Looking at these three types of focus, it makes perfect sense to me that a lack of focus in one area can create ripple effects in the others. In fact, as a creative entrepreneur, you'll use these types of focus in different combinations, depending on your Creative type. I've identified these "focus blends" that tend to show up for creative entrepreneurs in different situations:
If you're a Chaotic Creative, you'll lean on Charitable focus more frequently - which is part of why Chaotics are more likely to undercharge than their Linear counterparts. Linears tend to use Professional focus - sometimes to the detriment of their own health and well-being (Type-A personality anyone?). Which means that Fusions are caught in Personal focus a good portion of the time - resulting in a chronic state of analysis paralysis. Learning to develop a more Global focus exercises all three types of focus more evenly, and helps creatives see their own blind spots a bit more readily.
So how do we improve our different focus styles? Practice. Goleman writes that "Attention works like a muscle - use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows." Here are a few ideas to help improve your focus:
Inner focus - You might choose to meditate, or simply sit quietly and pay attention to your body. As a kid, my high school drama teacher taught us an awareness exercise. "Feel your socks on your feet and your feet in your socks. Feel the pants on your legs and your legs in your pants. These subtle shifts in awareness help you focus on you, what your body is experiencing, and what you're feeling in the moment.
Outer focus - Use soft focus, or peripheral vision to experience the world around you. Instead of fixating on something in front of you, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the room you're in. Pick out voices in conversations or instruments in a song. Find ways to experience what's going on around you that don't directly involve you.
Other focus - Playtime with kids is always fun. Volunteer your time and attention. I try to donate blood as often as possible. Find a way to help someone else, or just ask them how their day was and really listen to them. Put your attention on someone other than yourself.
These are all ways to strengthen your focus muscles in various ways. Which ones will you try?
Sometimes you just need someone else to be in the room to keep you on task. A-Club has regular co-working sessions to help you stay focused on your goals and dreams. We meet several times a month on Zoom to work together and celebrate our progress on our goals. If you'd like to have personal support to stay focused on your dreams, enrollment for A-Club is now open and includes personal one-on-one coaching every few months to help you make even faster progress.