One of the words my clients use most frequently to describe what they want when they come to work with me is focus. For many, their attention has been like a friendly, off-leash dog. Either it’s excitedly jumping from one bright shiny object to another, unable to stay in any one place for long, or lazing around in the warm sun, unresponsive to prodding. They want to regain control and feel like their attention is happily on a leash, accompanying them on a pleasant jaunt through life.

The challenge is, your attention is not about to put itself on a leash. If you want to improve your ability to stay focused, you have to choose to do so. 

How you focus your attention is largely a choice. 

When I talk about focusing attention, I am talking about attending to tasks that are important to you, and I’m talking about how you focus your thinking. For example, if you’re in a conflict with your partner, you can choose to complain about what they’re doing, or you can choose to get curious about how you might communicate differently. If you’re feeling stuck trying to move a big project forward, you can choose to focus on why things are hard, or you can get curious about what might work. If you’re launching a new offering, you can get wrapped up in why it’s not yet good enough, or you can get curious about what would make it ready to put out there.

You get to choose. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, no matter how hard our circumstances may be, we can choose our attitude—

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. 

Now, you might say that all sounds well and good, but what if you really struggle with focus?

I concede that it’s not easy, at least not at first, to choose where to focus your attention. Our brains are wired to work in the ways that we use them over time. So if you’ve always felt scattered and had a hard time paying attention, your brain may not yet be wired in a way that helps you focus. It can take a real commitment, but over time, you can rewire your brain to focus in ways that serve you. 

When you focus your brain in certain ways, you strengthen the synapses or connections between the neurons associated with the activity you’re engaged in. This is the case for any mental activity, including sustaining your attention in a certain way over time. As the old saying goes, “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Rewiring your brain is a lot like lifting weights. At first, it can feel hard, but the more you do it, the stronger the connections get. For example, I’m not the strongest person, and right now, I’d have a hard time bench pressing a hundred pounds. I haven’t tried, but I don’t think I could do it. However, if I were to go to the gym, day after day, slowly increasing the weight I lift, I’d eventually be able to lift even more than my initial goal. It would be hard at first, but it would get easier. Focusing your attention in the ways you choose takes a similar amount of energy at first but gets easier over time.

Although there are many practices that can help you strengthen your focus, I want to focus the rest of this article on a practice rooted in the neuroscience of habit change. 

What am I focusing on? A guiding question.

In this practice, you ask yourself the guiding question: What am I focusing on? You shine the light of attention on your attention itself. (It’s meta, I know.) 

Neuroscience shows that the more you’re aware of your inner experience, the greater your ability to change both your inner experience and your outer behavior. 

When you’re unaware that you’re doing something, it’s like you’re asleep and you lack choice. But when you’re aware that you’re doing something, it’s like you wake up, and you gain freedom of choice. 

Asking yourself where you’re focusing focuses your attention and thereby strengthens your brain’s focusing muscles. This question also helps you understand how you’re focusing: What’s calling your attention? When are you getting distracted? What’s helping you focus? The more aware you are of how you’re paying attention, the more choice you have to choose how you focus, and onward in a virtuous feedback loop.

I invite you to practice now.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Then set a timer for three minutes knowing that you can take more time if you’d like. And write what comes up in response to the question: Where am I focusing my attention? 

You may notice where you’re focusing your attention while you’re writing, or you may notice where you’ve been focusing your attention lately. Or something else might come to mind. Write down whatever arises, keeping your hand moving without censoring yourself. 

When you’re complete, take a step back and get curious about what you’ve discovered so far, both through reading this article and the journaling practice.

What came up for you? 

I encourage you to share any questions or insights that come up in the notes below my blog. I’d be happy to answer your questions.

If what I’ve written here resonates, I encourage you to practice with this question every day for five minutes.

I wish you grit and determination as you shift your relationship with focus. Realizing that you have a choice is like waking up. The point is not to be awake all the time; it’s to keep waking up. The more you do, the easier it becomes. Onward!

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Wishing you so much focus and joy this week, 

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