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4 Steps To Un-fuzzy Your Focus

attention effectiveness productivity


Most of us would probably say we could focus better on our work. We have busy lives, a multitude of issues, challenges, decisions, and interactions on our minds at any given moment. Life is more complicated than it was a decade, three decades, five decades ago, and our bodies and minds are challenged to sustain optimal health in the face of the complexity, stress, and pace of activity.

Yet, when you find your attention wandering from the task at-hand, do you say to yourself, “Ah, yes. Here is a situation where my brain feels overwhelmed by the ridiculous amount of stimuli I’m throwing at it to assimilate.” Probably not. More likely, you’re saying something like, “Focus! Focus! C’mon, self . . . get with it!” And sometimes, we even over-generalize our frustration with our wandering attention and say things like this to ourselves:

“I’m so spacey.”
“I’m not commited enough.”
“I’m not very smart/good at this.”
“Maybe this job/task isn’t a good fit for me.”


It’s not so simple, folks. Focus isn’t either OFF or ON. It’s not lousy or really sharp. Focus happens along a continuum, and surprise! The least focused end is NOT BAD or unproductive. The goal is not to eliminate that mode entirely so that you are most often or always sharply focused.

In fact, if you tried to eliminate periods or moments of fuzzy focus from your days, you’d likely be less productive, less creative, and a real bear to be around.


As it turns out, our brains are just as hard at work in the fuzzy focus end of the continuum as it is in other spots. Dr. Ed Hallowell calls the fuzzy end of the scale, “drift.” This is a perfect descriptor for what is happening there, as thoughts and ideas freely associate with eachother and connections can be made that couldn’t (and don’t) get made at times when one is trying hard to concentrate and product something. Though it may feel like this mental mode is a time-waster, lazy, or something to hide or even be ashamed of, none of those are true! In this mode, your mind is churning away and consolidating stimuli and thoughts and feelings in a way that it MUST do, and that it can’t do at other times. So please let yourself be here and know that it IS productive, just not in a way that you may be used to considering productive.

At the other end of the spectrum is the state of being in “flow.”  I’ve written about flow in the past and describe it as others have, as the experience of being so drawn in to a task or process that you “merge” with the work itself. You become unaware of the passage of time, even perhaps of the presence of others around you, of your bodily feelings of thirst, hunger, discomfort, or of the dog repeatedly plunking a paw down in your lap, requesting a head rub. In this state, fabulous work can be done, but we could NOT spend all of our time here either. We’d starve. We’d break social norms. Our dogs would reject us.

Between drift and flow is an area of “flexible focus” which as it suggests, is movable. It shifts from semi-to extremely-focused. There are ways to develop the ability to move your focus along the continuum for different purposes. [You may have noticed advantages of both the less focused and the very focused states, as they are both supportive of different kinds of thinking and idea generation.] In the next blog article, I’ll share some of these techniques.


Today, I’ll share a model that illustrates how you might approach corralling and directing your attention when you need to. Take a look at the following visual:



When you know it will be important to carve out some time to attend to a particular task or project, start first with external distractions.

  • What noises are you aware of? Do they need to be address/minimized?
  • Is the amount of clutter in your workspace comfortable for you or distracting?
  • Are you physically comfortable? How’s the room temperature and the support of your chair?

Next, move inward.  This is when we assess our internal distractions and address them.

  • Are you hungry? Thirsty?
  • Do personal life “to do’s” keep popping up in your thoughts?
  • Is your attention drifting to your email notifications or to your smartphone?

Now, we move to attention. First, direct your attention. Make your boundaries clear. This is FAR more easily said than done.

  • Are you really clear about the goal of the task you’re about to embark on? What guidelines exist about what the end product should look like?
  • Do you have the resources, materials, files nearby, that may be useful in doing this task?
  • Would it help you to have a goal statement or other written guiding documents written largely and posted in front of you? (Ex. “I am (doing) ________________ to create (product)_______________ for (purpose) _____________”)

Finally, we work to sustain attention. For how long? It depends upon the task and the kind of brainpower needed to do it. You may need to continue to work at the task until it is completely finished. Or, if the job requires creativity or innovation, it may be more effective to give yourself timed breaks in order to keep your mind in top shape (focus for 30 minutes, break for 5, repeat).

What happens when you notice your mind wandering and you either are NOT finished with the task or are NOT yet at a scheduled break?

Return to the top of the chart and scan for what needs to be addressed (from #1 through to #4). Remember … outside in. Begin with a quick reassessment of the external environment and move to internal. You’ll progress also from physical to mental.

Address what you can each time through #1 – 4, and know that this rescanning and adjusting will become habit over time.

Note: there are many useful aps and websites to support you in focusing your attention.  Try searching for online timers, alarms, break timers, stretches for the workplace, etc. Some people even find it helpful to use support tools and technology to remind them to get up and go to the restroom and refill their water glass! My advice — use the tools that work for you, but if you know you can easily get sucked into researching options (for anything!), you might want to give yourself a time limit for the time you spend researching these tools as well.

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