By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
The moving truck comes in two days, nothing is packed, there are three remaining major work tasks that must be done this week, and my son wants me to troubleshoot his Spotify account — right now, if possible. Oh, and after we get the truck packed, I will drive across the U.S. in a tiny car with no trunk space, carrying three people and a lizard, for a “vacation” that is really a mostly miserable slog aimed at getting our car from Chicago to our new home in California. Did I mention the pet lizard might die if we don’t keep her temperature regulated correctly as we drive? In the past, I would have been out-of-my-mind stressed by now.
Instead, I’m feeling relaxed and happy. I’m writing this blog and thinking about science, two of my favorite things. Today is really the first time that I’ve realized that it’s my yearlong habit of mental focus that has saved me from another ulcer.
How can mental focus save us from stress?
It’s easy to think of mental focus as stressful in itself. At first, we have to “try” to get ourselves to focus on one task at a time, and it takes effort to force ourselves out of procrastination. To keep ourselves from using email, facebook, name-your-poison as a way to avoid focusing on one thing for a stretch of time may seem difficult, especially for the first few days.
I guess it is difficult, actually — but those early days go by so quickly. Once you decide you’re going to take on the new habit of mental focus and you start practicing, the difficulties are many (what do you do when friends are checking their phones during a conversation with you? when you’re waiting at a stoplight, do you just SIT there? [hint: YES]). But the payoffs are greater (more time for everything, less fear about everything, more enjoyment of everything, less criticism of everything, more space for your own life, less space for intrusions…and the list goes on).
People talk about mindfulness allowing them to be more present, and yes, I’ve experienced that. But the strength of mental focus is that when I’m mentally focused, I’m focused on something. I have a goal, I’m “verbing” — writing, reading, cooking, singing, whatever it is I’m doing — and that is my focus. I don’t have to clear my mind or have no thoughts — I can just focus on my immediate actions.
What this kind of focus does, among other things, is that it makes you ignore whatever is not your object of focus. Empty boxes piled around me this morning, reminding me that we need to pack. As I focused on them this made me feel afraid, like my life was descending into chaos. I almost yelled at my husband and son. But then my habit of mental focus kicked in, and I focused on the verb. What was I doing? I said, “Now I am looking around and feeling afraid — and it’s just because of these empty boxes!” I could report on what was going on with me after I figured out what my verbs were. I was looking at boxes and feeling afraid. So for a moment, that was my focus, and it was okay.
But after I admitted my “looking and feeling” verbs, I could tune into what needed to be done next — a few errands, a scientific experiment, and writing this post. The boxes, the mess, even any other things I needed to do, all fell away because my focus was on verbing. Driving, researching, writing.
The trap I had gotten into with meditation and mindfulness was that I thought I was supposed to be aware of everything, all the time. But that’s not only impossible for most of us (it’s not how attention generally works) it’s not really useful in times of stress. If I’m just as aware of the empty boxes as I am of my work, everything becomes equivalent and I get paralyzed.
What makes mental focus different from mindfulness is that focus can direct our mindfulness, and so it becomes tremendously helpful when things actually need to get done. I can be completely mindful of every word on this screen, while ignoring all the wires that sit in a pile behind my computer.
But what if the wires are important? What if they catch fire or something? In other words, what’s the downside of mental focus?
When I’m in an environment where I can just do my work and not be interrupted, mental focus is nothing but beneficial. But sometimes I’m at home, and I want to be available as a resource to my son (who is 16 and rarely needs me, but if he does — whoosh — I’d like to be there). Or I’ll be at work and even if I want to be focused, when someone asks a question it’s considered polite to briefly interrupt myself and ask them to come back later.
So the only downside of mental focus that I can think of is that it doesn’t work to do it all the time. If you try it all the time, your relationships will suffer. You have to intersperse times like sitting at a stop light alone, or listening to a long story told by an uncle, in which you have no immediate goal and you are simply in relationship with yourself or another person. That’s where mindfulness is really the primary tool, and mental focus takes a back seat. Then when the doing gets going, mental focus can direct mindfulness again.
It feels good to recognize that every tool has its place.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.