How to find focus

3 December 2020
3 Dec 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

I’ve had an easy time being focused lately. I say no to obligations or opportunities that I would have easily accepted before. I have fewer things on my todo list, which means I get to spend more time on the few things that I’ve said yes to when I sit down to be creative. I also have a stronger sense of my values – what’s important to me, and what’s less important – and that’s helped me leave more room in my schedule for myself. I’ve been thinking about why it’s easier for me to focus now, and what might have changed.

The most significant change in my thinking has been that I have a lot of conviction now that the few things I’m spending my time on – university, writing, side projects – are right for me. If a stranger had come up to me last year, told me I was doing it all wrong, and suggested I make different choices in my education or my work, I would have been easily swayed. Today, I feel myself standing on much firmer ground. Because I’m sure that I’m spending my time on the right things, it’s easy for me to say no to things that’ll take that time away from me for something else.

There wasn’t a moment in time when I suddenly decided that I was going to become focused, and started having confidence in what I do. Confidence doesn’t work that way – it’s earned, not found. To earn confidence (and the focus that comes with it), we need to explore our options, try things out, open all the different doors in front of us, and then say, “this is the best option for me, so I’m going to do this.” Only that kind of conviction, coming from true belief and not just blunt willpower, can give you the certainty you need to be focused on the few right things. I suspect this is the reason many students who take gap years or gap semesters return with more confidence and perspective. They’ve explored more of their options, and find themselves more focused.

All this has me convinced that focus isn’t just stubbornly saying “I’m going to say no to more things,” it’s studying all the options you have until you can say with conviction, “this is the right one for me.” Paradoxically, this means attaining focus requires us to become less focused for a little bit, exploring our options enough to develop some conviction around what’s important or what feels right.

At any moment, we are either in a divergent phase of life, or in a convergent phase. During a divergent period, we’re usually focused on broadening our inputs. We go to school, take on internships, travel, try a career switch, and so on, exploring new paths. During a convergent time, we take what we’ve learned thus far to double down on just a handful of goals on which we can spend our energy – we become more focused. We grow fastest not by converging constantly onto some single point set from the start, but over cycles of divergence and convergence that come and go like seasons.

These cycles of divergence and convergence come from the heart, not from circumstance. You can’t force yourself to become focused by picking an option when you aren’t sure that it’s right. If your choice isn’t based on the confidence you have in that decision, your focus ends up pulled apart by the worry that you’ve missed out on the roads not taken.

Focus is a destination, not a path. And the only way to get there is to earn the confidence to feel that what you’re working on is the right one for you, so you can say no to everything else. And the only way to feel right in what you do is to try your chances with the paths that might be wrong, too. That isn’t wasted effort – it’s what’s required of us to earn our focus.

So if you feel lost or directionless, instead of making yourself pick a direction while lost at sea, consider drifting for a bit. Try things out. Open the unopened doors. Say yes to a few more things. And then when you feel the winds turning, set your sail to what feels right, indisputably and confidently right. It might take more time, and you might feel behind sometimes, but when you finally set off, you won’t need to look back.

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