What's the word for that ultimate awareness, that intense concentration that provides the most benefit to any activity on which we place our attention? It's a word we hear and use often; in business when striving to achieve a more productive work environment and at home when asking our children to avoid distractions. Focus.
Focus is that state of being we desire when solving challenging problems. Focus is the awareness we need when cramming for a final exam. Focus is the differentiator between the most successful entrepreneurs and those that struggle on. As important as it is and try as we might, achieving focus can be one of the most demanding and frustrating areas in our lives.
There is no shortage of tools and techniques for focusing, especially in the context of productivity or meeting goals. Software on our computers to track time spent on wasteful activities, apps on our phone to remind us to stay on topic, and self improvement resources on meditation are a dime a dozen. Like many, these tools have found a place in my work routine. Meditation can be a solid way to reset your focus when your attention wanders. But neither of these supplied that ongoing focus required to tackle a lengthy blog post, or construct a business plan.
Some activities grab our attention so deeply, focusing is automatic. These activities are different for everyone. For me, programming, drawing, and playing guitar drive me into an instant zen-like state where I'm only distantly aware of my surroundings while entirely focused on the task at hand. Like a dog fixated on a juicy steak, my brain turns all attention toward my aim, excluding nearly everything else.
But these types of activities are unique to everyone and only bring intense focus because we love them so dearly. They simply come naturally, without effort, and the state of mind for each was difficult to apply to other aspects of life. Come to find out, the lessons for which I was searching required something completely new: Riding motorcycles.
I'm not ashamed to admit my love of motorcycles started with the FX show, Sons of Anarchy. The bad-boy do-what-you-want attitude combined with the irregular hammering heartbeat of their motorcycle engines captured my attention quickly. Once past the skin of the show, I found each of the characters desireable: their qualities, their drama, and their flaws. But the real soul of the show was the intense focus of the main character, Jax Teller... an intensity of focus I would find in myself when riding my own motorcycle. An intensity of focus I strive to bring to life and work and play every day.
Like any new activity, riding a motorcycle demands an "entry fee" to learn the basics. If you haven't ridden, hopping on a motorcycle like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible is a recipe for disaster. Learning doesn't begin with dodging traffic and bullets at 150mph. Learning begins with idle walking the bike, then using the throttle, then cruising with feet up, and so on. After each skill is mastered, a new element is brought in until, at the end, you can bring it all together and freely ride away. Once the basics are mastered and you're out on the road, that true focus we're attempting to achieve comes instantly into play.
Unlike in a car, buckled in behind a thick dash and windshield, you are connected to the road in a much more primal way. It's a direct connection to your immediate destination and an indirect awareness of the tires on the road, the cars around you, and the obstacles in the short, medium, and long range. Your concentration isn't forced... not like when trying to read with your favorite TV show blaring in the background. Your focus is pure, your awareness whole. Any imaginative fears you had before taking off melt quickly away.
The road, as it turns out, is a perfect analogy for bringing focus to other areas of life. Like our goals, the road stretches on as far as we can see but as shallow as we'd like to stop. Like our distractions, the road is covered with obstacles vying for our attention--obstacles dangerous to getting to where we want to go. The motorcycle, like our life, is raw and powerful and bare and connected to the road (our goals) in a direct way. If we take care of our bike and we choose the right roads, we end up very nearly where we wished to be.
Like riding itself, focus is not an object you can grasp. It's not an achievement in an app that, once held, is yours to keep. Focus is a journey: always changing, always morphing. Here are some principles I learned from riding a motorcycle that may help you find focus:
1. Don't Force It. You simply cannot force a motorcycle to do what you want it to, whether moving or standing still. It's too heavy and has too much momentum. You have to guide it. You have to work with it. Lean into the curves, ease the clutch out. Look in the direction you want the bike to travel and your body will help it along that path. The same can be said of focus. Just as it's not an object you can grasp, it's not a state of mind you can force. Focus ebbs and flows. You have to guide it. You have to work with it. Just let yourself be aware of your focus (or lack thereof). When you lose focus, find something to remind you of what you are trying to accomplish in the first place. It's analogous to looking down the road to bring your destination back into perspective.
2. Be Aware of Distractions , but don't let them guide you. The road is in front of you, distractions are all over... don't focus on the branches in the forest, but notice the ones blocking your path. It's okay to take in the scenery, but when you're moving you must always keep an eye on the path towards your destination. Find a way to keep that destination (your goal) in front of you at all times... then when a distraction comes into view, notice it, and look back towards your goal to maintain that focus.
3. Plan the Route . You can't control the objects that will block your path... but you can choose a path that's likely to be the clearest. Just as I don't like to ride my motorcycle in heavy traffic, I recognize those unbearable distractions and avoid them with a bit of planning. If television is distracting, turn it off or find a different room in which to work. If your phone notifications prevent you from focusing, turn on do-not-disturb for a bit. You may not be able to control external distractions in the world, but you can reduce them considerably by planning your route.
4. Let Thoughts Go. Thoughts distract... "Did I get new email? I forgot to mow the lawn! Is it trash night?" Some of these thoughts are important, but most are not; especially when you are trying to focus. On a motorcycle, you have no choice but to let them go. You can't write them down and it is no use trying to remember. Let these thoughts pass and keep your eye on the goal. Chances are, if it's important, that thought will pop back into your mind when the ride is over.
If you take away anything from this post, understand this: Distractions are slowly destroying the work we should be focusing on, the relationships we should be building, and the time we should be spending in our lives. Focus creates clarity and clarity is the best way to solve problems, find answers, and work effectively. When you're trying to focus, try using the principles of the motorcycle rider and hopefully you will find your goals achieved a bit more quickly than before.