Focus has not always come easily to me. I was considered a daydreamer as a child, this the consistent feedback on my report card and the frustration of many a teacher. At home, tasked with the request to clean my room, I could make it an all-day event, as I looked sentimentally at every object, paged through favorite books, and took the time to read through an archive of letters and papers piled high on my desk. Even in college and graduate school, I could get lost in research and ideas for hours and then suddenly find myself scrambling to hone it all into one paper. My thesis culminated in an all-night, ‘no rest for the weary’ ordeal. This system barely worked for me when I had the margin in my life to accommodate it. But when that margin shrank, when roles of career and family clashed, and my time was no longer my own, I struggled to keep my dreamy head above the ocean of demands. I had to develop a plan or I would sink.
In the beginning, my many “to do” lists often easily transitioned from friend to foe, from a cheerful reminder of what needed to happen that day to a wicked taskmaster always reminding me of what I didn’t manage to accomplish. I would beat myself up over what I didn’t get done and I would resolve to do better the next day, only to flounder amidst the same responsibilities & distractions. I would read books about how to be more organized and manage my time more effectively. I listened to a podcast about how to assign tasks to certain days of the week, but then panicked when my life did not always seem to afford me the luxury of routine. Interruptions would abound and my ‘clean the kitchen Wednesday’ would cave to the more pressing needs of a play-date gone awry, a teenager who needed to talk, an ill parent who required my attention or an ‘all hands-on deck’ activation at work.
One of the best tools I found in my quest for focus, was the Pomodoro technique, perfect for a reforming daydreamer and multi-tasker wanna-be like me. The technique breaks down your work into 25-minute increments with a 5-minute break. It requires a silent oath that you will focus on the task of your choosing for 25 minutes and then allow yourself the freedom to attend to something unrelated, or to take a little break. I now have an app on my phone that is purely for this purpose and it is beyond helpful at reeling in my scattered thoughts and holding my focus to the job at hand. Admittedly, I still make time when someone in the room has an immediate need for my presence. I refuse to feel guilty for making people a priority. But my friends and family know that I will go for 25 minutes at a time without responding to a text. My phone doesn’t make the cut.
To help with the broader scope of what I choose to focus on, I also recently put an open checklist on my phone, like a ‘to-do’ list, only friendlier and much more forgiving. It includes anything of value to me that I want my days to be about. For example:
- connection with my spouse, my kids, extended family, a friend
- attending to the needs of clients
- spending time in nature
- speaking gratitude or words of encouragement
- reading a book
- holding back a complaint
- taking a nap (rarely used but sometimes the best option for a needed perspective shift!)
…along with other day to day responsibilities such as:
- dinner prep
- doing the dishes
- walking the dog
- washing & folding laundry
At the end of the day, I will examine my checklist and empty the circles to give myself a clean slate for the next day. I have never checked all of the circles next to these items in one day and no longer hold the unrealistic expectation that it will ever happen. Some days, I am exceedingly productive in household organization and have even had the time to try a new recipe. Some days, I am needed for a longer shift at work and find myself running to the store for a last minute rotisserie chicken and some frozen peas. Some days, the overriding theme is connection, and I overlook the crumbs on the kitchen floor and all incoming emails to fully engage in the conversations at hand. I better understand that some seasons of life demand more in certain areas than others and my list needs to flex to accommodate that. It is unhelpful for me to place unattainable expectations on myself when my current ‘sandwich generation’ schedule is rarely under my complete control. Ultimately, the checklist is both an accountability partner and a needed grace-giver. It encourages me to stay true to the things I value and to give myself credit for all I DO accomplish in a day’s time.
Lastly, I am learning to capture the flight of my many thoughts on paper to give my psyche more bandwidth, so to speak. I do write down in my planner anything that absolutely has to get done that day, week or month. I also have a running ‘gratitude list’ in a notebook (sometimes, I need the reminder to err on the side of thankfulness) and a journal to process some of the more complicated thoughts and feelings that inevitably arise. My journal is also a venue for my dreams, the hopes that I have, and the growth I wish to make. Sometimes, daydreaming has a beautiful purpose and I am unwilling to give that up completely!
I have learned to make friends with focus, knowing that it allows me to be fully present at work and at play, and recognizing that it makes me more productive overall. I have also learned to be more forgiving about where I allow my focus to land for that day, whether it be a list of chores, a book of choice, or a cherished face. Occasionally, the most productive thing I can do is to go with the flow of a life lived to the best of my ability and not waste precious time focusing on what didn’t get done.
Larisa B. joined Empathia in 1998 as an EAP Counselor. Larisa has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larisa thrives on being with her family, has a passion for photography, is always up for a good hike, and is typically in the middle of no less than three books at any given time.