Mr. Boomsma, You Need To Focus!

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Picture a second grader with a scholarly look–glasses that tilt as kids’ often do; an appropriate lack of front teeth revealed by a smile reflecting a sense of accomplishment. We’d just finished reading a book together. She’d read flawlessly.

When we stood to return to her classroom, another class of young scholars entered the library. They were calling out greetings as they passed and this served as a distraction as I attempted to push my chair under the table. I didn’t notice that I wasn’t succeeding because the chair simply didn’t fit.

After watching me in frustration for a while, she placed her hands on either side of her face mimicking the blinders horses wear. “Mr. Boomsma, you need to focus!”

I chuckled at the maturity with which she attempted to resolve my problem and teach me a lesson. I thought I was busy. She rightly recognized I wasn’t  busy. I just wasn’t doing such a good job of handling multiple priorities-priorities that I had actually selected unconsciously.

It’s at least interesting that a seven-year old had that insight. Many people observing the situation would have thought I looked busy. But  had I focused on any one of the tasks at hand I would most certainly have succeeded. All I was really trying to do was push in my chair, keep track of my reader friend and acknowledge some other friends arriving on the scene. Like walking and chewing gum at the same time, these were manageable tasks.

It’s been several years since she taught me the lesson and I still use her gesture to remind myself I need to focus. Occasionally I use it with others. She is, after all, correct. Most people who complain about being busy just need to focus.

The flip side of this is the claim, “Be patient! I can only do one thing at a time.”

Really?

Let’s see. I’m usually doing lots of things at a time. I’m thinking, writing, breathing… My heart is pumping. I’m somewhat aware of some folks nearby talking… I didn’t really think about it, but I’m really quite busy. Fortunately I’m also fairly focused. If not, I could become very stressed over everything I am handling. What if I forget to breath? Now I need to sneeze. I’m so busy! I can’t take on another thing!

Having told on myself (and had some fun), I can perhaps reveal that I suspect a lot of people who complain about “busy” just aren’t focusing. Our wonderful brains do take care of a lot of this for us, but we also have the ability to manage our attention. When we don’t use that ability not only does our stress increase, but our “situational awareness” decreases.  I didn’t notice my chair didn’t fit because I was stressed. I was stressed because I wasn’t focused. It became about everything and that meant it was actually about nothing.

Note, however, there’s an opposite problem when we become too focused. I wouldn’t call it obsessive compulsive. I think it’s more about target fixation. During WW II pilots would sometimes become so focused on their target they’d forget to release the bomb and pull out of the dive. They’d lose perspective and crash into the target.

Somewhere between focusing and being aware of one’s surroundings there’s a sweet spot with a balance. But you don’t find it without looking. It might be under the table where the chair doesn’t fit!

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