Overcoming Obstacles (pt.2)
Being a musician has taught me some important life lessons:
If you value your art, make sure you’re getting what you’re worth
Practice, perseverance, and passion will play a bigger part in your development than just ‘talent’
Fifteen minutes of good, focused practice can beat out a solid hour of noodling around.
For part two of this series, I’d like to look at two of the points I mentioned last time. Focus and goal setting go together when you’re trying to make significant change happen in your life. Often the obstacles that face us down in life require some observation and planning for us to take the best approach towards putting them behind us. While it seems kind of ‘duh’, you’d be surprised how difficult mastering these two topics can be for any given person. There are several things to consider on an individual level. Do you like or hate scheduling? What about planners? Are you a text or type person? Are you easily distracted?
Questions like that are up to you or a coach/counselor (hint hint) to help you answer and best analyze. For the purposes of being a bit more general in my approach, I’m going to break down some of the inner workings of the topics at hand to give you a starting point on your road towards better understanding and mastery.
The Focus Muscle
I like to take on an old but true analogy and say learning to focus is akin to working out a muscle. You can imagine what that means, hit the gym, work it out, and it gets stronger. And while it seems simple enough to come out with some nice, strong focus muscles after enough time it isn’t as simple as that. Like with actual muscles you need to learn how they work and what makes them grow best.
For the best results, you need a little knowledge not only of the concept but how it applies to you personally.
Let’s take me: I am incredibly, easily distracted. I’m talking, get up to go do something and forget what that was the minute my attention is pulled away by any number of things. It has been a struggle most of my life due to the impact it had on my time management. When I’m able to overcome that, my next problem then pops up in that I have a lot of trouble keeping my attention on something beyond fifteen minutes of time. There’s more, but you can see how I would need to address all that to learn how I best work before doing the work.
The other part of that is learning a little bit of how focus and concentration work. We know that our brains can sustain attention on any given thing for a short period of time. A popular suggestion is that our brains can reliably remained focused on a topic or activity for about twenty minutes. Some of you reading find that to be a challenge and can think of several people who have trouble with even half that. I can tell you that another suggested amount of time can be as little as eight seconds. That sounds a little more right to some of you.
So, taking those two numbers, we can separate focus and into two categories (for now), sustained and divided. Sustained is exactly what you’re thinking: Sitting down, tuning out the world, and working on something for a long period of time. The twenty-minute number makes more sense for things that we do here like homework, taxes, and reading. Being able to sustain our attention relies on how well we can tune out distractions and make sure our attention isn’t pulled away by one of the dozens of different things that can pull us away these days (I’m looking at my cellphone right now, trying not to get pulled away from writing this post!)
Divided attention is more like what we do when we’re engaged in a multi-faceted activity. Think something like driving. It feels like our brain is on auto-pilot but really, we’ve just trained ourselves to be good at shifting our attention quickly. From turn signals, shifting, accelerating, breaking, and more once we take a good look at what it means to drive we realize that we’re never just zoned in on one thing. When you think of this, it’s much easier to picture those eight seconds within the context, isn’t it?
So now hopefully you’ve done a little bit of self-analysis at this point and are getting an idea where you’re at. Ask yourself some questions: How easily distracted am I? How much time can I focus on something? What helps me focus? When do I do my best work?
When we start answering those types of questions, we get a few steps closer towards having a “quality vs. quantity” approach to our focus. Like I said in the beginning I value fifteen good, focused, distraction-free minutes versus an hour of just ‘kind-of’ focusing on a given thing. The thing is, most of my practicing and focus where those long, aimless periods of time where very little got done. I had to find the things that helped me zero in on what I was working on. This took on the form of phone apps and a schedule.
I took an approach that let me deal with both my sustained and my divided attention. I set appointments with myself to get things done for the sake of school, work, or otherwise. I usually set these to a nice, lengthy period (1-2 hours), and within that I used phone apps to let me do work fifteen minutes at a time. In between each fifteen-minute period I peppered in five-minute distraction breaks and got right back to work. This eventually grew to twenty-five minutes and five-minute breaks as I got better at keeping my focus on a given activity. If this looks familiar, yes: I was using the Pomodoro technique.
Notice how I started at fifteen minutes and slowly built my way up to twenty-five? That’s part of the muscle building process. This is where we finally get to the work out after having done some learning and figuring out what’s best going to work for us. Your approach may be totally different but that’s okay Now the task is to slowly build up your focus to the point where you’re able to enter the ‘Flow’* state and get some quality work done in whatever you might be doing.
*Flow state will be another topic for another day!
Goals are like fries...
…They come in three sizes: Small, Medium, and Large.
We’re very good at the large-sized goals. We know what our destination looks like and what we’d want to be like when we get there. We imagine that, with a newly built toolset to help us be motivated and focus on the work we’re about to do we can just set off towards our goals and we’ll be just fine.
Of course, I’m going to say, pump the breaks! We need a little bit of time spent on what makes for getting to our goals successfully.
For instance, I said we’re good at our large, overall goals. We can dream up any number of them for ourselves. But then we soon feel overwhelmed when we realize just how much goes into achieving those goals. All the things you need to get to in-between can cause huge amounts of stress and cause us to give up way before it feels like we’ve even started. We tend to forget those smaller sizes and planning for them entirely when we should be spending most of our planning on those steps!
And while we’re planning on and breaking down our larger goals into smaller, bitesize chunks, we need to remember to ask ourselves three important questions
Is it attainable?
Is it realistic?
Is it rewarding?
Those will be driving the planning process as we plan out the journey to get to the destination.
We all dream.
It is a given that we have some lofty ideals and plans to get ourselves into what we’d call our optimal lifestyle. This can mean having a goal related to stuff we want, the money to get it, or what we must change about ourselves to make the process easier. We are creative beings and we can come up with some huge goals for ourselves as we plan out the timeline to our lives. However, to best avoid disappointment, we must start thinking and really pulling towards the idea of if a goal is something we can reach for.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t dream big. For many of us, our lofty goals are perfectly attainable with enough time and planning. But those last two things are what get lost in the shuffle. Then we’re left disappointed. Instead, I’d ask someone to start breaking down those huge goals (We’ll call them XL’s) Into large goals, and those large goals into medium, then small. The effort in this process is going towards finding the goal that sets ourselves up into knowing if what we’re after is attainable. It could be that you create a ton of tiny goals that you need to get by first before you even consider the end possible. To that, I’d say you’ve at least got a path now even if it seems like a lot of work.
As we’re planning our goals for ourselves, we need to always keep in mind that for the sake of our motivation and our mindset, we need to break down goals so that it can feel like we’re never going backwards. Tiny, little steps forward are still steps forward.
So, Attainable and realistic seem a bit redundant, no? You’d think they mean the same thing in this context.
See, attainability is one thing. The knowledge of knowing that we can set out after what we want and that we’ll eventually get it can be so powerful. But we also need to sit down and ask ourselves about that time frame meant by the word ‘eventually’. Sure, I can get a brand-new sports car. But I’m not getting it tomorrow. That’s not realistic.
See the difference yet?
We need to take those smaller steps and plot them out in such a way that the timing isn’t putting unneeded stress on ourselves. We also need to make it so that It doesn’t take forever and bore us. Engagement is what we’re going for here. This moves us on to the last word…
We like to win. We just do. We enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and knowing that we’re capable people. Its why we’re willing to put up with quite a bit to get to that feeling, that rush of accomplishment. Keeping this in mind we should look at our smaller goals and see if we’re getting enough out of them. We need to feel like we’ve done something, which is why you can’t break a goal down too far. Otherwise it stops being a goal and is just a thing we can do.
So then, we adjust the first two items until we find a list that makes each step of the journey feel like we’re getting something done. That bit of reward and those small victories cannot get ignored, or else we stop because it begins to feel hopeless.
Alright, let’s try this out with a common goal: Weight management. For now, we’re going to make a pyramid of goals: 1 large, 2 medium, 3 smalls.
Let’s start with the large goal as an “I” statement: I want to lose 50 lbs.
This is the large, overall endpoint we want to reach for ourselves. We don’t know how yet, but we’re wanting to lose those pounds. We can even add to it and give it a time line “….in six months” for example. That’s part of finding the realistic part of the goal.
Alright, for anyone 50 is a daunting number. For the medium goals I would look at ways to start making it less daunting, making it seem attainable, and giving us some nice big “reward” milestones.
This takes the form of two more statements: I want to lose 25 lbs., and I want to lose 25 lbs.
The above isn’t a typo. 50/2 is 25, of course. We’ll have to hit it twice to get to our end goal, and it is easier to thing of those than it is to think of fifty. After this, we break things down further, and in the smaller goals we veer away more from milestones and go more towards what it takes to get to those
Three more statements then!
I want to eat better, I want to exercise more, and I want to exercise longer.
So now we’re getting to the foundation for weight management. We know that habits are a big part of the whole deal and so we need to build up new, positive habits and get rid of old ones. If you look at those small goals, you can see where they work together to build towards your destination. You can also notice that those small goals themselves seem broad and general. That’s because they are, and it would be up to you to takes those goals and break them down to the point where you’ve found that nice balance of the three above attributes. Maybe keep a food log for eating healthy or starting with 20 min and building upwards for longer exercise. Goal setting is deeply personal, and it must conform to who we are and how we operate.
Once you’ve built a nice plan for your goals, you’re able to use your new skills in focus to help keep you on track and operate in the most efficient way. Using these two, you’ll be off to the races in no time in building change and overcoming obstacles in your day to day life. For the next post of the series, we’ll be taking a closer look at Accountability and when it’s alright to ask for help (hint: it’s always)
Until then, get started on those goals you’ve been putting off for a while!