Around the globe, people are being challenged to cope with a completely new daily life rhythm in the face of quarantine, social distancing, unanticipated home schooling and working from home or in unaccustomed settings, and more, all resulting from the spread of a novel coronavirus strain. One of the most frequently reported conditions that many of my friends are experiencing is an inability to stay organized or focused. The purpose of this post is to address both the causes of the feelings of mental fog and overwhelm that are obstacles to focus and to suggest some simple strategies for putting the pieces of your life back into a manageable puzzle.
What is Focus and why is it so important?
The online dictionary https://www.thefreedictionary.com includes the following definitions for the concept of “focus” that we are discussing here:
- A center of interest or activity
- Close or narrow attention; concentration
- A condition in which something can be clearly apprehended or perceived
We want to be able to know at any given time what we are supposed to be doing or thinking about, where we can best accomplish it, who is supposed to be there with us, and why this particular time has been assigned to doing it (and for how long we will plan on doing it). I think many of us assume that we just know these things or that a mental checklist will be available at all times to keep us “on track”, but nothing could be further from the truth. Focus is a muscle that we have to train, exercise, support, and evaluate over time.
Focus is best evaluated when we have measurable goals. Why is that? In my experience, we often feel that we are focusing when we’re not. How often have you driven to a certain destination and, upon arrival, realized that you have no recollection of how you got there? Or listened to a podcast with great interest in the subject only to get to the end and find that you are unable to write down a clear summary of what has been said? We’ve all been there.
Why is Focusing more difficult in the midst of life changes?
The ability to focus requires that our bloodflow is directed toward our prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain that makes decisions, sets priorities, allows us to be “intellectual”. It requires that we NOT be in fight/flight/freeze/frolic mode. When we encounter events and situations that we have not prepared for or that make us afraid, our bodies automatically send our blood coursing toward our limbic system – especially the amygdala (our emotional seat) – causing involuntary reactions to take over. These can be extreme and very noticeable or they can simply keep building in the background.
Everyone has moments of blanking or inability to concentrate, but why do these “moments” sometimes get much more frequent and perhaps even disabling? Perhaps you have always been very well organized, with an excellent memory and an ability to complete a variety of tasks on or ahead of deadline. Then, suddenly or over a certain amount of time, you realize that you don’t recognize yourself, that something you used to consider a simple task takes a while or several tries to complete or is simply cast aside as you push to attempt to complete other equally simple tasks – all the while finishing very little to your satisfaction.
This is the key – your patterns and paradigms have been disrupted, often in several areas of your life. Let’s take the example of a working parent who is working from home AND trying to home school 2 or 3 children of different ages using one family computer for the first time AND trying to juggle trips to the grocery store with proper masking, gloves, children in tow… Well, you get the picture. Imagine that this parent also has a home repair emergency, a sick pet, and that he or she can’t have the usual sitter or relative come by to allow a break.
It doesn’t have to be a pandemic. It could be a child hitting a new emotional stage, a physical move away from everyone and everything you know and into a new hometown with no social network, a new job – or layoff. Whatever the disruption(s) might be, your world has just started spinning on a new axis.
The basic explanation for a lack of focus during such a time is that you are having to reconstruct some or all of the map of your life while you are living in the middle of the construction site. During the current pandemic, for example, just about all of your life map may be changing. You are implementing new habits, new strategies, new ways of relating even to the loved ones who share your home. Your brain is laying down new neural pathways as quickly as it can while still trying to follow the old ruts that haven’t been declared obsolete (and that you don’t REALLY want to lose because you are longing to get back to “normal”). STRESSSSSSS!
The way you handle stress – and, therefore, regain focus – can be strongly influenced by your blood type. For a quick look into how you can identify signs of stress based on your blood type, go here: https://annebacher.wordpress.com/2019/10/30/mind-body-connection-to-blood-type/
You will notice that both type A and type B individuals are prone to daytime brain fog in times of stress. Following a diet that includes the best foods and exercise for your blood type will definitely help to minimize the fog.
What is needed to get my brain ready to Focus?
Our brains require that some basic needs are met in order to allow us to focus well: proper nutrition (at least in part because the gut is the “second brain” and gut health has a profound effect on both physical and emotional well-being), adequate rest and sleep (giving your body the time to process both food and data in order to produce usable information and energy), appropriate exercise (movement – this can be practical or fun and can be whatever fits into your real life), and a state of emotional balance together with confidence that you CAN handle things.
I know – believe me, I do – how difficult it can be to achieve these goals in the middle of redrawing your life map. Sometimes you may need outside professional help (even that can be obtained virtually these days). But you may find that taking a few of the steps outlined in this post can help significantly in clearing both your vision and the path to follow.
If you get stuck, ask yourself, “What am I avoiding? What is causing me to feel overwhelmed?”. Take the answers to those questions and address them as you are able, making at least a little more progress every day.
How do I know what deserves my Focus?
Are you a list person? I have been my entire life; it’s not a sign of weakness. We’ll get to more on list making below, but you will probably survive best if you make the effort to write things down.
When you are feeling unfocused and overwhelmed, it is important to separate the “urgent” from the truly important and necessary. You may have been able to keep a perfectly orderly home/yard/meal plan/business process before the current remap. That may just not be possible right now. Be gentle on yourself and on those with whom you interact. Relationships are key; the dishes may not be.
Time blocking and Presence to enhance Focus
Believe it or not, every human has a total of 168 hours of life per week. One of critical building blocks to successful focusing is to be very clear about what you are committed to accomplishing in YOUR 168 hours. Following the rule that things work best when they are written down, I recommend that you create a weekly calendar with every hour accounted for. Sound crazy? Stick with me.
Begin by blocking out hours for the necessities: sleep; meal prep/eating/cleanup; required work/study. BE SURE TO INCLUDE designated time to enjoy your family, pets, to make calls or send letters to others. Maintaining relationships is key to long-term health. Even if you are working double time in an essential profession, find time to dedicate to staying in touch. Daily circumstances can certainly force changes, but try not to erase completely something that you considered important enough to schedule. Instead, insert it somewhere else as soon as possible.
Commit to be PRESENT during your scheduled time block. If it’s playing a game with your child, be focused 100% on that child and that game. If it’s making phone calls for business, be sure that you have managed distractions and pre-planned your list.
Despite what you may have heard, multitasking is NOT a good strategy. The more you can stick to one activity at a time and know how long you intend to stick with it, the safer, calmer, and more focused you will feel. If necessary, set a timer. This frees you to be even more present, since there is no need to keep checking the time. Also, be sure to build transitional time into your blocks. This helps you to remain calm while you “change hats” even if you might run over a little on a prior activity. And build in time to BE (that is, to be PRESENT with yourself!). Schedule time daily to engage in at least one activity (or stillness) that helps you to nourish yourself spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This practice guarantees that you continue to stay refreshed.
Let your environment support your Focus
Physical clutter is a huge contributor to mental clutter and inability to focus. Throwing or giving away things that no longer serve you is also incredibly cathartic. Even if you can’t give things away right now, place items in spare boxes and trash bags and put them in a storage space. Your mind knows when there is too much “stuff” and keeps noticing the extra even when you are not conscious of it.
Audio clutter also inhibits good focus. Are you in the habit of leaving a device on for background noise? If you can’t bear silence, at least try changing to soft jazz or classical music (no lyrics) as a background. I happen to be partial to Gregorian chant when I really need to focus and can’t quite achieve silence. You’ll find that the music itself will often calm those around you.
Poor air quality inhibits focus by inviting congestion or causing unpleasant smells (aromas are the cause of powerful emotional ups and downs). The best antidote to stuffy or stale air – even if you can’t open a window – is to diffuse high-quality essential oils. Many of the oils and blends that are excellent for diffusion may also be applied topically to provide targeted support to your brain, heart, and gut.
The rhythm of Focus
Focus is a discipline. At the beginning of each week (Sunday evening) and before bed each night, WRITE THINGS DOWN (yes, I promised to talk about lists). Write everything down that you’d like to accomplish in the upcoming period. You may also find that having a good planner can help to keep both short- and long-term goals on your map. These consistent data dumps are useful not only in helping you to remember all things big and small but also in giving your brain permission to relax and know that you really are aware of all the things that are vying for your attention. This enhanced state of relaxation helps you to get and remain asleep and to enjoy a more restful sleep.
At least half an hour (longer if possible) before you plan to go to sleep, turn off all electronic devices, turn lighting down, and start diffusing your favorite nighttime oils. This works for all ages. Focus on what you will enjoy about sleeping. Tell yourself that you are ready for a great sleep and that you have made sure that you are ready for handle things the next day. Think about beautiful things as you lie down and drift off to sleep. This tells your brain to focus on collating your day’s experiences in a calm, productive way and healing/refreshing you for the day to come.
Focus recipes and tips
Remember that I mentioned earlier that the limbic system includes the seat of our emotions? If you’d like to understand WHY top quality essential oils are so effective even when our higher level intellectual functions are not serving us optimally, go here:
My favorite DIY essential oil blend for focus (diffused and applied to my temples and the back of my neck) is a combination of Lemon, Peppermint, and Rosemary. I also add Rosemary to my freshly washed hair. Spearmint is also helpful with focus (really, mints in general).
Frankincense is especially helpful when you want a deeply meditative focus and can be used alone or diffused/layered with other oils.
doTERRA offers a Focus Blend called InTune (https://www.doterra.com/US/en/p/in-tune-oil). Other oil blends that help to maintain the calm and emotional balance that can support focus include Serenity, Balance, and Adaptiv. Serenity and Adaptiv are also available as supplements for internal use as an extra support to restfulness and calm. Thinker is an excellent blend formulated especially for littles ages 3+.
We WILL come out of this current shutdown in time. Stay safe and well in the meantime, friends.
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