(The content below is one of the 10 daily sessions from my 10 Day Anxiety Detox product.)
Session 1. Focus.
This session is about focus. Focus is the word I use to describe where your mind is directed or what your attention is on.
Focus has a big impact on how you feel. Focus in an unhealthy way and it will lead directly to anxiety. Focus in a healthy way and it will lead directly to calmness.
When you understand how focus works, you’ll have much more control over it. You’ll be able to avoid the unhealthy focus that leads to anxiety, and you’ll be able to seek out the healthy focus that leads to calmness.
That’s what this session will help you to do.
Focus in Action
The best way to understand how focus works is to see it in action in a real world example, so let’s do that.
Last year I came across a girl on Periscope. Periscope, in case you don’t know, is the app that lets you watch other people stream live video from their phones.
The girl was streaming live from her car while she was parked on her driveway. She had her phone on a dashboard mount, aimed at her face.
Hundreds of people were watching her live stream, and dozens of them were sending in comments and questions, which she was reading and replying to.
The interaction on Periscope was the only task the girl was focused on.
After a couple of minutes, the girl started up her car and drove off down the street. She kept up the Periscope conversation as she drove.
Now the girl had two tasks to focus on. Periscope and driving.
A mile down the road the girl picked up her boyfriend. He got in holding a McDonald’s bag. He grabbed a hamburger from the bag, gave it to the girl, and they both ate as she drove. The girl would put the hamburger in her lap between bites, while she continued to check Periscope on her phone.
Now the girl had three tasks to focus on. Periscope, driving, and eating.
Then the girl and her boyfriend started talking. Sometimes it was small talk, sometimes he was getting involved in the comments that were coming in on Periscope.
Now the girl had four tasks to focus on. Periscope, driving, eating, and talking.
Next, her boyfriend turned on the car radio and tuned it to some heavy rock music. Both he and the girl had to start talking louder so they could hear each other over the music.
Now the girl had five tasks to focus on. Periscope, driving, eating, talking, and music.
Then her boyfriend’s phone rang and he put the call on speakerphone. It was some guy on the line. They all must have known each other, because the girl, her boyfriend, and the guy on the phone were having a three-way conversation.
Now the girl had six tasks to focus on. Periscope, driving, eating, talking, music, and the phone call.
I was watching all of this live on Periscope. It was a crazy scene.
The girl talking to her boyfriend, the girl talking on Periscope, the boyfriend talking to the girl, the boyfriend talking on the phone, the girl talking to the guy on her boyfriend’s phone, the guy on the phone talking to the girl and her boyfriend.
So many voices, all of them overlappiing, all of them shouting to be heard over the rock music on the radio.
And amongst all of this, the girl was driving one-handed, trying not to crash while she grabbed bites from the hamburger in her lap.
I’ve got a name for what that girl was doing. Multifocus. Multifocus is what I call it when you force your brain to focus on multiple tasks.
The Dangers of Multifocus
Multifocus is the unhealthiest way you can focus. Multifocus changes your brain in ways that lead directly to anxiety.
Let’s see how multifocus leads directly to anxiety.
The girl had six tasks to focus on. The human brain can only truly focus on one task at a time, so for the girl to stay on top of everything, her focus had to rapidly jump between those six tasks dozens of times every second.
In other words, the girl was multifocusing.
She would focus on the first task for a fraction of a second, then her focus would jump to the second task for a fraction of a second, then her focus would jump to the third task for a fraction of a second.
And so on, through all six tasks, before her focus got back to the first task and started all over again.
Multifocus is like psychological plate spinning.
Each time the girl’s focus jumped from one task to another, thousands of electrical impulses would shoot around her brain to help her refocus.
If doctors had hooked the girl up to an MRI scanner while she was multifocusing like this, while her focus was jumping between tasks dozens of times every second, it would have shown her brain lit up like a Christmas tree.
The only other time you see a brain lit up like that is when doctors hook someone up to an MRI scanner while they’re having a panic attack.
In other words, when you multifocus, when you force your focus to jump around dozens of times every second, your brain becomes like the brain of someone who’s having a panic attack.
If you’re prone to anxiety, like you are, like I am, multifocus is incredibly dangerous. It changes your brain in ways that lead directly to anxiety.
Now let’s take a look at a different way to focus. And again, I’ll use a real world example so you can see it in action.
A Better Way to Focus
A few months ago, while I was looking out my living room window, I spotted a man sitting at a picnic table in the park across the street, quietly reading a book.
Over the following few weeks I spotted him again and again. He was always sat at the same table, in the same spot, and he was always reading a book.
He must have been coming to the park in his lunch break because he was always there around 1 o’clock.
Spotting him became a hobby of mine. If I was home and free, I’d check out the window around 1 o’clock to see if he was there, and he usually was.
Some days I’d be looking out when he arrived so I got to learn his routine.
He would arrive at the park with a backpack over his shoulder. Then he’d sit at the table and take a book out of his bag. Before he started reading he would take his phone out of his pocket and put it down inside his backpack.
Then he would read for 30 minutes and leave.
And read was all he ever did during those 30 minutes. He didn’t talk to anyone, he didn’t get his phone out, he didn’t look up at traffic, he didn’t eat a sandwich while he read. He just read his book and that was all.
I’ve got a name for what that man was doing. Single focus. Single focus is what I call it when you focus on one task all on its own.
The Benefits of Single Focus
Single focus is the healthiest way you can focus. Single focus changes your brain in ways that lead directly to calmness.
Let’s see how single focus leads directly to calmness.
The man in the park had just one task to focus on. Unlike the girl on Periscope, whose focus had to jump between six tasks dozens of times per second, this man’s focus could stay locked on reading.
In other words, the man was single focusing.
There were thousands of electrical impulses shooting around the girl’s brain as she refocused on task after task.
But in this man’s brain there was no need for those electrical impulses. Single focus meant his focus was locked in one place and his brain was in a quiet place.
If doctors had hooked the man’s brain up to an MRI scanner while he was single focusing it would have shown his brain dark and inactive.
The only other time you see a brain this dark and inactive is when doctors hook someone up to an MRI scanner while they’re meditating.
In other words, when you single focus, when you allow your focus to stay locked in one place, your brain becomes like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
If you’re prone to anxiety, like you are, like I am, single focus is incredibly beneficial. Single focus changes your brain in ways that lead directly to calmness.
Okay, so we’ve looked at two different ways to focus. Multifocus, where you focus on multiple tasks. And single focus, where you focus on just one task.
Multifocus is unhealthy and makes your brain like the brain of someone who’s having a panic attack. Single focus is healthy and makes your brain like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
You need to make some small changes to your life so that your time spent multifocusing is reduced while your time spent single focusing is increased.
How to Change the Way You Focus to Reduce Your Anxiety
I’ve created 5 steps to help you do both of those things.
Step 1. Stop Multifocus as it Happens
Now that you’re aware of multifocus you’ll notice it in your life all the time.
When you notice that you’re multifocusing on two or more tasks at the same time do your best to stop it.
Ideally, stop all but one of the tasks you’re performing so that you’re left in a healthy state of single focus.
If you can’t get down to single focus stop as many of the multiple tasks as possible. Two tasks are better than three. Three tasks are better than four.
For the health of your mind, the fewer tasks you’re performing the better.
From now on, when you notice multifocus in your life, quickly reduce the number of tasks you’re performing to the smallest number you can.
Step 2. Don’t Let Boring Tasks Lead to Multifocus
Boring tasks often lead to multifocus. Let’s use chores as an example.
Because chores are boring you probably do other things while you do your chores, as a way to distract yourself.
When you do other things while you do chores you’re doing two or more things at the same time, and that’s multifocus.
Think about the chores you perform the most. Cleaning, tidying, cooking food, washing dishes, showering, brushing your teeth, taking out the trash, vacuuming.
Do you do other things while you perform these chores? Do you distract yourself with music, TV, texts, phone calls, snacks, and all kinds of other things?
If you do other things while you do your chores, that’s multifocus.
Chores aren’t the only boring tasks that can lead to multifocus.
Travelling, eating, and waiting for things can all be incredibly boring, and they can all lead to multifocus as you attempt to distract yourself from the boredom.
You’ve probably got tasks that you find boring that I haven’t mentioned, and these can all lead to multifocus too.
Don’t let boring tasks lead to multifocus. Become aware of the other things you do to distract yourself when you’re bored, and do your best to stop them from now on.
Step 3. Deal with Phone Notifications in Short Blocks of Dedicated Time
Your phone probably beeps at you dozens of times a day with text, email, and social media notifications.
And you probably deal with most of those notifications the moment they come in.
You’re doing some other task, your phone beeps, and you either stop the other task to deal with the notification, or you deal with the notification while you’re still doing the other task.
Think about the example I shared with you just now. The girl on Periscope. How her brain was lit up like a Christmas tree because she was jumping between tasks so quickly.
When you jump between tasks every time your phone beeps your brain looks like that girl’s brain. Lit up like a Christmas tree. Like the brain of someone who’s having a panic attack.
You don’t need to deal with notifications the moment they come in. Instead, only check your phone from time to time, perhaps once an hour.
Then deal with all the notifications that have built up, and move on until it’s time to check your phone again.
You won’t always be able to follow this plan of only checking your phone occasionally, and sometimes you just won’t want to.
You might be waiting on an important message, someone you care about might be unwell, something time-sensitive might be due.
In those cases you’ll need to check your phone.
But when there’s no emergency, when there’s nothing time-sensitive coming in, try to deal with your phone notifications once an hour.
If that sounds too tough then start by dealing with your notifications every half hour instead. Maybe you’ll work up to an hour, maybe you won’t.
The key is dealing with your phone notifications less often, and in short blocks of dedicated time.
Do that and you will immediately cut a lot of multifocus from your life.
Step 4. Perform Long Tasks Without Interruption Until Finished
Long tasks that take more than 30 minutes to finish rarely get done in one go.
Sometimes you’ll get interrupted by something else and you’ll abandon the long task for a while and come back to it later.
Sometimes you’ll voluntarily abandon the long task to do something else and come back to it later.
Either way, the long task gets broken up into shorter chunks.
Think about the long tasks you perform.
Watching a movie, watching a TV show, tidying a room, washing the car, homework or tasks for your job, paperwork.
You’ve probably got other long tasks that are unique to you.
How often do you perform long tasks like these and finish them in one go without interruption?
When you abandon a long task before it’s finished you’re missing out on a great opportunity to get healthy single focus into your life.
Think about the example I shared with you just now. The man reading for 30 minutes in the park. How his brain was quiet and inactive. Like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
Every long task you interrupt is an opportunity lost for your brain to become like that man’s brain. Like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
From now on, when you’re faced with a task that will take longer than 30 minutes to finish, make it your goal to stick with the task without interroption until the task is finished.
Step 5. Intentionally Seek Out Single Focus Tasks
During some of my worst times with anxiety I would run in the park behind my house. It got me in great shape and I would run 5 or 6 miles a day. I was never anxious while I ran.
Other times when my anxiety was bad I would play chess. I got addicted to playing online. I’d play long games that would last a couple of hours. I was never anxious while I played chess.
At the time I thought that running and chess helped my anxiety because they distracted me from how I felt.
Now I look back and realise that running and chess helped my anxiety because they were both great single focus tasks.
Single focus makes your brain like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
When I was running and playing chess I wasn’t distracting myself. I was accidentally meditating.
I uaed running and chess to help my anxiety for years without ever realising why they were helping my anxiety.
It was single focus.
In the constant chaos of my anxiety-filled life, running and chess were meditative breaks for me.
When I ran for an hour running was all I did. When I played chess for two hours chess was all I did. Single focus. Lots of it.
I was accidentally meditating for hours every day without realising it, and it was helping my anxiety better than anything else ever had.
Now that I know what single focus is and how much it helps my anxiety, I intentionally seek out as many single focus taaks as possible.
You should do the same.
- Find enjoyable, single focus tasks and do them as often as possible.
- Read for an hour a day. Write for an hour a day. Start painting. Yoga, running, bike rides, swimming. Listen to music. Take up gardening, learn to play an instrument. Do one of these things, do all of them. Mix them up.
- Every time you single focus your brain becomes like the brain of someone who’s meditating.
- Get enough single focus tasks into your day and you can spend the majority of your life in a meditative state.
- And when you’re in a meditative state anxiety can’t exist.