Restoring Your Lost Powers of Concentration: An Elemental Approach

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Susan C, at S.D. Chambers’ SAGE Editing & Research Services. Learning how to focus your mind and energy is vital to accomplishing your marketing goals. This in-depth post will teach you how to develop a fun and grounding system to stay focused on your tasks.

Are you overwhelmed or under-enthused?

Did you know that Google returns almost 6 million hits if you type “mental focus” into the search engine?  Why do we find it so difficult to stay focused on completing a project or long term goal these days?

I don’ know about you, but I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts and magazine articles I’ve read that hypothesize about why we can’t stay focused  and how to hone our powers of concentration.  The usual suggestions for improving our ability to stay focused include time and energy management strategies (scheduling a set amount of time, breaking larger projects or longer term goals into manageable tasks, etc), and eliminating external distractions.  According to many of these articles, if we’d just switch off the electronics and social media apps we’d all be much better at focusing on the task in front of us.  The implication is that much of the problem with staying focused is due to external distractions.

I beg to differ.  I think many of these distractions are symptoms rather than major causes of a reduced ability to concentrate. Have you ever noticed that when you are fully engaged with what you’re doing, you rein in your senses, the chattering monkey-mind quiets down, and you tune out everything else that is unfolding in your immediate environment?  You’re not remotely interested in or tempted by distractions like email, twitter, or computer games. Now think about what happens when you’re not enthused about the task in front of you or you’re feeling some anxiety about it.  You most likely find yourself in a scenario that is the exact opposite to the one I’ve just described.

Clearly, our level of interest in a project isn’t the only factor influencing our powers of mental focus.  We all know how to muster and apply intense concentration to a short term task with a fixed deadline at work—whether we enjoy the task or not.  If the consequences of not delivering the project on time are going to be painful financially or professionally, we muster up every ounce of concentration and stay focused on the task until it’s finished—even if we have to work like maniacs to get it finished on time. But what if it’s a personal project or goal with no real deadline and no clearly discernable consequences attached to not finishing the project?

Some people are great at following through on their personal goals and projects. They get fired up about a “productive obsession” (In his book brainstorm. Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, Eric Maisel defines a productive obsession as “an idea that you choose for good reasons and pursue with all of your brain’s power.”), and they happily spend focused time on their project every day until it’s finished. Other folks have a more challenging time getting started and staying focused on their personal projects.  (I am occasionally guilty of this tendency, so this article is definitely a “teach what you need to learn” experience!)

Most of us have probably fallen into this latter category once or twice before collecting some useful strategies for navigating our way around the obstacle path of tempting distractions, initiative that won’t ignite, or enthusiasm that ebbs and flows faster than the tides. Sometimes our inner obstacles prove to be more challenging to deal with than any external distractions we might encounter.  How, then, can we learn to avoid the internal distractions that scatter our concentration and sabotage our ability to stay focused on our goals and creative projects?

Journey through the Elements

I’ve found that a combination of inner work and outer practices seems to be the most effective approach to creating changes in our behaviours and mental processes. I’ve also noticed that both the inner and outer work are often more powerful if we take a whole brain approach and include the kinds of actions and information that appeal to the right hemisphere of our brains. I do this through using imagery (as symbolic objects and through visualizations and guided meditations) and symbolic actions.

Much of my spiritual practice evolves from a tradition that believes we are complex beings who operate at five levels; spiritual, mental, energetic, emotional and physical.  We can equate each of these levels with one of the five classical elements used in Western metaphysical schools of thought—space (spirit), air (thought, inspiration), fire (energy, passion, will), water (emotions, intuition), and earth (physical body)—and work with them to help us develop our ability to stay focused on personally meaningful goals or projects. Let’s get started on our elemental journey.

Space is associated with Spirit (also referred to as the Self or Higher Self, Inner Wisdom, or soul).  Spirit is that quiet, wise voice that we hear underneath the mental chatter of the self (ego).  I visualize Spirit residing in the centre of a still, calm, sacred inner space.  If you are struggling to get started, let alone stay focused, on a project, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to start connecting with your Inner Wisdom on a regular basis and trusting its guidance. If you tune into your Inner Wisdom (a deeper level of thinking and knowing that “speaks” in a quieter voice than the ego self), it may give you some insights about why your focus has gone absent without leave and some feedback on what would help you to retrieve it.

You can also call on Spirit to help you shift into a different psychological space at the beginning of each block of time you devote to working on your creative project. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate ritual; it just has to be an action that is performed mindfully every time you start working on your project. It can be as simple as lighting a candle, repeating a mantra or affirmation that helps you feel grounded or spending a few moments admiring or connecting with an object or image you associate with feeling inspired, calm, grounded and present.

Air is associated with thinking and inspiration. We often use metaphors that evoke images of the sky and clouds to describe our thought processes:  We say someone is “clear headed”, or someone has “his head in the clouds”. Our thoughts drift—or race—like clouds moving across the sky. An idea comes to us “like a bolt out of the blue”, and we talk about going for a walk so the fresh air will clear the cobwebs out of our brains.  I don’t think it’s an accident that meditation teachers and mindfulness practitioners tell us to imagine our thoughts as clouds floating by in the mind, to just notice them but not engage with them if we want to train ourselves to keep our attention on whatever we’re doing in the present moment.

When you find yourself in this situation, it may be helpful to sit up (or better yet, step away from your work space), take a few deep breaths, and gently ask your Self what the unhelpful mental chatter and procrastination are trying to tell you.  A conscious choice to stop struggling and take a break with the intent of clearing some mental inner space will be far more productive than forcing yourself to stay focused when feeling inundated with unhelpful self talk and checking twitter every two minutes while berating yourself for not staying on task.

Fire is associated with creativity, passion, enthusiasm and drive or energy.  According to an online etymological dictionary, the root word of “focus” comes from a Latin word for “fire” or “hearth”. If you are not “fired up” about a project, or you don’t tend to your fire properly it’s going to be a challenge to ignite and maintain the steady flame of energy that will sustain you through to the end of the project.  If you are feeling mentally or physically fatigued, or you are not putting the right fuel (water and nutrient dense food) you literally may not have the energy to work on your project or goal.  Anxious thoughts or doubts about you goal or your ability can also be the equivalent of smothering a fire through cutting of its supply of oxygen.

Conversely, if your energetic fires burn too fast or too hot, you’re likely to burn yourself out—literally and figuratively.  It’s important to maintain control over your energetic fire so it doesn’t get out of control and consume you. If you saw the movie “The Black Swan”, about a ballerina who becomes obsessed with trying to perfect the two lead roles—the white swan and the black swan—for a production of Swan Lake, then you know what an out of control fire looks like.  If you notice that perhaps the process of completing your project or attaining your goal is becoming all consuming and leading to an out of balance life, turn that flame down and bring the project back down to a gentle simmer for a while!

The element of water is linked to emotions and intuition.  You have probably noticed on many occasions that your emotions and moods often have a profound effect on your ability to concentrate or stay focused on a project.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions that are interfering with your ability to settle down and stay focused, you will need to find out what purpose these feelings are serving and then clear your emotional space so you can relax into the work.

You can either mentally visualize washing away the troublesome feelings, or you can literally wash away any anxious or negative feelings about the project. Taking a few minutes to splash your face with some water, while imagining that you are cleansing yourself of the unhelpful emotions, will help you get refocused on your project.  If you like using aromatherapy remedies, find an essential oil, or a blend of oils, that helps to calm your feelings and lift your mood and try using it in a diffuser in the space where you work on your project.

Earth is associated with the physical body. How you are feeling physically affects your thoughts, feelings, energy, motivation and your spirit as well as your ability to stay focused on the work in front of you. If you are tired, hungry (or too full), thirsty, tense, or physically uncomfortable when you start working on a project, it will probably interfere with your ability to keep your attention on the project and settle into a state of flow.

Ideally, you want to feel comfortable, nourished, hydrated, rested, and relaxed when you start working on your project so you can settle in and quickly turn your attention toward the work you want to accomplish.  Since humans weren’t meant to sit or stand in one position for hours at a time, remember to take a short stretching and water break at the end of each hour. On the other hand, if you consistently start to feel fatigued or restless before the end of the time period you allotted for working on your project, you may need to adjust the amount of time, per session, that you actively work on your project.  Taking care of yourself at the physical level will help you improve your focus, so it’s important to listen to and honour what your body is telling you about your inner and outer space.

As you probably noticed, none of these elements operate in isolation from one another. If you are physically uncomfortable, it will intrude on your energy and thoughts.  If you are not truly connected with the project at the spirit level or “fired up” about it energetically, it might show up as procrastination and an increased tendency to become easily distracted. Similarly, an overwhelming cascade of stressful thoughts or feelings will affect you physically and interfere with your ability to stay focused on your project.

The Elements in Focus

Here are a few ways to have fun incorporating the elements into some helpful strategies for staying focused on the projects and goals that bring meaning to your life and gently escorting the internal distractions to the nearest exit.

  1. Do you have a quiet place in (or near) your home where you can work on your project without distractions to you or disruptions to the physical space?  Transform this “work space” into your sacred project space.  Create a comfortable, calm environment that nurtures your spirit and energy and facilitates a speedy transition into a relaxed, focused state of mind.  Whenever you enter your sacred project space, mentally leave all “outer world” concerns at the door, and enter the room with the conscious intent to give the project your undivided attention.
  2. Air out your lungs and mind: Before starting work on your project, sit quietly and take a few deep breaths to aerate your body and mind.  You might want to try Eric Maisel’s “ten zen second” practice which combines a deep breath (five seconds on the inhalation and five seconds on the exhalation) combined with a positive affirmation, or “incantation”.  You might also want to try using an essential oil such as peppermint, rosemary, bergamot, black pepper or basil that helps to cultivate mental focus. You can use the oil in a diffuser, put a drop or two on a cotton ball or Kleenex.  (Safety note: Never apply undiluted essential oils directly on your skin and do not use these oils internally.)
  3. From fire to focus: Some people like to burn a candle while they are working on a creative project.  The act of lighting and then gazing at a candle for a few minutes serves as a ritual to help some people shift into a focused frame of mind. Alternatively, you can imagine feeding any doubts or unhelpful thoughts or feelings into a fire.  Rather than letting doubts smother your energetic fires, transform unhelpful thoughts into fuel that keeps you positively fired up and focused on your project.
  4. You can bring the cleansing power of water to the rescue in several ways.  The simplest way is to remember to drink plenty of water.  If you are dehydrated, you will feel mentally fatigued and unable to concentrate on your work. If you’re not a big fan of water, consider taking a refreshing cup of peppermint tea (or another choice of herbal tea that will refresh you) into your sacred creative space with you.  Taking a walk by a stream or the ocean, or even sitting near a fountain, are also helpful strategies for relaxing and shifting your emotional state. Imagine that the water is washing away all of your unhelpful feelings or thoughts so you can return to your project feeling mentally clear and refreshed.
  5. Getting down to Earth: If you’re feeling a bit spacey or unsettled, take a few minutes to settle into your body and really connect with the earth’s energy before you actually start working on your project.  Imagine that you are a sturdy tree with long, strong roots deeply embedded in and connected to the earth, and draw on that energy to keep you grounded in the present moment.  Thank the earth for supporting you and contributing to a rock solid ability to concentrate on your work.

Have fun with these ideas and let me know how they worked for you.  If you come up with other ideas, please do share them with us.

Sue Chambers writes about social justice issues, the environment, and the writing process at her blog, Sage Wit.  If you enjoyed this article you may also like to subscribe to her blog or connect with her through Linked In.

2 thoughts on “Restoring Your Lost Powers of Concentration: An Elemental Approach”

  1. This is a beautiful article. While I am daily engaged in the creative processes of healing work and writing, and while I teach writing as well, I learned quite a bit from your journey through the elements. I’m teaching a writing class right now and will share this link.

    When I lived in Chicago, about two miles from Lake Michigan, I would go sit by the lake when I got stuck on a writing project. Now I know why.

  2. Hi Pam,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. As I mentioned, this was a “teach what I need to learn” post. On further reflection, it would be more accurate to say that the opportunity to write this guest post was a reminder to practice what I already know, and keep tuning into that inner wisdom. Thanks for choosing to share the link with your writing students. I hope they find it inspiring and/or useful.

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