First of all I feel like the title of this post might be a little misleading so maybe I should warn you – if you’re looking for any enlightenment here then I should probably ‘manage expectations’ a bit. I don’t think I necessarily have any answers to the questions that I want to talk about. But then I suppose that’s probably why I want to talk about them.
So here goes. Concentration doesn’t come easily to me. And this means that writing doesn’t come easily. Nor does reading, at least in as much as I struggle to get ‘lost’ in a book the way I used to be able to. If my 10-year-old self could see how slowly I get through a novel these days she’d be horrified. This is no revelation though, we’re probably all familiar with this change as part of being an adult (I’m getting there) and having adult responsibilities (I like to call them distractions).
But for me concentration is often made all the more difficult by my anxiety. Again I’m sure everyone reading this will identify with that at some level. We’re all human, we’re complex, and we worry about things. We all have various every day distractions and longer-term worries from which it’s hard to detach. So the way I see it, anxiety is really a continuum along which we all fluctuate as we pass through days, weeks, months and years. Like the bubble in a spirit level, we’re so rarely on a completely even keel.
After all modern life is so fast-paced. You only have to realise that there’s so much going on that tips and tricks about how to balance all of the elements of your life and still be productive, without being bogged down in the infinite details and opportunities for becoming burnt out, have become currency.
For me the speed with which thoughts run through my head at any given time sits up there at 10,000 miles per hour, plus. I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I’m capable of being worried about worrying about everything and whether I should be concerned about that. On rare occasions when I’m momentarily not worrying about anything, I start to worry that I’m forgetting something important that needs worrying about. I run over things in my head until, usually within a few seconds, I find a suitable candidate to commence worrying about.
I often hear people talking about those nights when they can’t sleep because they’re over-thinking. They’re really taking stock of their lives and I can always empathise because I know all too well that can be a scary thing to do, especially if you’re overly critical of yourself. At these times people take a step back from the everday, look inwards and face difficult truths about what they might need to change. They make tough decisions and they do so while over-analysing minute details and beating themselves up for this, that and the other.
I hear people talk about these episodes of over-thinking and I empathise. I also wonder what it’s like to not be thinking like that all of the time. Because reflection isn’t a once-in-a-while, sleepless-night, take-stock-and-see-if-I-need-to-change-direction thing for me. It’s a continual and almost entirely relentless daily, hourly process.
So although on the whole I’m a very motivated person, I want to get things done and I do, and when I do something I do it absolutely to the best of my ability (and then worry that I could have done better); behind all of this is the fact that I often have to work very, very hard on focusing my head on a task. On concentration.
And it’s not the constant nature of this mindset that makes things difficult. It’s the level of minute detail that my head insists on drilling down into.
Now I don’t mean to sound self-absorbed here, I know that by probably the longest shot possible, I’m not the only person that lives this way. That’s at least 80% of the reason that I talk about these things, because I know there are legions of people who will identify with them, the other 20% of my reasoning being wholly selfish – it helps me figure these things out. So I’m just trying to describe how it is for me because that’s all that I know intimately.
What I’m trying to say is that although I’m thankful for the way I am because it is all of me, as a package, that’s gotten me what I’ve achieved so far and that makes up my potential for the future; nevertheless sometimes I just can’t help thinking, surely it doesn’t have to be quite this difficult.
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about focus. About working out how to, at will, get into that positive feedback loop of motivation, concentration and productivity that we all experience on our most fruitful days. That focus that overrides the powerful impulse to become distracted by whether I’ve remembered everything I need to factor in before going to pick up my first car next week; whether the conversation I had this morning came across as I meant it to or if I made a bad impression; what meals I’m going to cook next week and what I need to buy for them from Asda; or whether writing this post is what I should be doing with this particular Sunday morning or if there’s something more important that I’m neglecting.
We all know there are few better feelings than when you’re having a really productive day, when you’re really engaged in what you’re doing and you’re getting loads done. Ticking things off the to-do list. We all know that once you’re in that zone the motivation and therefore the focus and concentration, feeds itself.
From a personal point of view, I don’t think that my anxiety prevents me from achieving anything. I can’t let it because the anxiety about not achieving anything is the kind that I feel most acutely. However, the day to day ‘busy-ness’ in my head can make concentration and focus difficult to maintain. Sometimes trying to concentrate on something can feel like a major conflict of interests involving trying my damnedest to stop thinking (something I spent a long time trying very hard to do while I hauled ass through my teenage years with OCD), in order to make room so that I can engage and guess what, think.
Now I’m always going to have to live with my anxiety. I’ve had two and a half decades to get used to that fact and as scary as it sometimes is to admit it, I’ve accepted that I’ll never ‘master’ it. I also know though, that I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in recent years without it. It pushes me forwards, albeit along a very bumpy track. I know that I can handle it and I plan to never stop learning more about how to live productively and more importantly, happily, alongside it.
So if we can’t remove the distraction that anxiety brings a-knocking, I guess the question is how do we learn to tap in, whenever we need to, to whatever it is that’s spurring us on those days when we’re measuring about 10 feet tall and feeling like we can achieve absolutely anything that we want to, right in that moment. That motivation that can allow us to override the distractions.
Or is that the wrong way to look at it? Is it less about working out what magical factor gets us over that subconscious brick wall on our most productive, focused days; and more about working out what the wall is constructed of and therefore how to empower ourselves to start chipping away at it on the harder days?
In other words what is it that isn’t there on those days when nothing can stop you, rather than what is?
Looking at my struggles with my subconscious through that lense, I think that my own brick wall is strongly founded in the fear of going head-long into things and giving them my all – and failing – and the way I’ll then feel about myself if I do. For me, that’s what’s conspicuously absent on my most productive, most effective, most powerful days. The absence of it is what gets me excited and in turn helps me zone in and focus, enough to distract from the distractions.
So can dismantling the wall be as simple (read terrifying) as just having to keep putting myself out there and learning the hard way that I can do it, whatever the ‘it‘ happens to be at the time?
Will that message continue to stick for longer and longer each time? And is that momentum the tool that I need, to dismantle the wall?
Thank you for listening to my somewhat inconclusive ramblings, if you like this post I’d really appreciate if you would share any comments you have, or any personal perspectives, below.
What’s your brick wall? How can you/do you chip away at it?