A Small (But Important) Matter of Focus

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

Whether you’re working or socializing, focusing on what you’re doing is almost always a good idea. If you’re working, focus virtually guarantees improved job performance. If you’re socializing, the person you’re talking or listening to will truly value your attentiveness. Look at the flip side of that equation, though. If you’re mind drifts while you’re working you may do sloppy work or completely forget what you were doing. If your eyes glaze over when a friend is confiding in you, it’s almost taken as an insult.

Staying focused goes by many names, and many self-help books play up one name or another. “Mindfulness” is currently in vogue, and “being present” is another popular phrase that is nearly interchangeable. A couple benefits to mindful living, though, go beyond peak job performance or enhanced personal relationships. Writing for Healthline, Crystal Raypole cites an oft-neglected effect of living in the moment.

“It can make it easier to manage stress.” There’s an old saying that you may have heard from your mom or dad: Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. There’s quite a bit of wisdom in that old saying, as Raypole elaborates. “Many people respond to emotional distress and uncertainty by disengaging from the source,” she says. “It can certainly seem counterintuitive to stay present when you feel anxious  or nervous. Distracting yourself from unwanted or unpleasant thoughts can bring short-term relief. But you can’t permanently hide from reality. Acknowledging fears and stress triggers, and working to mindfully accept them, can have more benefit in the long run.”

In a recent blog post — Denial, Repression and Other Wonderful Self Defenses — I wrote about this subject and noted a related aspect to the issue: confronting unpleasant realities are often the trigger for personal growth.  

If you’re new to the concept of mindfulness, the obvious question is: how can I increase my ability to live in the moment? Raypole offers a few ways to begin.

“Use your 5 senses for observation.” If you’re in the habit of watching TV while you’re having dinner (especially those times when you dine alone), you may have caught yourself finishing your meal and barely remembering what you ate. There’s hardly a better example of mentally checking out of the moment. Even if you’re sharing a meal, take a moment to savor the taste or smell of your wonderful cuisine. This is one time that your partner will probably enjoy your divided focus. This is the time to share your delight — “oooh this is delicious” — and draw them into the experience — “how’s your meal?”

“Focus on your breath.” Breathing exercises are the foundation of meditation, which is perhaps the ultimate way to be in the moment. But as you gain experience with breathing as a way of being in the moment, you’ll learn that you can focus on breathing anywhere — in traffic, when the kids are crying — as a way to relieve stress while staying mindful.

“Practice gratitude.” This may not be an obvious way to stay in the moment, but think about it. An excellent way to identify something to be grateful for is to look at your present physical surroundings. You don’t need to think about life-changing events; try being grateful for the warmth of sunshine on your shoulders — again, another way to anchor yourself in the present moment and your present situation.

There are many other valuable ways to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life. Raypole offers several other ideas here, everything from getting your family to detach from their devices to practicing active listening.