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4 Ways to Harness Your Focus and Creativity

For years, I thought of focus and creativity both as all-or-nothing games. That is, either you’re paying attention, or you’re distracted. Either you’re being creative, or you’re thinking in the box.

For me, this idea only got reinforced during my school years, when teachers would ask, “Did you write that down?” and “Are you listening to me?”

I was listening—but I was also thinking about other things. And that, to them, looked a lot like “not listening.”

And later, while I did well in school, I often got the sense that the ways I was letting my mind wander, and the ways I was paying attention, weren’t what teachers generally wanted to see or hear.

It was only years later, after much reflection—and more ability to control my own time—that I realized that this kind of focus and attention could be a gift.

Explore many different kinds of focus
After a while, I came to the realization that there were many different kinds of focus, and each of them supported me to do a different kind of creative work.

I also started to expand my definition of creativity. Yes, painting or working on a short story was creative. But so was thinking about how to interact with someone at work, or how to solve a problem with a friend.

Years back, I used to try to stop that wandering and focus like “everyone else.” But I’ve come to realize we all have our “best” ways of focusing, as unique as each of us. We just need to figure out how to (gently and mindfully) harness them.

Realize the benefits of mind-wandering

If you’re like me, you may sometimes beat yourself up for not paying attention the “right” way. Maybe it’s when you find yourself with multiple internet windows open, or going down a rabbit hole of Googling. Or maybe it’s when you find yourself staring out the window when you should be finishing a report.

Whatever happens, stop for a moment and notice. This helps you become self-aware about where your attention is going, and how it is or isn’t helping you. Realize that beating yourself up about “not focusing” is probably only counterproductive.

For one, it doesn’t help you focus better. And for another, it mostly only adds to your negative emotions and even negative self-talk. You might find yourself saying, for example, “I’ll never get this report done” or “I don’t have any good ideas.”

It can help to realize that mind-wandering can be a positive thing. This is when you stop focusing on one thing and let your thoughts drift. As many studies have found, mind-wandering promotes creativity, and creativity can bring you joy.

One psychology professor, Moshe Bar, has conducted a great deal of research on mind-wandering and has found that it actually can birth many of our greatest ideas. This is because, when our minds reflect on the past and simulate the future, we’re playing around with possibilities. What problem could you set your mind to solving?

As I’ve found in my own creative work, what’s especially helpful is “problem-oriented daydreaming.” You loosely consider an idea or problem in your creative work, but you don’t try to force a solution. Instead, you simply allow your mind to flow from one idea to the other without shutting your ideas down or self-editing.

You can encourage your child to do this as well. Try asking, “What else might happen?” and “What’s the weirdest thing that might happen next?”

For example, when I was thinking of how to end a short story, I simply asked myself, “Given this character’s personality, how would she respond?” At first, I had no idea. But, as I took a long walk and let my mind wander, an idea for the ending bubbled up.

The same thing might work for you if you set yourself a problem or question before going to sleep, or before taking a shower. Once you stop forcing things, you often find the solutions are “finding” you.

Stay awake for new ideas

Even when you don’t have a problem in mind, this kind of attitude can help you think of new ideas. It’s all about staying open to experiences and taking a playful attitude toward what you see and hear.

Take a recent example from my work life. Someone opened the office refrigerator and noticed it was making strange noises. She said as we all stood around, “It sounds like there’s a person living in there!” We all laughed and then moved on.

But later, as I was thinking of story ideas, I came back to that idea. What if there really was a person living inside the refrigerator? Wouldn’t that be a fun children’s story?

And what if that person was available to chat every time you opened the fridge? Wouldn’t that help reduce people’s loneliness? Maybe it could even help people prone to emotional eating; for example, by asking a brief question when they open the fridge, like “Are you hungry or looking for something else?”

The same thing goes for exploring these ideas with kids. Being open to strangeness can lead you to some much more creative ideas. Allowing yourself and your kids’ downtime is critical.

Notice what happens in your downtime. Are you spending time on things that don’t nurture you? Or are your kids doing the same? Perhaps you’re searching up things you don’t need to know, or scrolling through social media.

Such activities can be relaxing in doses. But they may also drain your energy and time.

You may find you have more energy if you seek out different activities. Experiment with more active or passive ones. Try going for a walk in the forest, or meditating, or taking a swim.

Try these strategies out if they resonate with you.

But as in all things, start with self-compassion. Remind yourself: all of us are creative, even if our creativity may have gone into hiding.

If you want to make changes, small steps accumulate.

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