If you focus less, you see more. Srini Pillay

When I paint, there is a period of intense focus. On a certain part of the canvas, on a color, on an image.
And then…it doesn’t come together. I get overwhelmed, or blocked. I hate what I have done. I get confused. I do not know the next step.

Intense focus doesn’t only have this effect in painting. It does in life too.

As human beings, when we want to change something, we tend to intensely focus on the project, plan or problem (ah, those P words…)
Whether it’s about ‘getting more done’, ‘lose more weight’ or ‘get a better marriage’, we tend to focus on more discipline, time schedules and to do lists.
We then realize that this doesn’t work, or at least works less well than we had hope for.

Focus is however a normal approach when we want to get things done. We are surrounded with so much stuff and information making it almost impossible to digest it all.
So we focus. And then we start to worry: am I spending enough time with my family? Did I do enough work for this project? Which makes us want to focus on those areas. But we are already so tired….

Don’t get me wrong, focus is necessary to a certain extent. But too much focus can work against you. Too much focus tires your brain which makes it impossible to make decisions. It also makes you less creative because you lose track of the big picture. And you lose the connection to yourself and others around you.

So what should one do instead you ask?

Simple: DEFOCUS

Or at least, switch regularly between intense focus and moments of total defocus.
Broaden your attention so that you also things that are in your peripheral view. This lets your brain relax.
Defocus also lowers the activity of your amygdala which is responsible for stress.
Furthermore, less focus quietens the critical ego voice with which we tend to beat ourselves up so much because we are not perfect.

What kind of things can you do to defocus?

  • take a shower
  • go for a walk
  • knit
  • make or listen to music
  • daydream
  • doodle (it has been proven that doodling lets your remember 25% more of what you listen to when you scribble while listening!)

If you often get distracted it is a sign that you need a break. You can prevent this by scheduling those breaks during which you consciously defocus. Because you focus on positive and fun stuff instead of just worrying about taking time out while your to do list gets longer.
You start to defocus by consciously stopping what you are doing: putting down your pen, stepping away from your desk etc. You do indeed focus on something else (like your breath, a new activity etc) which puts you in a different state of being.

Defocus can also do your relationship a lot of good. Especially when you feel that something is off or needs to change. Too much focus will only make you get stuck. If you want to move on, you need to first start looking at the situation with different eyes.

How do I get started?

By scheduling it in at first. This might sound contradictory, but it will help you.
Start by adding one defocus activity to your day. You may go for a walk, listen to music, water the plants and let your thoughts roam freely.
After a while, plan more of those moments. For example: work for 75 minutes and take a 15 minute defocus break. Set a timer to remind you ( I have a little recurring alarm where birds sing to remind me to take a break).
After more time, take a break after each 45 minutes. The goal is that you start doing this without even thinking about it.
Taking longer defocus periods (like an evening out with wonderful friends, or a short retreat) can do wonders for your energy. It will also allow you to get more inspiration and new ideas.

This post is loosely based on an article in Flow magazine and the studies of Srini Pillay, psychiatry teacher at Harvard Medical School.
He has written the book ‘Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try‘.  and I recommend watching this interview with him.