Meditation for focus: Story of a reformed squirrel brain
Using meditation to increase focus is a proven practice. It’s been a game changer for one women with a notoriously short attention span. Learn more about how meditating for focus can help.
Ping. That’s the sound of my Apple watch letting me know that I got an email. So I stop writing to check it. And when I’m done reading it, I just pop onto Facebook to see who has responded to my latest post.
Now, what was I doing?
This is pretty much my default state. Every time my devices ping — for email, Slack messages, texts, or Facebook messenger, I react. I stop what I’m doing, lose the thread of my work and go off chasing the most recent stimuli.
That’s my squirrel brain, and it was killing my productivity. As someone who makes a living from activities that require intense focus, every ping from the phone and deviation from the task at hand costs money. When I started thinking about it that way, I started viewing my squirrel brain as less of an adorable quirk and more of an expensive liability.
Why focus matters
At present, I have a full-time corporate job and a second job where I contract for a local advertising agency. I also own a business that serves several clients with content consulting. And I sit on a few nonprofit boards and volunteer regularly. And I have two kids, a husband, and a goldendoodle who all need love and attention. Not to mention the fact that I live in a house with three dudes, so cleaning is a thing that needs to happen.
I get that everyone’s busy. But over the last few years, my obligations have spiraled to a level that hasn’t been great for my ability to focus. At the same time, focus matters more than ever to me. Each day, I clearly outline the tasks that MUST be accomplished, either because of impending deadlines or the task’s strategic importance to my business. My ability to focus on only these items and set aside all the other client emails and optional to-dos is critical to my own success, income, and happiness.
The fact that meditation is a proven way to enhance focus, even for squirrel brains like me, makes it clear that I had better embrace it as a life practice.
But I’m sooooo not a meditator
For the last several years, one of my good friends, who is also a serious meditator, has been telling me that medication could help get me out of this squirrel brain doom loop. But come on…can someone with my attention span really meditate?
Not at first, I can tell you that. My first forays into meditation were unguided. I would just sit on the floor in silence with legs crossed, trying to think about nothing. The result is that I’d sit there and run through my to-do list, replay unpleasant interactions in my mind, and wonder how microwaves work.
My friend helpfully clued me in that just sitting there thinking about nothing was NOT meditation. She turned me on to a guided meditation app where helpful narrators talk about focusing on breath to let listeners know that it is OK if their thoughts wander.
“Good,” I thought. “’Cuz they’re gonna be all over the place.”
And they were. At first. But eventually, I could get through a seven-minute meditation and only notice myself wandering once or twice. And I didn’t get annoyed. I’d just notice it and come back to the breath.
Even in those early days of meditation, I started to notice a difference. The same way I could notice my wandering thoughts and come back to center, I started to notice my device pings and yet not engage with them. It was a subtle shift, but the results were there.
Making meditation a habit
Even as I was noticing positive changes in my ability to focus, I was having a tough time making meditation a habit. For a while, I would sneak out of my office to small conference rooms at my corporate job and do a quick 10 minutes. But some days were too busy. And when we started to work from home due to the coronavirus, I couldn’t figure out how to fit meditation into my day.
I’d try to do something right after breakfast. But usually, the kids would need me to help them get into their Zoom classroom, or there’d be an early meeting for me. I could never really find a time that always worked.
Other healthy habits in my life were suffering thanks to my new work-from-home lifestyle. So I made the decision to start getting up at 5:00 am each day; this was when the habit really started to take shape.
The first thing I do in the morning is my daily workout. And when that’s done, it’s meditation for 10 minutes. The reason this works? I haven’t checked my email yet. I haven’t engaged with a ping. The only reason I have my phone with me at all is to play my meditation app. But I haven’t plugged into any of my usual work distractions. For me, this has been the only way to create the real habit of meditation.
Focus on the progress
After my morning routine, when I sit down to work, I set a timer for 90 minutes. In those 90 minutes, I don’t check emails, texts, Slack, or social media. I just work. I put on some music that suits the task (usually 70s rock or Bhangra house) and I just flow. When the timer goes off, I get up and take a break.
The rest of the day is more disjointed. I allow myself to get a bit more distracted. But that first 90 minutes is solid gold. I get more done during that time than at any other point in the day. I’m not a perfect focus machine yet, but I’m looking to add another 90-minute solid focus sprint in the afternoon as well.
I know that the 90 minutes of focus I enjoy every morning wouldn’t have been possible for me without meditation. Each week, I feel my ability to focus improving. It’s a long game for me—I know you can’t change a short attention span overnight. But meditation has been an invaluable tool to grow my attention span and enjoy more focus.