This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
One of the most frequent complaints I hear from non-freelancers during this pandemic is, “I just can’t stay focused on anything”.
Call it staying focused or living in the moment, it has always been one of the most important tools in a freelancer’s toolkit, pandemic or no pandemic.
I would posit the most successful freelancers have had to develop such skill sets in order to survive the sometimes volatile lifestyle their careers may generate.
Staying focused is a skill set that can be learned after repeated effort. The knack is to be aware of what it is you need to do and what is preventing you from doing it.
First, a few painful examples from my own steep learning curve.
The live TV show
Early in my freelancing career I had written a complete script for an episode of a local live television show on which I was to appear. Hours before the broadcast the producer – who had expressed complete satisfaction up to that moment – slashed my script, assigned key elements to others, and put my most pithy prepared comments into the mouth of the host. All without any consultation with me. I was appalled and frustrated and angry. The result? I appeared on the show appalled, frustrated and angry.
What I should have done: some deep breathing exercises and stayed focused on my immediate contribution to the show. I should have realized things change rapidly and that the producer himself probably hadn’t focused on the show until the day. I should have let go of the idealized show I had in my mind and instead focused on what really was happening, and not allowed my participation to be negatively impacted by events over which I had no control.
The radio audition
I arrived late and discombobulated at a radio station in a distant town for an audition. I dashed in and went right into the studio to record my demo – and not surprisingly I was flustered and screwed it up.
What I should have done: upon arriving, I should have taken control of my breathing and mentally visualized doing the taping successfully. I was so obsessed with being late – an external condition I could not change – that I gave no attention to my inner turmoil. It all spewed out during the taping. I had got lost and was angry at the person who’d given me erroneous instructions but there was northing to be gained from dwelling on it. I should have focused my attention to that which I was about to do – not upon that which had already happened.
The writing assignment
I was trying to sell my home and the realtor kept calling up with a steady torrent of completely unsuitable offers. I was trying to write but had no focus. A supportive, attentive editor recognized something was amiss from my emailed preliminary draft and fortunately suggested taking time out to regroup.
What I should have done: taken control of the situation by deep breathing and making sure I was properly hydrated – which I was not because of the ongoing stress. I should have confronted the incompetent realtor earlier and not allowed them to distract me during my work. Had I had a less understanding editor it might have ended in disaster.
So what’s it all about and what can be done about it?
I’m no psychologist but a lack of focus seems to me to be the result of a number of issues to either cultivate or avoid.
Training yourself to stay focused means recognizing your circumstances and practicing the appropriate responses.
To gain control of your brain start with your body – deep breathing and basic forms of meditation and visualization can achieve much in this regard.
Also, in no particular order:
• Limit your immediate attention. Often a lack of focus is a result of trying to tackle too much all at once. I have a short list stuck on the wall directly in front of me when working to keep what I’m supposed to be focusing on top of mind.
• Avoid displacement activities. It’s easy to take on other activities when you should be focused on work. Filing, cleaning, shopping – all worthy things to do that you’ve been avoiding but not appropriate for completing the work at hand. Knowing this helps to avoid it.
• Time-shift external and emotional disturbances. The fight with the significant partner. The cashier who shortchanged you again. All external emotional triggers that can only impede staying focused. The trick is not to dwell but to acknowledge their presence in your emotional landscape and to tell your subconscious you aren’t ignoring them and will attend to them – after work is completed.
• Decide on what you can and cannot impact. If you can do something about something, do it. Or plan what to do later. Then let it go. Conversely, realize there is nothing to be done and that worry for the sake of worry is pointless. Then let it go. This can all help readjust focus on that which you can impact – your work.
• Control memory trains. How often do you start thinking about one thing – which leads to another and another and before you know it you’ve wasted two hours. When you feel your mind starting to wander – stop it. Unless it is related to work it is your mind trying to avoid it. Deep breathing and visualizations can help.
• Reducing physical distractions. Is the neighbour’s stereo blaring EDM? Buy earplugs. Is the room too hot? Buy a fan. Too bright? Turn off some lights. You’d be amazed how simple physical distractions can affect focus and how easily they can be corrected.
One of the most successful freelancers I know is an actor who appears to live in his own bubble. He seems serenely unruffled by the day to day challenges of life. His secret? Starting with work, he has learned to live in the moment in all aspects of his life. He stays focused on what is at hand and does not allow his attention and energy to be drained by any irrelevant distractions in the rest of the world. It is certainly the most focused approach to work and living I’ve ever encountered.
Staying focused, or living in the moment, is an important skill set for any working freelancer to develop and apply to their sometimes chaotic work environment.
In the broader picture, it can help anyone live a healthier, happier, less stressful life.
If you find yourself unable to reduce a sustained lack of focus, seek professional medical advice.
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