See more by focusing less

People say that, in order to achieve your goals, you must focus on them. But is that always true? Not in my experience.

This time last year I was just returning to work after being off with a broken leg for five months. I’d been having physio to learn how to walk again and it had been a real struggle, physically and mentally. When I started back at work, I still needed one crutch in order to walk. I remember hobbling up the stairs to the office, trying not to think about what would happen if I slipped. Over the next weeks of being back in work, my walking progressed more than it had over the previous few months of hospital appointments.

I think that was because I was focusing on something other than my goal of walking unaided again. Instead, I was concentrating on other things, more on day to day stuff. The walking thing got pushed to the back of my mind. In effect, I got out of my own way.

It’s like that with night vision. Bit of a tangent but bear with. When it’s dark, it’s easier to see things with your peripheral vision than it is by looking directly at them. You literally have to focus less. Memory can be the same. How often have you wracked your brains trying to remember the name of a certain tune or what the actor was called in that thing the other week? The harder you try to remember the less likely you are to retrieve the information. Then, the moment you stop trying and think of something else, the name pops into your head.

Fact is, you don’t always achieve goals by directly attacking them. This can feel counter-intuitive but there are so many examples that prove this notion. Think of the TV interviewer who ruthlessly fires questions at a politician, getting nothing but the trite party line, compared with the softer, cuddlier interviewer who helps that self same interviewee to relax and thereby let out some morsel that was never intended to be emitted.

I remember Theresa May getting grilled countless times when she was up for election here in the UK a few years back and dealing with each occasion in the same controlled way. It was only when Julie Etchingham on ITV’s Tonight programme asked her the apparently soft ball question about what was the naughtiest thing that she had ever done, that she struggled. After a lot of squirming and sweating she eventually said that the naughtiest thing she had ever done was to run through fields of wheat as a child. That one flustered response led to more ridicule and parody than any other she had given (except maybe the whole Magic Money Tree thing!).

Even Columbo knew that the direct approach wasn’t always the best. The TV detective that was on screen from the late 60s through to the 90s was the antithesis of the slick, aggressive, confrontational cop that tended to dominate that period. I realise that this is fiction but I reckon that the character endured so long because viewers recognised the truth in it. Columbo was polite, non-confrontational, non-violent and underconfident. Apparently he was as unfocused as you can possibly get; forgetting to tax his car, pay his bills, attend gun class, or even think of a name for his dog (he just shouted ‘Dog!’ and the mutt still didn’t come). He basically annoyed his suspects into submission. He didn’t attack his goal directly, he found another angle.

There’s also a fable by Aesop that illustrates this. Aesop was a storyteller and a slave who lived in ancient Greece and a story accredited to him tells of a competition between the North Wind and the Sun to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge is to make a passing traveller remove his coat. However hard the North Wind blows, the traveller only wraps his coat tighter to keep warm. When the Sun shines, the traveller relaxes and removes his coat in a minute. Other Aesop’s fables illustrate a similar moral including that of the Fox and the Crow. The Crow has found a piece of cheese and sits on a branch to eat it. The Fox, wanting the cheese for himself, flatters the crow, calling it beautiful and wondering if its voice is a sweet as its looks. When it opens its beak to sing, the cheese drops straight into the mouth of the Fox.

These examples show how goals may be achieved in ways that are not the most direct, focussed, confrontational, aggressive, nor quick. I certainly found that the best way to get myself walking again was not to sweat buckets doing exercises, important though that was. For me, the best way was to do other things, to live life. My job is in mental health and I often work with service users who have become isolated. They sometimes express their loneliness and how they would love to have friends or a partner. Sometimes people even ask how they can go about getting those things. I think that the answer is not to set out to get them. The answer is to focus less. The answer is to just start living a life, having new experiences, which then fosters contact with like minded people and ultimately helps make those much needed new friends or partners.

That’s what I did when I started back at work after those 5 months off. I can walk more or less normally now but what if I had never been able to walk again? Would I have lost all chance of achieving things? Of course not. I would just have had to widen my focus and find a different route. As we’ve seen, the different route can be the better one.

By Jon Kenna

Author of three books; 'Ghost Road', 'Mr. Mad' and 'Susan Shocks'. All available from Day job in mental health.

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