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Focusing on Focus

written by Louis Alloro 29 September 2009

Louis Alloro, M.Ed., MAPP '08, is a cofounder of a 6-month Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Program, Fellow at the Center for Advancement of Wellbeing at George Mason University, and founder of SOMO Leadership Labs, a community intervention. Web site. Full Bio.

Articles by Louis are here.

I am driven to distraction. It’s just what is and what it’s always been.

Grass underfoot

Grass underfoot

“No grass grows under his feet,” my mom used to say of me as a small boy, because I was always moving, always doing. Even now as an adult, I have trouble sitting still. In sitting to write these first paragraphs, I was led to the refrigerator (twice), to check for notifications on Facebook, to email. Ding, ding – a text message on my phone! I wonder who’s on The View today? Sirens out my window; hope all is okay.

This story, albeit mine, gets in the way of my productivity and performance. “I am a Gemini, so it’s okay” I used to tell myself – but this default mechanism of excusing an unwelcomed behavior has self-limiting consequences.

Focus as Weakness or Strength

Conscious of this predisposition, what do I try to tell myself now? That I sometimes love to focus, that I’m good at focusing, that focusing is my friend. I find examples of times where I have focused successfully, to remind myself that I am not my weakness.

I also remind myself that I am not alone. Many people have problems with focusing. According to NIMH, AD/HD, one of the most common mental disorders in children and adolescents, also affects an estimated 4.1 percent of adults, ages 18-44, in a given year.

The Mayo Clinic reports that “children with ADHD also struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school.”

Let’s not forget that these children inevitably become adults, often with similar struggles. This is why it’s so important we teach strengths- and evidenced-based strategies to help people change the story, change the habit, and change the reality.



Starting Basic – ABCs

As a coach, I like to think of interventions across three dimensions: Feeling (Affective), Doing (Behavioral) and Thinking (Cognitive). These cognitive drills above such as finding where I have been good at focus stem from my experience with the Penn Resiliency Project and Seligman’s work on Explanatory Style. The voices in our head can be tamed, especially if they’re saying “You’re bad at this.”

And the affective. Let’s use this article as an example. My deadline is fast approaching. I know I do not want feelings of anxiety or disappointment. What I do want: feelings of serenity and success, which will contribute to my overall happiness. Knowing how I want to feel means I will have to work intentionally to break old patterns (like a tendency I have to drift attention) that could prevent me from experiencing the good feelings that come from publishing.

Finally, the doing. Changing behavior is key. But in considering how habitual most of our behaviors are, we must always keep in mind the cognitive and affective pieces as we begin to shift behavior. When it comes to change, Prochaska urges us not to jump into action, but to spend time preparing (feeling and thinking).

Here are a few ideas based on Positive Psychology that have worked for me in terms of changing my ability to focus:

* Prime the Environment. This can be as simple as putting post-its on my computer screen that say “commitment” and “focus” or as subtle as setting out a vase of flowers by my computer when it’s time to work. When work time is over, I put the vase in the cupboard, so that my brain can be primed for Facebook and personal email.

* Clear Space. Is your space clean and organized? I know for me, when I spend some time tidying and filing the physical space, I create psychological space too–consciousness in a different dimension.

* Mindset. Are you ready for change?

* Be quiet. It’s so important we take time to quiet our minds. Too much thinking, not enough being. The benefits of meditation have been made clear. Start slowly with three, five, eight minutes of silent breathing.

* Savor. We can be mindful and in the moment through savoring. At your next meal or during your next walk down the street, see if you can activate all senses. This will require you slow down and enjoy the process of eating or walking as not just a means, but an end.

* Broaden & Build. Another way to build the capacity to savor is to set up a positive portfolio: a collection of artifacts (pictures, quotes, souvenirs, etc.) that elicit positive emotion. Spend time in this space every day. For me, an expansive mind and heart allow me to focus on the things that are important.

* Say What You Mean. Pay attention to language. If I say I am Louis, the guy with ADHD, then guess what? . . .

* Do What You Say. Only put on today’s to-do list what you can accomplish today. Don’t let the urgent take the place of what’s important. Block out time to meditate, exercise, and spend time with your positive portfolio just as you would schedule time for business meetings.

* Self-Regulate. Like any muscle, self-regulatory resources require exercising and conditioning to make them stronger. Go on a media diet and allow yourself Facebook, email, or other distractions only during certain (and limited) times.

Or . . . If you need to be allowing yourself more time to spend on Facebook and email, do that too. Super-productivity can have its own consequences. Everything is relative.

Always in Relationship...

Always in Relationship...

Seek Your Correct Balance

Speaking of relativity (see how my mind works?) keep in mind that our attention and time are limited too. With no time or space to see new or different things, we may fail to see patterns (often habitual in nature) that are getting in the way of us being our best selves. There are so many parts of life that make it worth living, a super strong career is just one of them–no career at all is another one. If you work too many hours, see if you can cut down by 1 hour each week until you reach a more healthy load. If you do not work any hours, start by 5 minutes at a time, volunteering even. Remember, baby steps: life is about progress not perfection.

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “Virtue lies in the mean between the extreme.” From this Facebook junkie, I can tell you, turning it off to let the grass grow a bit under my feet and in different directions feels good. Maybe you’ll give it a try, whatever that means for you, too?

Author’s Note: If too much or too little distraction are getting in the way of you being your best self, contact me for a free coaching consultation. I am not a life-coach, not a career-coach, not a happiness coach. I’m a coach-coach, always in your corner, helping you find harmony, holding something for you.



Affective/Behavioral/Cognitive: freeclipartnow.com

Computer/Flowers: creativecommons.com, 1happysnapper

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Brittney Asch 9 November 2009 - 7:32 pm

I really enjoyed your article – staying focused is something I struggle with and your article has some very simple tips that I will definitely be implementing into my daily routine! I know that you said “Do what you say” and only focus on today’s tasks, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t have a long term plan right? I am very list oriented, but I often get overwhelmed at all of the things I have to do for the week, month, etc. I think that keeping a separate list of the day’s tasks would keep me better focused. Thanks! ~Brittney

Louis Alloro 10 November 2009 - 10:43 am

Hey Brittney,

Thanks for your note and for your honesty and transparency in responding. I am a huge proponent of a long-term plan – visions, pathways to those visions. This is what Positive Psychologists aptly call “hope.” My coach helps me clarify and organize mine, so that its sensible, streamlined, and full of strength. I try to help my clients do the same.

Good luck keeping better focused. We’re in this one together!


Jarrod Gadd 18 November 2009 - 10:36 pm

I enjoyed this article because I often find my mind wandering from what should be my focus. I especially agree with the section in which you suggest leaving notes for yourself to focus. As corny as it sound I have had experience with such exercises and noticed an increase in productivity. I get in trouble every now and then with that exercise because I do it to avoid focusing(a vicious cycle).

I do not suffer from ADHD and my mind drifts very often, I can not imagine what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone with that disorder. I think that I will give this article to a few friends of mine and see if it helps them within the next month.

Thank you

Jenn Veit 19 November 2009 - 2:46 pm

Hi Louis,

This is an inspiring and well written addition to PPND. Thanks for another “insider’s” view. The bullet point list of strategies, of course, is structured nicely for someone like myself who needs logical groupings to maintain focus. I think the most beneficial component I will use starting today is some sort of physical indicator by my work space as you described your vase to be. I have found that when I am doing school work at my computer, it is almost inevitable that I will open my email, different pages for each of my classes, plus some websites for my business I do at home. My computer is a fantastic avenue to be a multi-tasking queen, yet this also is an insidious anti-focusing strategy as well. Just recently I have noticed that the work I do while overextending my attention into several realms at once is not only a fraction of my ability if I focus, but it also hinders my capacity for remembering the important information I have perused. In addition, I am highly dissatisfied with all of my tasks as I feel overwhelmed and stressed about even the little things to do. This is what Tony Robbins calls “over chunking”. Having a visual reminder of what it is I am to be working on could help immensely with overcoming my high distractibility.
In fact, I have always been known as someone unfocused and disorganized. This became a trait I accepted and identified myself with for years, presuming this to be some predetermined factor I had no control over. When I went into business for myself 7 years ago as a painter, I came face to face with the disarray my inattentiveness could manifest. While painting a large room by myself, I kept moving with the goal of finishing in good time while of course painting well. I was astounded when I stood back for a moment to see how much more I had to brush in before I could roll the whole room. I DID NOT HAVE A SINGLE WALL FINISHED!! Instead, I had various segments of the corners painted and places by the baseboard as well as the crown molding. With my eyes so close to the walls to see what I was painting, I hadn’t recognized that each time my eye caught something that needed to be painted, I would just jump to that section! It was madness. I used painting for the next several years as my best training tool for focusing. Even as I felt the urge to move from my position or even get a drink of water, I told myself no, not until I finished whatever section I was working on. What came of this was I became a fantastic painter. Even as a woman, I not only ran my own jobs, but I also became foreman for 2 other large companies as my effective strategies and ways to help guide others to being more efficient really showed! Then after my first child, I pursued a much less stressful position as a repair a renovations specialist at NCSU. There they gave me one free class a semester so I started attending college for my first time. I used the techniques I learned previously and found that not only was I an A student, but I felt like I could accomplish more of my potential than ever before. So here I am, a junior in college, 2 kids, a high GPA, and a successful at home business that allows me to gain a higher education without fear of where I’ll be when I graduate.

This is where my question comes to you, Louis. With painting it was very cut and dry as far as completion of a task. Now that I am a stay at home mom, at home entrepreneur, and I go to school online, everything seems to meld together and is grouped in the “things to do at home” category. Something about scheduling every detail of my life seems too restricting and overwhelming, so techniques less intrusive would be best. Along with the vase idea, do you have any suggestions for how to break up my time, particularly on the computer, so I am not aimlessly clicking on everything? I will say it was very uplifting to hear your open invitation at the end of your article. What a fantastic way to engage and really connect the reader to the community. Thanks for your input and I look forward to reading more!!

Jenn Veit

Louis Alloro 1 December 2009 - 12:49 pm


Thanks for your note. You’re right–can be a viscous cycle at time. Not-so-good habits often result in that. One of the keys for me is accountability. Maybe there’s a roommate or a friend you can buddy up with? Or, you can always consider a coach. Has helped me tremendously.


Louis Alloro 1 December 2009 - 12:56 pm

Hey Jenne,

Thanks for the note and the great questions. First, bravo to you for managing it all. You have a lot on your plate and even have time to read Positive Psychology News Daily! (Priorities are key!)

May I suggest you get a second computer screen on your desk. You can easily separate home and business or business and school onto two different monitors. I know this helps a lot of people stay focused.

I’m also reading Neil Fiore’s “The Now Habit” which suggests you use an “Unschedule” approach. Google it. Essentially, it’s a way to sort out your time to see the blocks that are unscheduled and how to make them most productive, a better manager of your time.

In the meantime,
paint on, my friend!
The world needs your strokes.



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