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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jill King

Health Goals and The Challenge of Focus

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Here we are in December and it's that time again. New Years' resolution time!! It is so easy to have a plan for the New Year and then get distracted. The next thing you know, it's June. What happened? We went from a focused plan to this:

The challenge of focus

Here’s the problem: We live in a distracted culture of continuous partial attention. Maybe you’re only half-reading this while you do something else. Over here! Over here! [snapping fingers]

It’s not all our fault. There’s more stimulation, more demands, more things clamoring and clanging for attention than ever before. Our brains just aren’t equipped to deal with these things. Focus, to put it mildly, is a challenge.

Cut focusing down to size

The good news is that you don't have to become a Zen monk. Nor do you have to delay gratification forever. You don’t have to look years into the future. Often, all you need to do is refocus your attention for a few minutes, just long enough to respond rather than react.

One thing, one step at a time.

In the grocery store, focus on making it through 15 minutes of shopping while filling your cart only with healthy choices. Once you’re out of the store, you’re free. (And now you have lots of delicious healthy foods.)

During a tough workout, focus first on making it through the next rep. Then focus on how you’ll feel 30 minutes from now when you’re invigorated and proud of yourself for working so hard.

Evening munchies coming on? First, distract yourself with an activity. Then focus on an hour from now and how much better you’ll feel going to bed without a bloated stomach and guilt, and how much better you’ll feel waking up the following morning.

Begin with what you really, really, really want.

The challenge of focus is also about the challenge of clearly defining values and priorities. You will find it harder to stick to tasks and desired behaviors if you don’t truly want a particular outcome. For example; if you know you enjoy a social weekend with friends don't choose a diet of cardboard and broccoli because you will hate it and most likely fall off your diet during the weekend with shame and guilt. Instead, plan ahead of time with your meals and leave room for the occasional social gathering.

Attention comes from intention. Focus demands a clear purpose.

Stay focused by periodically checking that you're on track with their values and priorities. Clarify and refine as necessary.

Here are a few possible habits that riff on this concept.

Morning check-in As a habit, you can create a daily “check-in” ritual.

  1. Write down goals, values, and priorities.

  2. First thing in the morning, review these stated goals, values, and priorities.

  3. Do this every day.

Bookend ritual You can also do a dual “bookend” ritual for the beginning and end of the day. Each day builds on the next.

  1. Review goals, priorities, and values in the morning. Again, write them down.

  2. Then in the evening, do a “post-game analysis” to see how well behaviors matched. If behaviors didn’t match goals, values, and priorities, revise and adjust accordingly.

  3. Using the “post-game” analysis, come up with a plan for the following day.

  4. The next morning, along with reviewing goals, priorities, and values, review the previous day’s plan.

Daily goals in your pocket Strength and conditioning coach and head of Training for Warriors, Martin Rooney, suggests writing down small daily goals on a piece of paper and keeping that piece of paper in your pocket all day long. (Yep, he does it himself, which is probably why he’s been so darn successful.)

Goal check-in Create the habit of a goal check-in before making any decisions that feel impulsive or compulsive. Ask Yourself:

  • What do I want right now?

  • What do I ultimately want?

  • Am I willing to sacrifice my values and goals for what I want right now?

  • Could I wait a little while? (Sometimes all it takes is 5 min of distraction to change course.)

Like the daily goals, this little checklist fits easily on a post-it note that can be tucked into a pocket or purse for quick reference.

Plan ahead to stay on target

Another way to improve focus is to anticipate being distracted. Most of the time, our “I don’t know what happened” situations are not unexpected. “I don’t know what happened” is more like “Actually, this happens every day at 8 pm”. Get curious! Let’s take the example of so-called “impulse eating".

Start by listing the “impulse eating” situations that you often find yourself in, such as:

  • the grocery store

  • the “mid-afternoon brownies in the lunchroom” routine at the office

  • the “blah” workout

  • wanting a snack in front of the TV

For most people, “impulsive” situations are probably pretty routine. So start anticipating them, and think in advance about how you can stay focused during these situations.

You can:

  • ignore the impulse

  • get away from it

  • find other activities to replace it

Experiment and find what works for you. Set reminders in your calendar or cellphone to warn before common situations occur.

For example:

  • to counter the mid-afternoon brownies, set an alarm for 1 pm or noon

  • to counter the end of day alone time with the tv fueled chocolate binge, set an alert for the end of the evening.

Have a RE-focusing plan

Good focus is one thing. But what about getting back on track when you fall off it? The stats are sobering. Most people who lose weight don’t keep it off. The ripped guys or gals you see in ads for diets, fitness programs, or supplements might find themselves eating cookie batter with an ice cream scoop 6 months later.

Even “fitness pros” struggle. (Arguably, because of the pressure to be “perfect” along with experimenting with every diet that comes along, especially fitness pros struggle.) It’s normal. So it’s not enough to just focus once. You also need to make sure that you can get back on the horse, as often and as enthusiastically as possible.

But here’s a cool secret. Sure, experienced meditators are good at focusing. But they’re also good at returning to focus. Their thoughts wander just like the rest of us. They’ve just learned to bring their attention back to where it should be, faster and more effectively. Meditators learn to guide their focus back immediately after getting off track. Athletes learn to do the same.

Athletes learn pretty quickly that missing and losing is part of being an athlete. So they’re always moving on, leaving mistakes and disappointments behind, looking for the next opportunity to score. Most top athletes have a refocusing ritual that allows them to “brush it off” when they miss a shot, get a foul, or lose a match.

Many will use a physical cue, such as touching the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, or tapping the doorframe of the locker room, to signal that they’re shifting mental gears. Some use music or sounds. Others take a moment for quick visualization.

Whether you choose monkish or athletic strategies, develop refocusing rituals that resonate personally with you.

A quick summary

Here’s a quick summary of the tips and tricks you can use to get and stay focused and get back on track as needed.

  • Cut focusing down to size. Focus on short chunks.

  • Begin with what you really really want. Clarify and review goals, values, and priorities as part of daily routines.

  • Anticipate obstacles, distractions, and common scenarios. Plan ahead. And help yourself remember.

  • Have a re-focusing ritual that you can use to “right the ship” immediately and return to the plan.

If you need help in your health and fitness goals please contact our office to find out more about our weight loss coaching program. 828-382-8005

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