focusing on focus

Yesterday I responded to a journal prompt, and I decided my response wasn’t too embarrassing to share here on my blog:

The word I want to focus on in 2019 is “focus.” (How very meta.) I’m almost always thinking about the next thing I’m going to do. My work suffers from this, my walk with God does too, and certainly so do my relationships with other people. I don’t even go to the bathroom anymore without taking my phone. But those short tasks (brushing teeth, etc.) are great opportunities to practice mindfulness. I’m not wasting my mind when I think about brushing my teeth; I’m letting it be quiet and rest.

I know that focusing on whatever I’m presently doing is a habit of mind that comes from practice and prayer (another thing that’s hard to focus on), but there are adjustments I can make to get my life to be more conducive to focus, and one of them is to do fewer things. One reason why I was so eager to hit “reset” on my life by moving to Michigan is that I felt like I was doing many things and doing okay at them, but I wanted to do a few things really well (and joyfully). True, I’m doing fewer things than I was before, but I keep coming up with new things to make me busy so I can avoid focusing on important things. This appears masochistic when I really consider it.

My flexible work schedule is both a blessing and a curse. I’m so thankful I don’t have to be in my office 40 hours a week. But that doesn’t mean that those few hours when I’m teaching are the only hours I owe to my job. I know there are ways I can enjoy my flexibility while still working productively (e.g. checking email in a coffee shop, reading for class in a park, having online “office hours” for 1-2 hours on weekends). By spreading out my work this way and priming myself to enjoy it (and I really do enjoy most of the actual work), I can avoid that rush to get things done at the last minute and come to class better prepared.

I want to experience “flow,” that state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about, when I don’t feel like I need to look at my watch or daydream about what I’m going to eat later or obsessively replay conversations in my head. I want to enjoy Tuesday instead of wishing it were Friday. I want to enjoy February instead of wishing it were May. I don’t ever want people to hear in my voice or see in my eyes that I’ve stopped listening to them and started thinking about something else, because that feels really crappy. I want to do whatever I’m presently doing with no shame or dread about what I “should” be doing instead.

I want other people to see me as an integrated person, not necessarily a busy person. I want to stop treating busyness as a virtue. I want to model self-care for my students by having boundaries and letting them know I’m not always working, but I also want it to be evident to them that I respect them enough to prepare for class, reply thoughtfully to their emails, and really read their written work. I don’t want my default response to be “Oh, I forgot you asked me about that” or “What page are we on?” Being an absent-minded professor isn’t cute; it’s lazy (for me).

This year, I want to really learn to focus. I’m tired of making false starts on this. I want to write in December about how much more focused I became in 2019.

Unite my heart

Yesterday, I was looking at some notes from a solitude retreat I took last August. At the time, I was feeling overcommitted and distracted, and I was trying to decide which of the good things in my life were helping me to glorify God by living a fulfilled life and which were not. So during the retreat (which took the form of a solo hike), I spent some time praying for focus and looking at scripture about having an undivided heart. Let me quote a few of the notes I took at the top of the mountain:

Today’s theme: asking God for focus. I feel like my mind is scattered among tasks and passions and I’m not giving my best to any of it (or truly enjoying any of it). I’ve often said that God’s promise of wisdom in James 1 is one of the only places in Scripture where God promises something without any qualification (e.g. You must be an Israelite). But that isn’t true–the qualification is that you must ask without doubting–“because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jas. 1:6-8). (I didn’t do a very good job clarifying this in my original notes, but the key word there for my purposes is “double-minded.” God’s gift of wisdom comes to those who are single-minded.)

“Be thou my vision” = Be thou my focus?

This mountain is a good place to be thinking about perspective. The birds are flying below where I’m sitting right now.

Ps. 86:11–“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (KJV–“Unite my heart to fear thy name.”)

Then follows a discussion of things I was going to quit and other things I was going to commit to instead (almost none of which really happened) and a list of things I needed wisdom about, most of which are no longer relevant (which I guess is an answer to prayer?).

This deep desire to be single-minded and united in heart, to be able to focus on one thing and stop my mind from racing down crossroads, is one reason–perhaps the greatest reason–why I decided to “quit everything” (the title, incidentally, of a Dawes song I’ve been thinking about a lot) and move to a new state where my only commitment, so far, is to my job (which is only three days a week this fall!). I’ve been describing this move as “hitting reboot on my life”–a cheesy metaphor, I know, but it’s what this feels like to me.

We’ve been talking about this united heart thing for a long time in Christian circles. I remember I used to feel so guilty when we would sing that song that goes “Give me one pure and holy passion, give me one magnificent obsession”–until I realized that the song is a prayer, not a declaration that we already have one pure and holy passion (“Hey, God. Check this out.”). But I think the secular world is also beginning to articulate the deep discomfort we feel when we are distracted, inattentive, and trying to justify our place in the world by showing all the different ways in which we can contribute. Lately, we have been seeing data about how multitasking is bad for productivity, studies about “flow” (the phenomenon, named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of getting caught up in a fulfilling task), and radical suggestions for strategies like putting our phones away during face-to-face conversations. As is so often the case, the Bible gave us a really good idea thousands of years ago, and we’re just starting to get it.

I know that having a heart singly focused on God is not the same thing as eliminating distractions and getting in the zone while completing a fulfilling task. But the two confirm the same truth: We were created to serve one master, to do one thing really well, to have one ruling passion under which all of our other passions are ordered. We were created to have a united heart.