Choosing Focus to Impact Your Experience

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

In Don’t Believe Everything You Think, I talk about the idea that although you can’t control which thoughts enter your mind, you can choose which ones you focus on. Today I’m expanding on that: although you can’t control what happens in every moment of your life, you can choose what you focus on about each moment. This is perhaps the foundation for living life intentionally – being deliberate about your focus.

It doesn’t always seem like it, but there are a multitude of ways to approach every moment, every situation, and every experience. It just depends on what you focus on. For example, you can focus on how your best self would handle this moment, you can focus on the path of least resistance, you can focus on how to align with your values in this moment, or you can focus on what you can learn from this moment.

What you choose to focus on about this moment will impact your experience of this moment. If you come home to your favorite pair of perfect-style-and-perfect-shade-of-red shoes chewed to oblivion by your new puppy, you can focus on your anger over the senseless loss of those beautiful shoes and/or you can focus on your love for this sweet, untrained puppy. The moment doesn’t change – you still lose the shoes – but you can experience puppy love and sweetness also. That’s not nothing.

If, instead of immediately reacting, you take a beat to think about how you want to handle this situation, you will have a different experience of it. The key is to be aware that you have options.

Even when you’re aware, it’s not always easy to focus on the useful aspects of each moment. But it is always worth the effort. Just making the effort, just trying to take a different approach shifts your experience: you begin focusing on the idea of approaching the moment rather than being fused with the moment. This gives you more wiggle room, as it were.

That wiggle room gives you the opportunity to choose instead of react. You have room to choose which aspect of this moment to focus on and how much focus to put on it. For example, if you make dinner for your friends and they tell you how delicious it is, you might automatically react by waving it off and assuming they’re just being polite. Compliments are uncomfortable. Or you can choose to focus on the appreciation your friends are offering you. You can choose to approach the moment with openness and relish their words, allowing them to sink in. This is a much different experience of the same moment.

When a moment involves discomfort or pain, we tend to react and try to get through it as quickly as possible. The default goal is to avoid dealing with the pain. If instead our goal is to choose a useful approach, we can’t let ourselves be overtaken or run off by the uncomfortable parts. We have to be willing to have the uncomfortable parts be happening (because they are) and at the same time keep the focus on figuring out how we want to handle the moment. That is no easy feat. You have to be paying attention.

It helps tremendously if you know what is important to you in life and what your goals are (for more on this, read The Value of Values and Doing Hard Things). Keeping these navigation points in mind tends to make the options more apparent. Values and goals also provide motivation to keep putting in the effort. Being so deliberate about your focus takes heaps of energy.

Try playing with focus. Pick a moment, challenging or not, and ask yourself what about this moment could be helpful to you. It could be a moment to practice mindfulness. It could be a moment to practice self-compassion. It could be a moment to align with your values and go high when someone goes low. It could be a moment to take in the compliment you were just given. It could be a moment to practice making room for pain. It could be a moment to practice assertiveness. It could also be a moment to let pass by without any focus on it at all. Sometimes a lack of focus on an experience is the most helpful choice.

It is the Truth that we do not and can not have control over every moment or every experience of our lives. Things will go not the way we want them to. We will feel uncomfortable. This cannot be changed. What we do have control over, almost always, is how we approach the moment. Being deliberate about our focus puts us behind the wheel of our experience. Who better to be in charge?