Finding FOCUS: UnHelpful Advice(!) and Good Ideas

9:12 AM

For the last two posts here at Painted Thoughts, (here and here) we've been talking about what we need, RIGHT NOW, today, to be our very best. Below is a continuation of the discussion of getting FOCUSED as that was the need most folks identified as needing today…

Useless Advice
When you start talking to many folks about needing focus, they'll tell you "just do it."

And yes, it can be that simple.

Except when it comes to the human psyche and then nothing is simple.

If you've reached the age where you're holding down a job, have kids, aging parents, a mortgage, ane juggling responsibilities, then you know that simple answers are seldom easy even if they're the right ones.

Along the same lines, you may also hear:

"You just need to prioritize." Well, yes, that helps, but when you have 10 pounds of "sugar" and a 5 pound bag, it doesn't matter how you prioritize it, it's not all going to fit! What goes into the back and what stays out? Do you find another bag? Where?

"You'll have time for [____] when you're older." Maybe, maybe not. What's wrong with feeding your soul now? Especially if it makes you a happier, more content version of you TODAY?

"Well, you just need to do [____] and [____]." Hmmm, when someone starts telling you what you need to do, look at their lives. Are they living their dream? Are they walking their talk? If not, feel free to disregard their comments.

You may wonder why I'll telling you all this. I'm sure you've heard some "wonderful" advice on how to "fix" whatever is "wrong" in your life.

I'm saying this for two reasons. First, there is no magic bullet that's going to "fix" everything not working in our lives. Be it lack of focus, time or direction. Finding answers is a process and processes take time. 

Second, you don't need "fixing." There's nothing "wrong with you." You're where you're suppose to be and you are good just the way you are. Recognize the different between "fix" and "improve."

I think many of us would find a whole lot more creativity in our lives if we would lose the ungodly expectations we have for ourselves of being "all that and more." We're humans not super-beings!

Okay, make that three reasons. Feel free to totally disregard any or all of this "advice" as bogus if it has no meaning for you.

Ideas, Tools and Tips
Breaking bad habits, learning to say no, giving ourselves permission, lowering our expectations, well, really all of the reasons for lack of FOCUS in the prior post and overcoming them, are a process. It takes time and patience. It takes finding what works in your life. And tools.

The following list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There are some creative people out there who have come up with great ways to get focused and stay focused. (Check the comments on the two previous posts for great book recommendations and ideas!) The list below are some of my time-tested techniques for getting on track and staying focused. Again, in no particular order:

The Brain Dump. This where I pour everything that's flying around in my brain onto a piece of paper or in a journal. It's like the inside of my head is an airport with no traffic controllers and it's absolute bedlam! Things like ideas, parts of ideas, projects, ah-ha moments, things I want to do, research, hang onto, and on and on. It can be a to-do list miles long. It can be all my gripes about a situation or my worries or whatever it is in my grey matter that is keeping me from focusing on what's important to me.

I write it down. Every bit of it. This can take a few days. I'll add to the list whenever I think of something. Then I begin to identify what I can/want to do about any items on the list. Then I try to determine an order in which to do them.

Then, rather than race off to start checking items off my list, I sit back and enjoy the quiet space I've just created in my mind. Please don't skip this step! It's important to savor the silence, to pause and recharge yourself before working your list.

Taking Action. Be it breaking a creating new habits, figuring out how to make a decision, learning that no is an answer or recreating expectations, there are steps you can take to make these things happen in your life. Brainstorm. Write down any and every way you can think of to move past the behavior that is no longer serving you. Some of your ideas will be be outrageous—include them anyway! They can provide comic relief as well as unexpected launching pads to better ideas.

Let the list sit a few days. Remember to reward yourself for taking this step of taking action! Then go back and identify what you think will work best, right now, TODAY. Write down each step (no matter how small) and post them in your journal, your calendar, in your medicine cabinet, the wall of your studio—somewhere you will see them on a regular basis (daily?) so that you don't forget them.

These are Action Steps. Make a smaller version and put it in your wallet so that you can pull it out and refer to it when you feel pressure building and your energy scattering.

Give yourself plenty of time and be patient. Hold yourself accountable to your list. If it helps, tell a close friend who "gets you" what you're doing. You may be surprised to learn they have similar challenges. Take note of forward progress and celebrate those small steps! Revisit the process each time you mark something as completed.

Involve Others. You may not know it, but I learn so very much from each of you! Sometimes, it simply that I'm not alone, but other times, you challenge me to be my best in ways I never could have anticipated. Sharing my challenges with you makes me own them and step up my game. If sharing your challenges on a blog with the world is not your cup of tea, reach out to a trusted friend or a fellow art buddy that you know and admire. It's great if you live in the same city, but email and Skype make the world a global village nowadays.

Discuss the challenges you face, be brutally honest with yourself and ask the other person to do the same. Provide the kind honesty in return. Hold each other accountable and get real with your challenges and how you intend to overcome them. Send the other person a copy of your list of Actionable Steps. Commit to making progress. Share successes and commiserate together over missteps. The artist's community is filled with warm-hearted, caring people. Reach out.

Be Honest With Yourself. Maybe you know why you don't or can't focus. Maybe you're hiding from failure. From success. From other things going on in your life. Maybe being unfocused has become a default position because it's a coping mechanism. We've all done it and we'll all probably do it again, but the key thing here is to be honest with yourself about what you're doing and why.

Then decide what you want more—to be focused or to continue to use lack of focus as a coping mechanism. No one has to know what you decide or why you're choosing a given direction, but you need to know and understand your actions by making conscious choices. Consider compromising with yourself. Try focusing on small, non-threatening projects that feed your artistic self now that won't overly tax your need to avoid focusing on the bigger picture.

Overcoming Distractions or Bargaining With Yourself. This one can be kinda fun, actually. If you fall in love with every new medium, art toy, idea, technique, or trend that comes down the internet, you're attention is scattered and you probably have a studio full of half-started projects and unused art supplies. Sound familiar? It sure does to me!

This is where I begin to bargain with myself. I'll see something new I want to try or buy and to get it, I have to complete another task first. Something like a new journal. That means I have to finish then old one first. New technique? I have to finish the last project first. My reward is the new ____________. It takes a while to get the hang of this one because who's to know if I do just one little page in that new journal with that fabulous paper?


You gotta hold yourself accountable! I use this bargaining tool as a way to finish projects, old journals and such so that I don't have quite as many UFO's in the studio. UFO = Un Finished Object. Can also be called clutter. Mind you, this only works well if you're ruthless in telling yourself "no!"

Staying Focused. When I switched from a corporate job to working for myself, my focus was no where to found. I wandered through my days with NO focus. It was crazy making. I tried calendars, schedules, both online and paper, but nothing seem to work. I tried morning pages too. Still no good. Eventually, I landed on a creativity log. Click here to read about it.

My rules were simple. I had to go into the studio every single day for at least 15 minutes and do something creative. Not read. Not clean. Not organize. Create. After 15 minutes, if I wasn't feeling it, I could leave. If I wasn't sure, I would stick around for another 15 minutes and then decide.

(Hint: Get a digital timer! It is amazing what we can get done in just 15 minutes and I'm not just talking artwork!)

After a while, it became a challenge to be able to completely fill in my creativity log. There's no reason why this idea could not be adapted to any goal you wish to pursue on a very regular basis. I assure you, it teaches you to focus and commitment!

Make A Small(ish) Decision. Can't decide what to be when you grow up? Can't decide what to do next? What to focus on? Any decision is better than NO decision with the possible exception of those that involve life-and-death possibilities. Creating rarely does. Make a decision and then honor yourself and your intentions by following through with it. Nothing big. Just little steps. Keep it simple, keep it small. Instead of committing to painting a full-sheet watercolor painting, shoot for a 5 x 7 inch painting.

Use whatever tools you need to ensure you do that, but do it.

Otherwise, you're lying to yourself and that leads to all kinds of disappointment. Decide on a length of time to focus on a new activity. If it's not working for you at the end of your timeframe, move onto the next.  If you're still digging it, keep going. Keep a running list of all those things you'd like to try. Those other things on the list will wait patiently for you.

Overcoming Fear. Fear comes in many different colors, sizes and appearances. It can be hard to see, harder to recognize. It holds us hostage and a favorite tool is causing chaos so it's impossible to focus. Recognize the fear first. Understand what the fear is about. Identify ways to move forward and take the first step past it. Then another step, and another. Keep taking small steps (don't forget to celebrate). Commit to yourself, your buddy, and or your journal that you are going to face the fear by going ahead with whatever it is that you want to do!

There may be a misstep or even three. No matter. Keep going. Keep doing. And for those of you facing a critic that won't sit down and be quiet, try silencing the critic. Read more here, here and here.

Get Out Of Your Story. We star in our very own stories. We all have a story about why we can't create, can't focus, can't find the time, can't, can't, can't. We tell ourselves and anyone who may ask. The problem becomes that we've told our story to ourselves and others so convincingly that we often begin to believe it wholeheartedly and we get stuck. We forget to check and see if the story is still true and relevant today. Why, we don't even recognize it as a story—just the truth!

The next time you hear yourself telling someone your tale of woe about why you "can't" do something, do a fact check and see if it's really true. (The word "can't" is usually a tip off.) If you have that trusted partner that's helping you bust some of your bad habits and holding you accountable. Ask them to listen for your "story" and to call you on it when you start using it as an excuse rather than a reason. It's amazing how liberating it can be to be set free from an old story!

Making Changes
With any kind of behavior change, it's so, so important to stay positive, stay strong, be gentle with yourself, forgive missteps, try new approaches, find a buddy, be honest, and know that you, in all of your fallibility and imperfection are beautiful just the way you are! Remember, we're not "fixing," we're improving.

If something isn't working. Change the approach! We're not tied to any approach. Try it on for size. Give it time to work. If it doesn't move on, but keep trying!

I feel your frustrations when it comes to finding and keeping FOCUS. I hope all of this is of help.

As always, if you have a resource, an idea, something that's been helpful to you or a way you've learned FOCUS, please share it in the comments below. There has been a wealth of great ideas shared on the last two posts!

P.S. And if you've made it this far, many thanks for reading these (too) long posts!!

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9 Creative Thought(s)

  1. I was eagerly waiting for this post, and you did not disappoint! What wonderful information and encouragement you've offered here. I believe in the small steps approach, and the timer, and the log... When I *remember* to use these tools, I am much more productive, and much happier. I especially like the last bit of advice to keep trying new approaches if something isn't working. Sometimes something will work for a while, then suddenly not work, and it's time for a new approach.

    I was about to step away from the computer to write when I saw this post pop up and I had to read it first! Now I'll take the energy and enthusiasm you've sparked in me into my work this morning. Now, where is that timer? The kitten has knocked it off the desk I think! :)

  2. Thank you for your amazing post. I am very interested in the creativity log. I think it is just what I need!

  3. Just found you blog today, from the Daniel Smith store, looking at watercolor paint. I should probably be below on the "unfocused" post! haha.... But from what I've read so far, pretty much every post will apply to me. Thanks for the reminders and inspiration!

  4. I tried 'the brain dump' and you know, it was very helpful to see how unfocused I am! I wrote everything down in a kind of venn diagram, all of those things I want to do that I thought were important, and looked at what overlapped, or was included in the same circles. Anything outside of those circles I was able to re-evaluate its importance and put aside for later. This probably makes little sense to anyone but me :-) But thank you for your thought provoking and inspiring posts!

  5. What a delight to find this post and the continuation of the conversation you started several posts ago. I sure can relate to many of your thoughts as to why it can be hard to 'focus'. I sure chuckled at the image of 10 pounds of sugar spilling all over my kitchen floor as I try to pour it all into a 5 pound bag. No wonder I'm stressed and feeling unfocused! I like your suggestion of trying to 'improve' rather than 'fix' myself. I might get somewhere with that. You've challenged me to be honest with myself and consider if my unfocused-ness is a coping mechanism. Hmmm .... that does sound like a possibility. Great question - do I want more to be focused? or to use my lack of focus as a coping mechanism. Very good question for me - I'm going to let it roll around in my head this weekend and reflect on it in my journal.

    The Creativity log is really appealing to me and I've made them the past few years although I have petered out midway through the year. I've completed my fresh log for 2014 and I've set an intention to follow through more regularly this year. Something about filling in those little squares with some color - that feels like a real reward. But, this year I'll add your 15 minute rule - I don't think I've had that rule before.

    I also felt a little poke when you pointed out how we star in our own stories. I think I could improve my awareness of that in my own life.

    What else works for me ...? I think putting some soft music on in the background can be centering for me. It brings me back to the here and now so that I can better focus on what is in front of me - hopefully a sketchbook.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion. Gee... if we could only add a couple cups of coffee to this... ;-)

  6. Wow! What a lot to take in... I hope you are collecting these posts in one place to make them easy for us to find again.
    I recently read a book "Life in half a second" and found it a quick read and absolutely fascinating although I did not relate too well to the author. Mainly his premise is not only about goal setting (mainly in business) but also about just exactly HOW much you want to achieve that goal. And I realized that I had never in my life felt so strongly about any goal that I was willing to work so hard and do all that needed to be done to reach it. But I did take his thoughts and related them to my Small goals in life.
    You however have written a wonderful post with great suggestions about how to focus and work toward my admittedly smallish goals. At this late date in my life maybe I can finally learn how to learn to do some of things I would really like to do.

  7. Hmmm, I think I need to start logging in my days. I meant to do that this morning.... I was going to list the classes I've signed up for (I've been waiting for one from you - any idea when?). I actually signed up for some that should help me with direction and maybe some focus but I need to do them then, don't I? My head is feeling fuzzy so I wonder just what I signed up for and that makes me think of your thought as to whether I am using it as a coping mechanism. Well, I am out of here and grabbing a pen and paper (okay, my Ipad instead but same idea) and listing things and assigning times to really do something!......

    1. Got my list done with days and times assigned. Now to stick with it!

  8. Dear Laura - there is so much rich information here. I love the creativity log. For me I am always fighting the clock and this is absolutely one of the best ideas I have seen for at least doing something creative. Thank you for sharing. Have a lovely day.


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