150 years ago, focus was easy because it wasn’t optional. Everyone was a farmer, and if you weren’t busy tending to your crop and livestock as the seasons demanded, you spent your downtime with family and the leisure activities of the time. Work itself was hard, physical, and sometimes grueling, but focus? That was a given. You either farmed or you starved.
Today, at least in my and probably all subsequent generations, focus has become the hardest task in the world. I’m not talking about the everyday focus of sitting down and working on something, although that, too, is being increasingly bombarded by ever more technological interruptions at an ever faster pace. In the long run, whether you work for three, five, or eight hours on any given day doesn’t matter.
What matters is which “long” you are running to, and this big-picture destination of yours is under attack from everyone you know, including your spouse, your boss, your mentor, and your best friends. It is under attack from every source of information you come in touch with, and it is an attack the size of which we have never witnessed in history — because it’s not an “attack” in the conventional sense but a combination of side effects of “that’s where we are” as a society.
If you’re an entrepreneur of any kind, you’ll feel the opposed gravitational pulls on an everyday basis, and if you let your guard down for so much as a second, they’ll tear your focus apart. The creator’s bane is hopping from side project to side project, never arriving, never finding meaning, never making it financially. And yet, your partner only wants the best for you when he tells you to try a new direction with your Etsy shop.
If you’re an employee, I feel for you, because while it’s not your fault, you have even less control over your long-term goals. You’re at the whim of your boss’s boss’s whims, and so if anyone higher up in the chain loses focus, so will you. I can’t blame you for resigning — not on paper but in your mind — and resorting to business as usual with nothing unusual ever crossing your schedule. Your boss, too, tries her best when she reads Twitter and the 138th clever “how we did it” thread finally gets her to capitulate and change course. So does her boss and every Fortune 500 CEO. “The market wants this. The market wants that.” And so your company scrambles from quarter to quarter, each one’s finish-line-flag hoisted on a different mountain, covering all four sides of the compass, and round and round the strategic planning process goes each year.
The attack on your biggest dreams and long-term focus has been underway for a few decades, and it will neither slow down nor stop any time soon. Every year, there are more fads than the last. More trends one “should capitalize on now.” It has always been hopeless to try and keep up with them, but at their current, somehow-still-growing breakneck speed, you might spend hours each day half-assing the latest TikTok hashtag only to wonder what’s left of your soul at the end of the year — and with little to show for it in the follower-department to boot.
Perhaps it’s just my age, or maybe I was always old-fashioned, but the faster the world seems to spin, the more I want to slow down. There are always exceptions to confirm any rule, but by and large, everything I’ve jumped into on a whim has turned to ashes sooner or later, while the most rewarding projects and relationships are the ones I’ve worked on the longest — and almost perfectly in order of how much time I’ve spent on them too.
There is so much more pride to be found in not giving up on something than in nailing the latest viral craze or making your company look good on the earnings call, and every day you continue to not give up on it will only make those feelings of meaning and contentment grow stronger. The problem is that you need to run through this positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop a good number of times before the effect kicks in, and with so many opportunities to go do something else instead, it’s probably a conservative guess that 90% of the people in my generation and younger have never had this particular sense of fulfillment, and most of them won’t ever attain it in their lifetime.
If you’re waiting for the world to give you permission to focus, to direct your mind to a singular, difficult but meaningful end, you’ll never go to bed at night knowing you made a sacrifice that was worth the cost even if it doesn’t pay off tomorrow — or ever. Your boss won’t allow you to build a crazy prototype race car in the company garage. You’ll have to do that in your back yard. Your Instagram feed won’t remind you to make breakfast for your kids every morning. It’s something you’ll just have to get up early for and do. And the countless partnership requests in your inbox won’t add up to a product your customers will love. You’ll have to build that step by step, day by day, complaint by complaint.
If you’re tired of riding the fad carousel, you can get off any time. For me, everything changed when I dedicated myself to one project for a year. One year, one mission, one focus. Since then, I’ve done it again and again — not always on the same theme or project, but I’m still learning too, and the more I do, the more I come back to things I already own — own as in “feel a sense of ownership in,” a stake, a responsibility worth trying to live up to. Whether it’s a daily blog, a moonshot annual goal, or a promise to myself to meditate every day, it is the targeted, steady, soon-but-not-too-soon milestones from which most of my happiness springs, but only if I make the effort to show up for them every single day.
It’s ironic that, beyond the tried and true perseverance arenas like marriage, parenting, and relationships, the internet, the hype machine responsible for our being pulled in an endless number of directions, responds to commitment the same way a farm did 150 years ago. When you contribute consistently in a specific direction, the wave of connection we’re all swimming on will carry you there. At least in the ten years I’ve been in business, in the third-ish decade of widespread internet availability, that seems to have been the case. You water your crops, you tend to your flock, and slowly but surely, your farm will grow and expand. Unlike a real pasture, it’ll never leave you with the sense that there’s nothing left to do but go to the movies, but it still offers the kind of happiness we can only attain from knowing we’ve done an honest day’s work — if only we can ward off the shimmering mental torpedoes and focus.
There is no universal remedy to help us find this big-picture focus. It is a relentless battle we must fight every day, just like the staring contest with our screens that determines our daily output. It is, however, the sturdiest path to meaning, job satisfaction, and overall contentment I have discovered in 32 years of life, and once we tread on it, each next step will fall a little lighter than the last.