Finding Focus


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May 7, 2019
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I read a lot of productivity-related books—but I neither work an office job nor own a business. My days are full, but tend to yield little in the way of tangible results. So why the productivity books? I don’t mainly read them from a desire to accomplish more. Rather, I read them in pursuit of mental clarity and focus. Too often, I find my mind wandering or circling fruitlessly. I long to be present mentally and able to focus on what is in front of me.

Writing things down is the best way I have found to sort and clear my mind. Three very different kinds of writing help me in this: morning pages, brain dumps, and bullet journaling.

Morning Pages

I learned about morning pages from Julia Cameron. In her book The Artist’s Way, she describes them as “…three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.” Before I started doing a daily morning page (I do just one a day, not three), I liked the idea of journaling but had never been very regular about it; when I would read back over a journal entry, I found it trite, embarrassing, and poorly written. But Cameron stressed that “there is no wrong way to do morning pages.” She wrote that the end result really didn’t matter; what mattered was the act of writing. That was extremely helpful for me when I started to do morning pages several years ago. I do this kind of writing early—before kids are awake and before I check any screens. It is a helpful start to the day.

Cameron says that (among other things) morning pages help a person to quiet their internal critic, and to set the logical side of their brain aside and use the artistic side instead. Personally, I find morning pages most helpful for the emotional and spiritual insight they give. If I find myself writing about the same thing for many days in a row, I realize that I need to either let it go or do something about it.

Brain Dump

The term “brain dump” refers to getting everything that is in your head down onto paper. I don’t like the term, but have to admit it is descriptive. A brain dump is helpful when I feel overwhelmed, and I have too much to do and no idea where to start. I spend some time—as much as it takes—writing down all the thoughts, “to dos,” and concerns that I can think of. Then the resulting list needs to be sorted. Some items can be done right away, but many get added to a monthly task list or to a calendar. Others get moved to a “pending” list, where my mind knows they are recorded but are not immediately pertinent. Still other items can be deleted; in this case, the act of physically scratching them off of my list helps my brain to register that I am letting go of the idea and no longer need to think about it.

These periodic brain dumps are extremely helpful. I also try to write things down as soon as they occur to me. (Productivity expert David Allen describes this as “ubiquitous capture.”) I carry a thin, portable notebook to help with this; I call it my “pensieve,” since it functions sort of like Dumbledore’s contraption of the same name that stored his thoughts for him. Writing things down keeps me from feeling like I need to remember a million unrelated things. It also keeps my mind from constantly and fruitlessly spinning. Writing down thoughts as they come leaves my mind more able to focus and act on one idea at a time, rather than serving only as an overloaded short-term memory bank.

Bullet Journal

You have probably heard of the bullet journal. If not, the four-minute video at www.bulletjournal.com gives a good introduction. This straightforward system turns a simple notebook into an extremely useful tool. A bullet journal can be whatever you need it to be. It is a place to keep track of what needs to be done, on a monthly, weekly, and/or daily basis. It can also be a place to keep lists together. An index at the front of the book makes it easy to find specific pages back. My own bullet journal contains dozens of these “extra” pages, including a page to keep track of upcoming expenses and income; a page to track workouts as I train for a 10K; lists of books that I have read and books that I want to read—and, it even has a page with notes related to this very article.

I have been bullet journaling for over three years, and I love it. It has helped me stay on task many times, because writing something down makes me more likely to get it done. My youngest, when reminding me of something that he thinks might get forgotten, has been known to ask, “Will you write it in The Book?” (What he calls my bullet journal.) When I say “yes,” he is reassured that I won’t forget.

Going Analog

Any or all of these three things could be done digitally. Morning pages could be typed on a laptop. Brain dump items could be added to a phone’s “notes” app. Various productivity apps could be used in a manner similar to my bullet journal. But for me, a pen and paper work best. I am an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of person. I lose digital information way too easily, and I forget to check apps. Notifications are easy to ignore. Writing something down in pen holds more weight for me than a note typed on a screen. Besides, I find the use of pen and paper grounding. I am already prone to live in my head; I don’t need yet another reason to forget my surroundings as I focus on a glowing screen.

Christian Virtue in Life Hacks?

So, writing things down is a life hack that I have found to be very helpful, but is there Christian virtue in life hacks like these? As with most things, I think it depends. Sometimes a desire to make life easier or more convenient can distract from what really matters, or a life hack enables increased productivity that really serves no good purpose. However, I think the activities that I have listed help me be a better Christ-follower. Consider the following:

Morning Pages. Julia Cameron writes about morning pages as a way of finding “the Creator Within.” Clearly that does not resonate with me as a Christian. My Creator is within me, but not part of me—not in the way Cameron suggests. However, my morning page offers an opportunity to be honest before God, even when what I write is not directed at Him. (My morning page sometimes does turn into prayer.) I can express petty or angry thoughts without slandering or hurting others. Sometimes negative emotions do eventually need to be addressed with another person, but in my morning page I can process them a bit first. Really, morning pages can function a bit like the Psalms, as a place to honestly express emotions—both the hard ones and the happy ones.

Brain Dump. When your mind is full and spinning, it is difficult to direct your thoughts to God or to properly focus on the people around you. In this sense, a brain dump can help to regain perspective. We are called to have “the mind of Christ” (Phil. 2:2). Jesus lived his life with trust, purpose, and intention. I don’t know if he ever faced mental overwhelm that made him unfocused and distracted, but I do, and a brain dump helps me see more clearly where I should focus my energy.

Bullet Journal. My bullet journal helps me to steward my time. It reminds me of what I have deemed important, so that my days are more likely to reflect my priorities. My bullet journal also provides a record of how my family and I have spent our days. Often I record notes of gratitude as I go along, and I definitely feel grateful when I look back over the activities of past weeks and months. My bullet journal also helps me track habits, to slowly develop God-honoring ways of being.

If you are sometimes in the same boat as me, distracted and unfocused, maybe you would find one or more of these practices helpful. May they help you (as they help me) to understand what is beneath the surface, to reduce mental overwhelm, and to find renewed focus.

 

About the Author
  • Dawn Berkelaar lives in southern Ontario with her husband Edward and their four children. She is a scientist, editor, writer, teacher and home maker.

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