By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 86 and this week I’m talking about focus. In this episode I’ll cover what focus is, why understanding your focus is essential for good mental health, and how to manage your focus in a healthy way. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 24 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m answering mental health questions submitted to me via Instagram (see below for how to submit for a future Ask Me Anything episode).
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 4 July, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 86, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week is all about focus. You would have heard me say in many other episodes that what you focus on creates your reality, and I thought it was about time that I explored that idea in more detail so we can discuss what it means in practice and how it supports good mental health. Just to clarify here that I won’t be touching too much on ‘focus’ in terms of concentration, but more about your outlook and mindset.
Before I begin, this week on Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m answering some of your biggest questions about mental health as I respond to questions that were submitted to me a few weeks ago when I did a shout-out on Instagram. I really enjoyed answering as many questions as I could and one of the things I want to be able to do with Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV in the future is to provide a place where you can get answers to some of those things that you’re just not sure about, so I’ll be doing this Ask Me Anything type of video again in a couple of months (you can submit questions to me via Instagram @ltamentalhealth). Watch the video now on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for that and all past episodes of the show. And if you like what you see, subscribe to the channel and turn on notifications to be alerted when I post new videos every Wednesday.
And take a moment to sign up for my free newsletter at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe (for a free weekly dose of stuff I’ve found inspiring, interesting or just plain entertaining). You’ll also find the link for that and the YouTube show in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
So, with all of that covered, on with this week’s episode about focus…
Quite ironically, I had a fair bit of trouble focusing on writing this episode about focus — we’re talking about real irony here, not that Alanis Morissette ten-thousand-spoons business (although I’m only gently ribbing Alanis here, I love her and that Jagged Little Pill album is still in my Top 5 albums of all time). But I digress, because apparently I need to refocus on the subject of focus. My challenge this week is that my partner is a teacher, as I’ve mentioned before, and it’s the winter holidays here so I have another person in the house all day for two weeks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but it does make it a bit of a challenge to focus, especially when you have the attention span of a goldfish sometimes. But the type of focus I’m talking about today is about what you pay attention to, because what you focus on in life is what you get (and I’ll be exploring that idea further in a moment).
Now, today’s episode is brought to you by the letter ‘F’ for focus, and I’m referencing Sesame Street here because focus is a broad topic that very much ties into the behavioural patterns and mindsets that we learn as children in terms of focusing on the positive or the negative. Some of that is innate, as in it’s a natural part of who we are and may or may not be instinctive behaviour, and some of that is learned — in other words, we can learn to adapt how we think about things as well as our approach to life in general (with time, effort and perseverance).
So let’s start by talking through some definitions…
What is focus?
And ‘focus’ is, to put it simply, what you choose to pay attention to. At any given moment there are hundreds and thousands of things going on around you, not to mention the countless number of random thoughts going through your head (like why did Ginger really leave the Spice Girls and why was Jan only safe in the first episode of All Stars 6…). We filter things both subconsciously and consciously — the conscious side is where we choose whether or not to focus on something, and the subconscious is automatic processing that we do that filters out things like background noise and visuals. All of this happens based on our beliefs, our priorities and our fears.
The thing here is that when we choose to focus on something, it means that we have determined it’s important in some way (otherwise our brain would just ignore it, because there’s always a lot of different stuff going on both internally and externally and, frankly, there’s only so much you can actually focus on at one time). And so if that focus is geared towards negative stuff, well… you can probably see where I’m going with this! It means that when you focus on the negative you are actively telling yourself that this type of thing is of great importance, which means your brain will start scanning for it more and before you know it you’re inundated with every single negative thought and every bit of shitty news in the broader world. It’s the reason why I so often say to limit your social media and news intake — the news media focuses on much more negative stuff than it does positive (I mean, when was the last time you saw a headline about puppies being born?) and they do that because many of us have this sort-of hardwired way of looking at the world which involves paying way more attention to the negative. Why? Who knows. It’s probably something based on thousands and millions of years of evolution in terms of fear being a massive part of survival as a species, and then of course in more recent times we’ve had the whole thing of social pressure to think and act a certain way, not to mention all of these moral codes that are often very fear-based. But regardless of what created it, it’s definitely something that you can change — and I’ll be coming back to that shortly. First, let’s talk about…
Why understanding your focus is essential for good mental health
And the reason why is that, like I said before, what you focus on is what you get. Now that might sound a bit like a greeting card slogan or a basic bit of inspirational advice that you’d find on social media, but the reality is far more interesting.
Your mindset is not fixed; that is to say that the way you view the world is constantly changing and evolving based on the decisions you make as well as the things that happen around you. And further to that, you have full control over changing your mindset (which is something I discussed back in Episode 31, about mindset). When you choose to focus on positive things, your brain begins to change — there’s a whole field of study around neuroplasticity, which I won’t go into a massive amount of detail about but I will share this quote by Dr. Celeste Campbell from an article on PositivePsychology.com; the quote is:
“[Neuroplasticity] refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.”Dr. Celeste Campbell (source: https://positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity/)
And you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes. The reason why this is interesting for us in mental health and psychology terms is that it’s effectively demonstrating our ability to change our brains through what we focus on. Let me quote from the same article again, this time it’s a quote by Christopher Bergland;
“…this process opens up the possibility to reinvent yourself and move away from the status quo or to overcome past traumatic events that evoke anxiety and stress. Hardwired fear-based memories often lead to avoidance behaviors that can hold you back from living your life to the fullest.”Christopher Bergland (source: https://positivepsychology.com/neuroplasticity/)
So how do you do that? How do you manage your focus in a healthy way so that you can improve your mental health and wellbeing? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to manage your focus in a healthy way
Choose your mindset — so you might want to slap me for starting with ‘choose your mindset’ because that’s a bit basic and sort-of colour-by-numbers in terms of advice, but please hear me out: everything you do, say and feel comes down to choice, and nobody is in control of that choice but you. Which is either the most liberating and freeing feeling in the entire world, or a complete nightmare if you’re feeling stuck in a negative mindset. But as I discussed in Episode 31, the choice is completely yours and what you choose is what you get. If you choose to focus on the shittier side of life then you’ll see more and more stuff to feel shitty about (and you’ll likely have more and more of those types of thoughts running through your mind as well, which just makes it worse), whereas if you can challenge yourself to focus on the positive you’ll begin to see and feel more and more to be positive about. I’m going to explore how to do that in my next point, which is…
Release the negative to make room for the positive — personally I don’t think that your mindset just magically changes because you decide it should; all too often that leads to a little bit of short term progress followed by a backslide into feeling not-very-great about things. I’m a firm believer in the need to get out whatever stuff you need to let go of so that you can make room for newer, more positive stuff. You might find it helpful to write your feelings down as a means of releasing them, or for deeper stuff (including emotional baggage) you may need to work through it in order to release it (and I covered baggage back in Episode 7 and letting go in Episode 32). Alternatively, you might be best working with a counsellor or therapist for stuff that you may be having a tough time letting go of in order to help you focus more on the positives. Speaking of, my next point is…
Actively pay attention to the positive over the negative — this is about ‘levelling up’ if you like, because it takes the whole release approach of the last point and turns it up to 11 (and yes, that was a Spinal Tap reference there). The thing here is about now embracing the positive over the negative, which you do by turning your full attention to it and making a conscious effort every single day to remind yourself of the good in life and look for it as often as possible. Gratitude practice is a great way of doing this (which I explored in Episode 46) as is daily reflection (which I talked about in Episode 12). That doesn’t mean that you just stick your head in the sand and pretend that shitty things aren’t happening — because denial and avoidance just makes things worse — but it means that you choose to view them as obstacles and challenges rather than the end of the world. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but all storms really do pass eventually so you can either choose to focus on the dark days or you can accept that ups and downs are a part of life, and instead find ways to move forward. Which leads to my next point…
Focus on realistic optimism — and this was the subject of Episode 47 and well worth checking out if you haven’t already. It’s a big topic so I won’t go into massive detail here, but in short the point is that in general things tend to turn out for the best in the long run — even if it’s hard to see how that could possibly be the case when you’re deeply entrenched in shitty feelings. I mean, don’t be delusional about the world but in general you’ll find optimism brings you far more opportunities for both growth and general life satisfaction than pessimism will. Speaking of, the next point is…
Look for solutions rather than problems — what you focus on is what you get, and so when you give all of your energy to problems you inevitably begin to identify more and more problems to focus on. On the other hand, when you focus on solutions you tend to find more solutions and that helps you to adopt a solution-focused mindset in your day-to-day life, making it easier to quickly address challenges if and when they happen. So what if you’re struggling to do that? Well that brings me to my next point…
Don’t fight it; understand it — and if any of you have listened to Episode 65, about resistance, you would be very familiar with me quoting the Borg from Star Trek who live by the defeatist attitude that resistance is futile. While I’m not a particular fan of their determination to turn the whole universe into drones because, hey, individuality rocks, I will say they were on to something with that whole ‘resistance is futile’ schtick — which might sound surprising since I’ve just spent the past few minutes telling you to proactively focus on the positive! But what I’m trying to say here is that when you find yourself faced with negative stuff, either internally or externally, that you’re finding really hard to let go of, take some time to understand why that’s happening. For example, by digging into your thought patterns a little more you may discover that it’s tied to long-held beliefs stemming from childhood or early adulthood about how you should think and act, or it may be linked to specific things that have happened in your life. Whatever the root cause is, identifying it and then understanding it (and how it manifests for you in your life) makes a world of difference in terms of then being able to catch yourself if and when it pops up again. For example, I’ve talked in previous episodes about how I found myself for many years looking for external validation because I hadn’t felt it from either of my parents, and so now when those insecurities kick in I can label it and be more objective about it… which makes it much easier to redirect my focus towards the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. Another way to do that is with my next point…
Become clear on your priorities and focus on them — which is a really polite way of saying ‘choose to focus on what actually matters in life’. The vast majority of stuff just isn’t of any great importance, and so if you’re completely clear about what matters most to you then you align what you do, say and feel to those things above all else, you begin to let go of the nonsense shit that goes on around you as well as being better able to look at your thoughts more objectively (because not everything you think is true). I talked about priorities all the way back in Episode 3 so check that out for more on the subject. Moving on, my next piece of advice is…
Remove distractions — now this one is a bit more about focus in terms of concentration but it also applies to the type of broad focus I’m talking about today. Whether you’re concentrating on a specific task or you’re trying to turn your focus towards the positive while there’s a lot of not-so-positive stuff going through your head or happening around you, it’s important to find ways to remove distractions. The other piece here is that the ‘distraction’ might be situations or other people that are more negative than positive, in which case I recommend removing yourself from the situation either temporarily or, if necessary, permanently. My tolerance for drama and bullshit is officially non-existent these days, and I find that by remembering you have total choice about what you will and will not accept in your life it makes it easier to make the type of decisions that are in your best long-term interests.
Be present — you don’t have to meditate on a mountaintop in order to be mindful; just a few minutes a day to consciously bring yourself back to the present moment really does make the world of difference in terms of grounding your focus and it serves to remind you that the only moment we have for certain is this one, now (which can be very helpful if you’re worrying about the future or ruminating over the past). I talked about being present in Episode 83 and mindfulness in Episode 42 if you’d like to explore those topics further, but the main point is to consciously choose to focus on the now because it’s the only part of time that you actually exist in (I know, that’s some quantum-theory-mind-blowing stuff there!). Also can I just say that when you’re focused on something or someone, actually focus on it (or the person) and don’t try to multitask. I talked in that Being Present episode about the fact that solo-tasking is much more effective because when you multitask you’re not giving anything your full attention (which is what often leads to mistakes, as well as stress due to trying to juggle too much). Which leads me to my final point…
Reflect often — focus is very much about understanding where your attention is going and what that does in terms of shaping your thoughts and actions, and a fantastic way to work through all of that is reflection, which I touched on a few minutes ago. Take a few minutes each night to reflect on the day without judgement (because what’s done is done and it cannot be changed, only learned from). Consider what went well for you and why, and consider what didn’t go so well and why, as well as what you would do differently next time. You really do only need a few minutes for this and it’s about being able to process the day so you can identify those learning opportunities while they’re still fresh in your mind, then I would suggest that every week or two weeks go back over the learnings you came up with and consider what you’re going to do to address them. That might mean getting support, trying a course, reading a book, or just trying different approaches to see what happens, but whatever it is the point here is to (a) reflect and (b) do something with the stuff you identify when reflecting, because otherwise the reflection is just wasted energy if you don’t do anything with it. You may not be able to change the past, but you can absolutely change your present (which in turn will change your future). And the more you do that the more it shifts your focus in the right direction, in a positive direction.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to focus and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: What you focus on is what you get. There are probably 642 different ways I could say that but the reality is that where your attention goes is where your life goes. If you spend your time focused on the negative stuff, such as worrying about a future that may or may not happen or going over and over things that occurred in the past which you can never hope to change, all you’re doing is robbing yourself of happiness today and you’re also trapping yourself in a spiral where you will see more and more negative stuff. On the other hand, focusing on the positives won’t necessarily mean that you don’t experience difficulties (because you will — it’s just a part of life) but it means that you’ll begin to see that even from the most challenging of situations can emerge new possibilities and new opportunities.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Mark Twain, and it is:
“Focus more on your desire than on your doubt, and the dream will take care of itself.”Mark Twain
Next week I’ll be talking about work. Regardless of what you do for a living and whether you work for someone else or are self-employed, we spend a huge amount of time at work and so it has a massive effect on our mental health and wellbeing. While I think it’s important to recognise the duty of care that all employers have to create a positive and supportive workplace, it’s also true that you have a huge role to play in your own experience at work and how that contributes to your mental health. So next week I’m talking about what mental health at work is all about, why it’s important, and how to manage your work life for better mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 11th of July. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for my weekly newsletter. You can also find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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