Have you ever noticed that sometimes, when you focus on a problem, that problem intensifies until it’s several orders of magnitude larger than it was when originally brought to your attention?
Say you have a neighbor who plays an instrument for a living. They were in a band, you think, and also gave lessons on the side.
You never really paid attention because they usually only played their instrument while you were at work.
But then you started working from home, and you’ve learned they practice all day long. The same chords, over and over. The same melodies, off-key and without rhythm, until your brain feels like it’s about to burst.
Where is my mind?
As you go through your day with the repetitive music practice, what are you paying attention to? The sounds, the way the sounds bother you, maybe the anger or frustration welling up inside.
Don’t they know other people live in this building? You want to scream. They’re so selfish! I can’t stand the noise!
You don’t want to tell the neighbor to stop, because you know they’re just doing their job, but the sounds are making you nuts.
And—are they… are they intensifying? Is it just you, or have they actually gotten louder and more persistent over the past few weeks? You put in ear plugs and seethe.
It seems like just dealing with the sounds over and over, day after day, is enough to put you over the edge. It’s kind of all you can think about some days.
You believe you’re going to lose sleep, lose your health, and possibly lose your job if you can’t focus because of the stupid, ridiculous noise.
How to change your focus
At one point, you realize you’re obsessing. A friend suggests that instead of thinking so much about how it bothers you, put the same amount of energy into trying to solve the problem.
You buy stronger ear plugs. You wonder if you should move. You have no way to solve the problem, but you’re determined to try shifting your focus.
You put a sticky note on your laptop that says, “Shift your focus.”
So, throughout the day, whenever you start to feel annoyed by the music, you force yourself to think instead, “There’s a solution and I’m open to solving the problem.” Every time. Over and over.
You imagine coming up with a brilliant solution.
Maybe you could crowdfund some soundproof wall padding! Maybe your neighbor will move! Maybe you could tell them how much you love writing, and they’ll decide to become a writer instead of a musician!
Over and over, you come back to your sticky note.
Every time you notice you’re thinking about the problem, you force yourself to focus instead on finding a solution.
What can happen when you change your focus
Then one day, you run into that neighbor on the sidewalk. They look tired. Your heart gives a little pang.
You say, “Hey.”
They say, “Hey,” and hesitate before adding, “I, uh—I wanted to know if I could ask a favor of you.”
Oh jeez, here we go, you think, rolling your eyes.
“What’s up?” you ask, trying to be casual.
“I got laid off from my music school job a few months ago, so I’ve shifted to teaching my tuba lessons online,” they say. “I remember you mentioned last year that your niece wanted to learn tuba. I was wondering if you might find out if she’s interested in virtual lessons.”
You love your niece. In fact, you’d do just about anything in the world for her. She has a birthday coming up and you have some extra cash to splurge on a nice gift for her.
But adding more tuba lessons to the week—that is not something you want to contribute to.
“You know, the tuba practice is really loud.” You’re trying to remain calm. You’re trying not to swear.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” they say. They really do look tired. “I’m asking because if I can secure one more student, I’ll be able to afford a studio where I can give my lessons, instead of in the apartment.”
And in that moment, you realize that once you changed your focus, the opportunity for a solution presented itself to you.
You moved from obsessing about what was going wrong and how awful it was making your life to being open to solving the problem in a mutually beneficial way.
Pause, notice, and adjust where necessary
The areas of your life that you focus on continually will be the ones that flourish.
Shifting attention takes practice and willpower, but once you’ve allowed yourself to be open to new possibilities and solutions, your life will benefit in ways you might never have expected.
It should go without saying, but please note this advice does not apply if you’re in a dangerous situation. “Changing your focus” is not a replacement for professional medical or mental health assistance. Also, if you’re being abused or seeking to self-harm, please reach out immediately to professionals and other resources who can help.