Collage of a woman's face
Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare

WORK SMARTER

I can’t even concentrate for an afternoon. So how can I plan my whole life?

Marisa Bate is having trouble focusing – on the small and the big things

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By Marisa Bate on

I’ve downloaded an app called “Forest”. It’s meant to help you focus. You set an amount of time you’d like to be focused for (or, in my case, not check Twitter) and the app starts to grow a little tree. The more periods of focus you have, the more trees you accumulate, eventually building a forest. Sounds cute? Think again. If you try to check Twitter or the weather or your email, the tree dies. Brutal, yet effective. And, occasionally, snide. If you check on the app during one of your focused periods, it says slightly mocking things like, “Giving up already, loser?” Well, not actually the loser part, but you get the idea.

My focus is, quite frankly, buggered. As one writer noted on Twitter – the graveyard of attention spans – her concentration is so ruined by the internet that she won't make it to the end of the new 280-character tweets. And I sympathise. My focus is like a pinball in a pinball machine, frantically bouncing off Twitter and Wikipedia and news stories and cat videos and Nike sale offers and Teen Vogue and whatever Beyoncé was wearing last night. It’s exhausting.

And not just when you’re sitting at your desk, with a small tree growing on your phone, trying to meet a deadline, either. I’ve noticed that the women I’ve been speaking to are trying to focus on the much bigger things, too, and it’s not coming easily.

Over breakfast last week, a successful 35-year-old woman told me she’d spent the last few years “not knowing” what she was focused on. She had a great job, friends, rented with people she really likes, but said she’s 35, single, she might not have kids, so she what does she want? She found herself in her boss’s office, asking for a three-month sabbatical – it was time to focus on something; maybe this was it. Two of my dearest friends are moving to Barcelona at the end of next month. Why? There’s no great master plan; instead there’s more of a sense of “Why not?” A woman I often seek career advice from said to me recently: “What do you want your career to look like?” I didn't have an answer. The only thing I’m sure of is that I’d like to live in another country. Why? Well, because why not?

The idea of not knowing what to focus on seems to be common. Two women have told me recently they have a visions board, filled with pictures of nice houses, dogs and a creative endeavour, to keep them focused on what they’re doing and where they’re going. I guess a bit like my Forest app with the little tree – except these are actually big dreams and no one wants to watch their dreams die.

It’s never been easier to quit your job and buy a one-way ticket to Spain or set yourself up as a side-hustling millennial or reject babies and marriage and the suburbs

But why is it so hard to focus on what we want? Why are we so unsure of what exactly those dreams are? At a friend's birthday recently, her father and I had a conversation whereby he admitted that his daughter had put her career first and that hadn’t always been the way for women. The problem, he thought, is that it’s not so straightforward or simple these days if the path for women is more open and, as a traditional man who’d like grandchildren, he was concerned as to how women know if they are choosing the right route. (Spoiler: we don’t.)

Obviously, women are entitled to as many routes as men, but I do actually think he had a point – for the lucky among us, our choices are greater than they’ve ever been; our world is more connected and smaller; it’s never been easier to quit your job and a buy a one-way ticket to Spain or set yourself up as a side-hustling millennial or reject babies and marriage and the suburbs. And, while you’re wondering which door to pick, we’re more able than ever to watch others make their choices as they plaster it all over the internet. Like trying to stay focused on just one open browser, how can we focus on just ourselves when we can be so distracted by everyone else?  

But I also wonder if there is a greater subconscious distraction that’s stopping us from identifying what we want and making it happen – for those of us privileged enough to be in the position to do so. We can’t be unaware of the changing goal posts – we’ll all be working for longer, we won’t have pensions, we’re struggling with the rise of personal debt. Last week, the political editor of The Guardian tweeted a graph that shows that UK real wages have barely changed since 2005 and wrote “surely part of the explanation for our restless, fluid politics”. And aren’t “restless” and “fluid” two words that fit the description of a generation of people who aren’t sure what the next move is? They might be side-hustling here and there, but where are they actually headed for? A lot of industries are eroding, reshaping and evolving post-2008, post-digital dominance, post/mid/what-the-hell-is-going-on Brexit. And even if you do your very best to avoid Brexit and Boris, you know that there's a shit-show happening that is currently not dissimilar to a game of Deal Or No Deal. Our government seems to be as unsure of the next step as we are. There's an unease, an unknown element in our political and economic air, so how can we plot a graph of our ambition against a slip-sliding axis?

I’ve never been a great planner, so perhaps I was never going to be the one with a detailed, bullet-point 10-year plan, but I wish I was better at focusing on the task in hand and killing fewer trees. I like a wide horizon and open possibility, but I would like to have a clearer idea of what I’m meant to be doing in that wide open space of choice right now.

@marisajbate

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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
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