How to Focus: Tips from a World Champion Shooter

It’s the fall of 2005 and a tall, lean woman stands poised and ready in the finals of the World Military Shooting Championships.

She has the lead and with one shot left to go, raises her gun to aim at a ten-millimeter target exactly 50 meters away.

What determines whether Christina Bengtsson makes the shot?

Is it the wind, physics, her technique, or breathing? The sleep she had last night, or the preparations she made this week?

“No,” she says, standing on a TedX stage more than a decade later, “those are abilities that everybody at that level has been training for years.”

Success is instead all about focus:

“It’s all about the thoughts I think and why I think them. This is what focus is about.”

Focus under fire

Hitting the mark, Christina says, is all about the quality of your mind.

But increasingly, as a society, we are losing our ability to manage our thoughts and direct our attention.

Not just in the short term, where we are distracted by the intensity of our modern world.

Our ability to focus on long-term, future-oriented goals, is also being depleted by the easy availability of instant rewards.

Focus, the kind that made Christina Bengtsson a champion, is under fire.

To understand how we might reclaim this uniquely human ability, Christina says we must first understand the three factors that erode our concentration.

Learn the three foes of focus

In 2022, its easy to point the finger at external focus killers — our smartphones, our email-obsessed workplaces, or the powerful algorthms of tech companies.

No doubt these are real factors, but they are also hard to change.

Bengtsson’s theory of focus, on the other hand, is profoundly personal, and as a result, it’s empowering.

The idea is simple, ancient, even: If we can manage our minds, we can create focus in a distracted world.

To do so, Bengtsson says, we must first recognise three mental mishaps:

  • First, our minds are often full of disturbing thoughts, worried about not being good enough.
  • Second, instead of working with what we already know, we are constantly focused on what the future holds.
  • And third, we are frustrated by the feeling of running out of time

You can’t shoot with precision when your mind is a mess.

And you can’t take daily steps to your long term goal if you’re lost in what might lie ahead.

So how do we focus our minds in the now?

Bengtsson says we must “free ourselves from these disturbing and worrying thoughts” and let “a kind of undemanding present arise.”

“Because it’s in this undemanding present that we are focused. It’s here that we perform and function exactly as well as we are.”

So in order to overcome these internal distractions, we must fully understand the quality of mind that activiates focus, this undemanding present all around us.

Find the ‘undemanding present’

It might be a quirk of translation, but I love the idea of the ‘undemanding present.’

It’s a calming contrast to the ‘hyperactive hive mind’ that dominates most of our lives in 2022.

And it’s a concept that encapsulates the headspace we must find if we’re going to activate lazer focus.

Luckily, you don’t have to look far for this focus — as Bengston did at the World Championships.

Focus is everywhere

With her sights trained on the impossibly small 10mm target ahead of her, Bengtsson recognised the nervous thoughts running through her head, realizing that “this potential triumph could easily become yet another fiasco.”

But then, through the internal cacophony, she saw a silent, autumn leaf playing in the wind.

She gave the leaf her full attention.

“And suddently, I am completely calm.”

She shoots.

And that’s how Christina Bengtsson won the World Championships.

It wasn’t a coincident, or a sliding-doors moment. Instead,

This was a deliberate choice and the result of persistent mental training. Because this leaf relieved me of distracting thoughts and made me focused.

Bengtsson trained her mind to focus in the moment, and to find external triggers that would narrow her perception into a single, powerful spotlight.

To master this beam of focus, and train it on a single object, she practiced three simple techniques.

Three steps to focus: Notice, Be, and Detach

Christina Bengtsson says there are three things you must do in order to find the undemanding present and improve your ability to focus:

1. Notice

First, she says, we must learn to notice our disturbing thoughts. We can only think about one thing at a time, and it’s very hard to change our one-track mind.

But the habit of noticing, and gently re-directing our thoughts towards something neutral, like our breath, a chair, or an autumn leaf, will guide our minds towards focus.

2. Be

Second, Christina says that focus “is not about becoming something new or something better, but simply about functioning exactly as we already are and understanding that this is enough.”

This processing of simply being, and of knowing that being is enough, is a powerful way (the only way) to disconnect our obsession with the past and the future, and simply focus in the now.

3. Detach

Thirdly, we must detach ourselves from the world of endless possibilities, which drives us to do more and more with intensity.

Instead, Christina says, focus requires that we do less.

Challenge yourself to consign most of your stuff to a “not-to-do list” and instead do one thing really, really well. Whatever you do, free yourself from the future and the past, and find yourself present in the moment.

Wrap up

Almost 20 years ago, Christina Bengtsson tapped into the ancient fountain of focus: being present in the moment.

She articulated those lessons at TedX in 2015, and has since become a University Lecturer and public speaker, sharing this simple, interoceptive focus philosophy with the world.

And in 2022, these lessons couldn’t be more important.

We are bombarded with distractions, from our technology, our stress, our work and our news. It wrenches us from the moment and chucks us into the future, or the past, or into worlds that don’t really exist. It is loud and demanding. And it is destroying our ability to attend.

We can reach for coffee, or stimulants, or an app to find focus.

Or, as Christina Bengsston says, we can search within ourselves.

We can notice our distractions; detach from the past and the future; and simply be in the here and now. We can direct ourselves properly, out from the present moment and into the world.

That is the the mindset of a champion and the true way to achieve focus in a distracted world.

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