17 January 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

In the Army, you run a lot. Or at least I did. And to the Army’s credit, they start you running early in basic training. It was the Saturday of our first full week, and we’d been slowing increasing the distance we ran to prepare us for the final physical-training exercise that would help determine if we’d graduate from basic training. Once we’d formed at 5:00 am, one of our drill sergeants told us we would run eight miles that day.

We started off by winding our way through the wooded areas close the base; then we headed back toward the barracks. One drill sergeant—in perfect cadence to chants—announced that we still had two miles to go. After the first couple of loops, the entire company began to slow as if we were running through mud, and heads craned for the barracks as we passed it. The drill sergeants would, of course, admonish us for our pace and tell us to keep our eyes forward. And so it went: slowing when we glimpsed the barracks, admonishment to pick it up, back on pace, and then it would all repeat. It took ten laps to finish the run. Even for this runner, that was one of the hardest two miles of my life. Why?, you ask. Because being tired and ready for the run to be over all the while seeing the finish line without being able to stop was torturous. And, of course, it was planned that way.

focusWhen we assembled for our classroom session later that morning, the instructor explained the psychology of our morning run and what it meant to our careers as soldiers. You have to attend to the task at hand, said the instructor. So instead of slowing and longing to be inside the barracks, we needed to remain focused on the run. You may have guessed by now how this basic-training anecdote ties into our academic lives. It’s hard to stay focused sometimes.

I think of that run from so many years ago quite often. Because it’s a physical and material and embodied reminder of trying to focus and stay focused on the things that matter, whatever those things are that matter to you.

Many of us are winding down our first week of teaching and getting back into a semester’s groove while others of us are trying to stay focused on specific tasks and objectives, but all of us I would imagine are trying to simply focus.

Focus can be the center of attention of activity or it can be to pay attention to. I’ve always found that the multiple and competing demands of this job make it easy to lose focus. It’s easy to know what to focus on when there’s a deadline or someone right in front of you, but we have to have focus when we’re not faced with these pressures.

Admittedly, lately, this is one of my biggest problems, and it stems from a combination of personal and professional factors. So for me, I’m working hard on focus and reminding myself of that run so long ago. I am trying

  • limit my distractions
  • force myself to start with the hardest (ickiest) task first
  • make reasonable to-do lists so as to not feel overwhelmed and to feel and be successful in a day
  • incorporate more fun things
  • work on being more selective to those things I agree to

In each of these, I hope my focus will return or at the very least, I have more focused days than not. These are all small things, but sometimes they can make the most difference.

And if all else fails, maybe I’ll take up running again!