The most popular question on the web is: “How one can improve focus and can do work/study for a longer period of time?”
Improving focus and getting more out of the day is a common struggle for all of us. In a way it’s a good sign because we are trying to be more productive. You must have heard friends saying “There’s not enough time”, “I just have so much to do”, and “I can’t concentrate on a task for half an hour” and things like that all the time. Literally everywhere and people are looking at their phones multiple times during a movie, or while doing their tasks. Texting while driving (although it’s a big NO?).
Focus is a lost art and it can be easily acquired.__ Joe Sehrawat
What Is Focus?
Focus is starting a task and maintaining your attention and effort until the task is complete. It’s as simple as that. It’s doing one thing without being distracted in the process.
It’s also referred to as “flow”, a term popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. Some people also refer to focus as the feeling of “being in the zone”.
Focus in real sense is that your mind get so immersed that you lose the sense of space and time.___ Joe
I would say, as it happens with any muscle in our body, our mind is also trainable. If you want to improve your focus, start looking at it as a muscle.
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee
Focus and Concentration as a Muscle
Let me give you a example : You know when you exercise your muscles get tired and need rest? Or you try to find ways to convince yourself not to do the last rep? Or when you don’t even go to the gym at all (but you really meant to)…
The brain operates the same way. To improve focus, you need to train your brain to focus. Training equals long stretches of uninterrupted time focusing on a specific activity. And training also means that you train this skill often. Your goal is to get into the state of flow multiple times per day. Sounds simple, right? But in reality, It’s definitely not as straight as it looks.
We live in an age of endless distraction, with constant interruptions and notifications. We have too much going on so our brain doesn’t know how to discern what’s truly important. It doesn’t know where to focus. And the end result is the mind doesn’t get trained on how to focus.
It’s not all your fault. Most of our habits are a by-product of our time. And our present era is trying to eradicate our attention span. Applications want us to stay addicted so that they can generate more revenue per click.
We’re Destroying Our Attention Span :
Initially, Television was supposed to be an entertainment device, something to distracts us after a long day at work. But companies quickly understood the potential of television to acquire customers and ramp up sales. And so television became the champion of a new culture of entertainment, one where we are amusing ourselves to death.
Facebook, Instagram or Twitter give us thousands of pages/ images per minute so that the eye never rests and always has something new to see. We like new. We crave new and in this bargain, we are killing our ability to have a singular focus. These distractions also present to us new things that we didn’t ask but didn’t question as well. We accepted it as a culture, it became part of us. The new technology has only amplified this bias.
We carry slot machines in our pocket, with infinite scrolling and notifications always demanding our attention. This does not let the mind develop the focus ability.____ Joe Sehrawat
By connecting people throughout the world, these technologies made us hyper-connected. Everyone can post anything online. And then came news 24/7, status updates, and photos of our latest holiday. Companies have perfected algorithms to capture and hold our attention prisoner. No wonder we can’t improve focus because we have been training our attention muscle in wrong ways.
These technologies are like fast food to your brain: you know that you shouldn’t consume them but still, the dopamine rush feels oh so good that you can’t help yourself.
How to Train Your Attention Muscle :
To improve focus, we must train our attention muscle in different ways. We need to train it to go deep, to stay focused for longer periods of time multiple times per day. When you do so, that focus will carry to your work life, allowing you to achieve flow faster and perform big chunks of deep work.
3-step plan when taking your brain for Focus :
1. Eliminate Before Optimizing
This is the simplest exercise at the brain gym: remove anything that is training your attention in seconds and not minutes or hours. If your goal is to be amused, keep them. There’s no sense trying to be a monk. If you like watching Netflix at night to chill, that’s cool. But play is something to do in your free time, not all the time.
Here’s a list of the most common offenders:
- Television: there is good quality and bad quality TV. The one where the subject or context changes every minute is the bad one. Think reality shows and news
- News: TV news change every thirty seconds but when it comes to our printed media, we’re not doing much better. 500 words followed by 500 words is a recipe for disaster. Skip 99% of the news online
- Social Media: save it for play time. If you’re going hardcore, remove social media from your life altogether. You can’t miss what you don’t know
- Phone: all the blips and notification are calling you all the time from your pocket, as the One ring calls Bilbo Baggins
Switch your attention brain diet with long-form: books, documentaries, and blogs with long posts.
2. Clear to Neutral
You’re already familiar with the concept of clearing to neutral. It’s time to start applying it everywhere.
When you’re done with your computer, close all the apps and browser and shut down. If you’re leaving the office, spend 5 minutes throwing everything unnecessary away and give your desk a clean.
But also clear to neutral during the day.
If you’re reading an email: open it, read it, then close it. No need to leave the browser or the app open. Browsing social media? Open the app, browse, then log out.
Clearing to neutral helps you eliminate friction points and reduce your tendency to procrastinate.___ Joe
You know what they say: if you open your computer and there are 23 open tabs, you’re going to have a bad time.
Clearing to neutral helps “future you” get started.
3. One at a Time
Finally, the hardest exercise at the brain gym: to focus on one thing at a time. In our fast-paced world, this is the Holy Grail. Your ability to stay focused on one thing at a time is the best exercise you can do to improve focus. By doing it consistently, you’ll train your brain to stay in flow for longer periods of time.
A simple tweak that works wonders is to always work in full-screen mode. This removes all other unnecessary distractions and put the only thing that matters in front of you. You can do it on anything — email, docs, MacBook or in Chrome.
Improve Focus by Adjusting Your Defaults
The final step in our journey to improve focus is to adjust our defaults. 90% of your daily decisions happen automatically, many shaped by the environment. Thus, most decisions are a habit, not a deliberate choice. And habits can be developed by shaping the invisible defaults of your life.
To make smarter choices, design smarter defaults :
- Avoid decision fatigue early in the morning by choosing all your outfits for the week on Sunday night. One less decision every morning can go a long way
- Only use a handful of productivity apps to get things done. It’s easier to work with 3 apps than 10. Use “Swiss army” apps that can be adapted to different types of work. Less is more
- Always wear headphones. Invest in one of the best noise cancellation headsets. Coworkers will think you can’t hear them and the barrier to interrupt you is much higher. Even when you do hear them, pretend you didn’t. Most of the times they won’t try a second time. But this does not work in Govt / Semi- Govt departments.
- Plan your entire week on Sunday. Schedule tasks directly on the calendar to allocate time for them
- Listen to the same song on repeat. This will help you lose track of time and become more focused
- Design or identify productivity spaces for different types of work. By creating certain types of work, you may find it easier to buckle down to your tasks
- Treat checking emails as you would any other tasks: a to-do. Schedule specific times in your calendar to process email. Only check email twice per day: late morning and late evening
- Don’t check your email before 11 am. Spend the early morning performing Deep Work on critical work that moves the needle on your goals
- Train other people to respect your productivity, work, and time by using an automatic response. Long-term sustainable email productivity is about selective ignorance. Let people know you’re checking emails less often in order to be more productive
- When a coworker interrupts you at your desk, gently tell him you’re working on something right now and if they can send you an email or send a text to remind you later.
- If someone wants to set up a meeting, make it a necessity to give you an agenda by email before phone calls and in-person meetings. Don’t give people easy outs
- Install StayFocusd, a chrome extension that lets you block specific websites for a set period of time. You add websites to your blacklist with a few simple clicks. If you want to go hardcore, use SelfControl to block websites for a specific time. You won’t be able to access those sites until the timer expires, even if you restart your computer or delete the application
- Save articles to read later with the Evernote Web Clipper. Choose “Simplified article” and save it to a notebook (I call mine “Read Later”). Batch reading of those articles during your leisure time
- Download Audible and always have one audiobook going for a while you’re driving or on a walk
- Download the Kindle app and always have one book going at a time
- Instead of watching TV to fall asleep, read. Bonus: You’ll fall asleep faster since you’re not staring at a screen
There are a lot more nudges and defaults strategies that you can use to shape the environment around you. In the words of Winston Churchill:
“We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.”
Another key strategy is to simplify. More options aren’t better, it’s worse. It depletes your willpower and leads to decision fatigue.
Keep your defaults as simple as possible: eat the same meals over and over again, read one blog post at a time instead of opening 10, own fewer things and love everything that you own.__Joe Sehrawat
As a rule of thumb: when in doubt as to ” what do I do” to improve focus, simply eliminate options.
Improving Focus Is a Process, Not a One-time affair :
To improve focus, you must continue to exercise your attention muscle every single day. It’s easy to fall into the old ways and get lost in that vortex of blipping notifications. It’s all around us, it’s hard to escape. That’s why you must be deliberate on how and where you use your attention. It starts by being more aware.
In the middle of doing something, stop and ask yourself: “Is this training my attention muscle to focus?”. If the answer is not a clear yes, adjust the task or how you are doing things. In the long-run, your brain will thank you.
Get in touch… — JOE’s LIFE SKILLS LAB/Joe Sehrawat
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