Get lots more done by improving your ability to focus.
Focus is your ability to gather and direct your attention. The more focused you are, the more successful you’ll be. This applies to academic achievement, athletic performance, work results, entrepreneurial success, skill acquisition, and so on.
However, in the modern Age of Distraction, focus and concentration seem to be in short supply. There’s even a Microsoft study which purports to show that the average person has an eight-second attention span. That’s less than a goldfish. Now, I don’t know how reliable the goldfish study is—although it’s been cited by several major publications–but I do know that on the days in which I’m focused I’m highly productive, and I manage to cross everything off of my to-do list for the day. On the other hand, on the days in which my focus is scattered I find that I’m “busy” all day, but I get very little done.
Even if you nodded in silent agreement when you read about the goldfish study mentioned above, all is not lost. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to train your attention and strengthen your ability to focus. Below you’ll find 10 ways to improve your focus and sharpen your attention.
1. Improve Your Focus by Doing One Thing At a Time
Dandapani is a Hindu priest, entrepreneur, speaker and former monk who teaches spiritual tools which help people lead a rewarding life. He recently gave a TED talk on how to develop unwavering focus.
At the start of his talk Dandapani explains that most people today have trouble concentrating for two reasons:
- First, although as children we were told to concentrate, we were never taught how to concentrate.
- Second, we don’t practice concentration.
So, how can we be expected to be able to do something which we were never taught how to do? In addition, how can we be expected to do something well, when we don’t practice it? In fact, what we tend to practice repeatedly is distraction. Therefore, we’re really good at being distracted.
Dandapani goes on to say that we tend to blame modern technology for our failure to concentrate. After all, there always seems to be something ringing or beeping and calling for our attention. But is technology to blame?
According to Dandapani, technology is not the problem. He explains that as long as we’re in charge of technology, instead of allowing technology to be in charge of us, we won’t be distracted by technology.
He goes on to say that the way to become good at concentrating is by understanding the mind. Once we know how the mind works, we can control it. And once we can control it, we can focus it. Here’s how the mind works from a monk’s perspective: there’s awareness, and there’s the mind.
Think of awareness as a glowing ball of light. Imagine your mind as a vast space, or area, with many different sections within it. There’s a section for anger, for jealousy, for food, for sex, for happiness, and so on.
Your awareness can travel around the mind, and it can go to any section of the mind that it wants to go to. When it goes to any section of the mind, it lights up that section. In turn, when a section of your mind lights up, you become conscious of it.
Keep in mind that you have the ability to take your awareness and move it to any area of the mind that you want it to go to. The art of concentration is keeping your awareness, that ball of light, on one thing for an extended period of time. As you concentrate on one thing you may feel the ball of light drifting away. When that happens, simply bring it back.
Dandapani goes on to say that throughout the day, we allow people and outside events to take our awareness from one section of our mind to another, all day long. Therefore, we spend the day distracted. He adds that we can stop this from happening by practicing focus and concentration.
The way to practice concentration—that is, the way to practice keeping our awareness where we want it to be—is by doing one thing at a time throughout the day. Do the following:
- When you’re talking to someone, keep your awareness on the person you’re speaking to.
- When you’re working on a report for work, keep your awareness on writing the report.
- When you’re walking down the street, keep your awareness on walking down the street.
- When you’re eating, keep your awareness on the taste and texture of the food that you’re eating.
That is, keep your awareness–the ball of light–on whatever you’re doing at the time. Whenever you feel your awareness drifting, simply bring it back. That’s how you learn how to focus and concentrate.
2. Improve Your Focus by Practicing Pre-Commitment
Pre-commitment means that you’re going to decide ahead of time what task you’re going to work on, to the exclusion of everything else, and for how long you’re going to work on that task. Once you’ve decided on the task you’re going to be working on—that is, once you’ve identified your mission–, write it down on a piece of paper, an index card, or a post-it note.
For example, let’s say that you decide that you’re going to work on a blog post for 25 minutes. Grab your pen and an index card and write down the following:
Blog Post – 25 Minutes
Then, set a timer for 25 minutes and get to work on your blog post. During those 25 minutes, don’t allow anything to take your focus away from the post that you’re writing.
3. Build Your Focus Muscles Gradually
Let’s say that you decide to start going to the gym to lift weights. What do you do? You start with the lighter weights. If you try lifting the heavy weights right away you’ll probably get discouraged by your inability to do more than one or two repetitions, and you may even hurt yourself.
In much the same way, when you first start trying to build your focus muscles, you should start out small. If your focus muscles are very flabby, you may want to set your timer for five minutes. Once you’ve focused on a task for five minutes, take a two-minute break. Then, tackle another five-minute focus session, followed once again by a two-minute break.
Each day add another five minutes to your work time. In this way, you’ll be building your focus muscles gradually.
4. Identify Potential Distractions Ahead of Time
Before you sit down to work on an important project, or get started with one of your study sessions, think of all the things that could distract you. Then, come up with a plan for dealing with these distractions. Here are some examples:
- Are you worried you may be distracted by your cell phone? Turn it off and put it in another room.
- Are you worried other people may distract you? Find a quiet corner where others won’t be able to find you.
- Are you worried you might find yourself checking social media sites or randomly surfing the internet? Block distracting web sites on your computer using extensions like FocalFilter.
- Are you easily distracted by visual and auditory stimuli? Then, when you need to concentrate, stay away from high-activity areas where there’s lots of background noise and movement. You could also consider getting some noise-cancelling headphones.
Find a way to deal with distractions before they take your focus away from the task you’re working on.
5. Meditate to Improve Your Focus
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that meditators may be better equipped than non-meditators to pay attention and concentrate. The study, by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, found that meditation changes brain patterns, and confers advantages in mental focus.
Pagnoni, who has studied how meditation affects the brain for many years, recruited 12 Zen meditators for the study. He compared the 12 meditators to a control group of 12 people who had never meditated.
The study showed that the meditators had more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC) than the non-meditators. The vPMC is a region of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering.
This means that meditators are better at controlling the brain regions responsible for pulling our focus away when we’re trying to concentrate on something. In order to improve your focus, start saying your OMs.
If you’re not sure how to get started meditating for improving focus, Alan Wallace, Ph.D., explores a systematic path of meditation to deepen our capacity for deep concentration in his book, “The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind”.
6. Get Into the Habit of Saying “No”
You’ve probably heard that the good is the enemy of the great. This idiom has different meanings, and one of them is that you’ll never achieve anything great if you allow yourself to be constantly distracted by the good.
As an illustration, suppose that you’re working on a video course on a topic that is near and dear to your heart. You know that people need the information that you’ll be offering in the course, and you’re certain that you’ll be able to create a top-notch product.
You’re making great progress on your video course, but then you open your email. You notice that you’ve received the following emails:
- A request for an interview.
- An email from another blogger asking you to write a guest post for their blog.
- An invitation to be part of a panel.
All of these things sound good, and you’ll probably be tempted to accept. However, what happens if you do accept these requests and invitations? You’ll be taking your focus away from your video course.
In other words, you’ll stop focusing on the great in order to focus on the good. Clearly, the best strategy to follow here is to decline the invitations so that you can continue focusing on finishing your video course.
In order to improve your focus, learn to say “no”.
7. Improve Your Focus by Taming Your Monkey Mind
Monkey mind are those thoughts that swing from limb to limb in your head. A lot of the time the distractions that weaken your focus don’t come from the outside. They come from within.
You may be working on an important project, when the voice in your head interrupts you with thoughts like the following:
- “What if I don’t get the promotion?”
- “Wait! Did I make that phone call?”
- “Did my boss look angry when I passed him in the hall earlier? I think he looked a little angry. Is he angry at me? What could I have done to make him angry? I haven’t done anything. Have I?”
Does that sound familiar? To tame your monkey mind, you’ll need to take steps like the following:
- Practice mindfulness –train your mind to simply witness the present moment without comment.
- Start a journaling practice—this will allow you to clear your head.
- When your mind wanders use your breath to bring your attention back to the task at hand.
You’ll find several ideas for quieting your mental chatter in my post, 10 Ways to Tame Your Monkey Mind and Stop Mental Chatter. By quieting your monkey mind you’ll boost your productivity and strengthen your ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
8. Improve Your Focus by Taking Regular Breaks
A lot of people equate taking breaks with wasting time. However, studies show that taking breaks improves our focus.
After a while of focusing on a task, our cognitive control system starts to fail. By switching our attention to something else momentarily–that is, by taking a break–we can then return to our original task and focus on it once again.
Ideally, when you take your breaks you should do the following:
- Get up and move. This will get your blood flowing and help clear your mind.
- Calm your mind with a few yoga poses.
- Drink some water — dehydration can lead to a loss of concentration.
So, for how long should you work before you take a break? Experiment with different work-break ratios until you find the one that works best for you.
9. Improve Your Focus by Doodling
As I explained in my post, 7 Benefits of Doodling and How to Get Started, doodling helps you to concentrate. This is because doodling requires enough cognitive effort to keep you from daydreaming, and yet not enough to prevent you from paying attention to what is going on around you.
If you’re at a meeting or attending a lecture, and you want to pay attention to what is being said, take out a pen and a piece of paper and start scribbling. The minimal attention required for doodling appears to boost focus and memory.
10. Cultivate Your Focus With Deep Work
Cal Newport is the author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success In a Distracted World”. He explains that deep work is something that should be cultivated.
Deep work involves cognitively demanding tasks which require focused, intense concentration for long periods of time. Here are some characteristics of deep work:
- Deep work pushes your abilities to their limit.
- It’s work that produces value and makes a difference.
- It allows you to learn new skills.
- Deep work gives your life meaning.
- It’s economically rewarding.
The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Shallow work tends to be logistical in nature, it doesn’t really leverage your skills, and it can be easily replicated by somebody else. Logistical work includes things such as answering emails, attending meetings, and updating your social profiles. These are things that need to get done, but they shouldn’t take up much of your time.
As an example, if you’re a blogger–like I am–deep work is producing high quality articles, eBooks, and video courses. For me, that’s the work that really gets the results that I’m after. Shallow work involves things such as tweaking my blog’s theme, adding new plugins, spending time on social media, and researching ways to increase my mailing list.
In order to cultivate deep work, Cal recommends that you do things like the following:
- Create a visual scorecard of the amount of time that you spend engaged in deep work.
- Change your default email habit to “no response,” excepting the few emails that truly matter.
- Schedule your social media time. The rest of the day, stay away from social media.
- If you have something very important to work on, consider a “grand gesture” approach. For example, when Carl Jung wanted to write he would leave his busy Zurich life and retreat to a tower he had built near his rural house in the village of Bollingen. As a second illustration, when J. K. Rowling found herself struggling to complete the final book in her Harry Potter series, she booked a suite at the five-star Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh and stayed there until her book was finished.
Most of you know that I’m working on an eBook on how to learn any skill fast. Writing this eBook is deep work. Since my December 31st deadline for the eBook is fast approaching, I’m going to do the following:
Devote the days from December 26th to December 31st to finishing the eBook. During that time I’m going to devote ten hours a day, every day, to writing the eBook.
That’s my grand gesture. 🙂
Follow the ten tips above and you’ll soon be a heavyweight at focusing. Instead of wondering where your time went at the end of the day, you’ll be amazed at all the important things you’ll be getting done. Live your best life by improving your focus.
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