We have a problem with focus. We know this because it is a topic everywhere. Key article in the Wall St. Journal. Best-selling books: Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey, Atomic Habits by James Clear. Magazine articles galore.
The roots of the problem are numerous and rather easily identified. The solution to the problem involves habits and discipline, and perhaps spending a small amount of money.
Why We Have A Problem Focusing
Our brains are wired for novelty. Stare out your window. If a bird flies or a squirrel runs down a tree, you will almost instantly focus on it. Undoubtedly, you are familiar with all the arguments on why this is so. Only a few generations ago, your ancestors lived in danger from snakes, sharks, bandits, an arrow heading their way, sojourning czars and princes with authority to do anything with them they pleased from enslaving to worse. Being constantly aware of their surroundings was essential. You are reading this today because one of your distant great grandparents was faster or more aware than other folks and didn't get eaten by that sabre tooth tiger.
Nowadays, this brain reality has been exploited by folks who don’t necessarily have our best interest at heart. Casino operators learned how this part of the brain works long before researchers had cracked the biological secrets. For a sizeable population, slot machines are the perfect brain candy: handing out rewards and punishment at just the right pace to keep us moving our net worth into casino bank accounts. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, What’s Ap, TikTok and more have advanced the science. And conservative vs. liberal, Democrat vs. Republican, talk radio and cable television can also feed into our alert and reward systems. And Netflix, Hulu, Roku and more give us near-infinite options to while away our time. We’ll only watch one more episode of Breaking Bad, then we’ll concentrate.
Now, our ever-present devices become the channel for focus-interrupting brain candy.
Then Along Came Covid
We had problems enough, but then millions of us found ourselves in a vastly different environment. We are trying WFM and educate from home simultaneously. Or, perhaps you are the power couple who were conquering the world in your high-rise offices every day and now find that once-cozy hipster apartment isn’t conducive to long conference calls. We’ve gone from an office with dedicated phone lines, high-speed printers and lightning fast internet connections to a shared five-year-old printer and two adults and two children on Wifi.
Your Focus To-Do List
We have culled a long list of recommendations to a group that seems practical, frequently mentioned by individuals calling themselves experts and supported – anecdotally – by people who claim it helps them.
Remove distractions.Clean up your workspace. You may not have a nice, separate home office (we’ve seen your home on Zoom and we know that now).
- Create a work area and organize it the best you can. No stacks of snail mail that haven’t been opened or bills to pay. Remove those articles that you want to read but haven’t gotten to yet. Organize the materials you need for the first thing you need to concentrate on and get the rest out of sight.
- Signal interruption. Recently, I had to get a new phone. There were 109 applications loaded on it when I got it (!) Many of those apps assumed I wanted them to beep, ring or light up my screen whenever they felt like it. I’ve spent hours under Setups; Permissions stripping those applications of their power to interrupt me. Same with email. I do not have it set to post a little alert on my computer screen of a new message, much less make an audible ping. And certainly not with any social media account; I waste enough time there already without hearing its digital siren song. There is a body of research detailing how long it takes to recover deep concentration after an interruption. If you have tasks that require concentration, you lose more time with those signals than you might think. The only electronic alert I’ve allowed is from a weather app.
Make lists. David Allen’s Getting Things Done, The Art of Stress-Free Productivity still sells thousands of copies years after it was first published. He argues that we can only remember a few things and we should off-load our memory into various lists. Whenever you fly, it is good to remember that pilots go through a detailed checklist before every takeoff. It also gets them focused on the upcoming task: getting us from A to B safely. I’m a believer in lists. I never go to the grocery store without one; otherwise I always forget to purchase something I really need. I have a daily task list. And a place I write down random things that occur to me when I’m trying to focus. That way I can remain focused without a troubling worry that I’ll forget that random thing.
Use time blocks. Assign a dedicated amount of time to engage the most difficult work. Are you battling a difficult programming challenge? Have a project that demands all the creativity you can muster? Booked to make an important presentation and you aren’t happy with the content or your preparation? Block a fixed period of time during which you will deflect every interruption possible. Say one hour. Work on it for that hour. You might find that you breeze past that hour because you are in the zone. Authors tend to say that; after struggling with plot development, or a character, dialogue or scene, they suddenly have a breakthrough and a goal of writing 1,000 words becomes an actual result of 5,000.
Build your capacity to focus. As you remove distractions and offload items from working memory to lists, you can concentrate at your max capacity. But perhaps changes in your responsibility require more capacity. What then? Our suggestion: add even more work in the short term to get long-term brain results. Simple analogy: work out every other day for a week; not much to show for it. Work out with specific goals and increased difficulty for six months: much results. Three ways to increase your brain capacity:
- We have covered this multiple times. A consistent meditation program increases the ability to focus. For more on using meditation to improve concentration and preparing for exams, follow this link.
- A somewhat different practice from meditation, mindfulness requires concentration on the right now. The taste, feel, texture, aroma and color of an apple as you eat it. The smell, temperature, color and sound of a forest on a hike. The feel of the water on your skin in a shower. For more on how mindfulness can improve focus, follow this link and this one too.
- Few things use as much of our brains as playing a musical instrument. Side note: this is equally, or even better for the development of children’s brains. It you are a parent, you should take a detour to this research on how learning to play an instrument helps young brains develop.
Be positive. Didn’t get the desired results today? Quickly- like 5 minutes quickly- review what knocked you off track. Perhaps there is a lesson for you there. Don’t beat yourself up.
Organize for success. Here’s the formula that works for me. At the end of each day, I straighten up my workspace. Probably not as much as I should, but a good start. And then organize the materials for the most important priorities on my list of the next day. When I enter my office the next morning and turn on my laptop, I’m not searching around for anything. I’m ready to go.
Reward yourself. Did you have a day where you got an amazing amount of work done on the most important goals? Tell yourself good job. Take a victory lap. Play your favorite upbeat tune.
More Brain-Building Ideas
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