Read Time: 15 Minutes. If you’d rather watch my video on the topic click here.
What Is Focus?
Focus is a learnable skill. Channeling your thoughts and actions to one activity can dramatically improve your productivity. If you’ve watched the movie Limitless you’ll have seen this narrative dramatized. Focused work is attention to one activity for an extended period of time. There are three related terms tossed around for this topic which are defined here:
Focus: to direct one’s attention or efforts. [Source]
Concentrate: to bring all efforts, faculties, activities, etc., to bear on one thing or activity. [Source]
Attention: the act or faculty of attending, especially by directing the mind to an object. [Source]
Focus is about concentrating all of your attention on one activity.
When you’re focused you have a one track mind. This type of focus comes easier to some than others. I think that I have a bit of a monkey brain at times where I swing from branch to branch and don’t sit still on any one tree. That being said, I think that focused concentration is a skill that anyone can improve.
It can be hard to focus. The reasoning for this is personal and will require some self exploration to figure out why this might be the case to you. There may be medical, cognitive, or psychological reasons that are making it hard for you to focus. If you’re able to rule these possibilities out then I think you’re out of practice. The key to improvement is to focus on the parts that are hard that you can control. Before jumping into six actionable steps to improve your focus I think that it is important to understand why you may be having a hard time focusing.
8 Reasons You’re Having A Hard Time Focusing
Stress: Daily stress can hamper any ability for the mind to focus. Stress is natural and everyone has varying degrees of stress in their life. The way stress is managed will influence how the mind is able to focus. In a stressful situation you will focus on that stressor. When you’re no longer in the stressful situation try and turn your attention to the present moment and the activity you’re trying to focus on. If your mind is stuck on a past or future stressor then you’re robbing yourself of the present moment.
FOMO: You may experience “Fear Of Missing Out” or FOMO. After all, we live in a world where people are hacking attention and your focus is competing against people who are creating applications and websites to keep your attention.
Over Stimulation: Our senses are overloaded more than ever. To focus your brain must filter out the distractions and noise. Similar to how a camera lens focuses. Our world has way more sensory experiences that it ever has in the past. It’s not like trees are changing at 30 frames per second with new colours and scenery. Once you’ve had your senses over stimulated it becomes hard to focus on an activity that isn’t as stimulating.
Unrested: You are not getting enough rest. Whether that is because you’re not sleeping well or enough or because your day to day life is too hectic. Take some time for yourself. In fact, schedule this time. Figure out what type of rest works best for you and stick to it. There is time for this in your days and you need to protect it.
Boredom: You lack interest in the activity. This may be because it is too challenging or it may not be challenging enough. There’s a sweet spot between the two extremes which creates optimum interest. Also, the topic may not be of interest to you. Maybe you’re not into the work you’re doing and need to explore why.
Multitasking: You’re trying to do too many things at once. This creates attention residue which I’ll discuss in the actionable steps. Multitasking is a myth. If you’re trying to work at your most productive then focus on one activity at a time. If there are many future to-dos in your heads then offload then on paper and forget them until it’s time to do them.
Lazy: I’m calling a spade a spade here. Be honest, you might be lazy. This isn’t necessarily who you are and it may just be one of those days. Laziness gets in the way of focus. Before calling yourself out as lazy make sure that you’re not having a hard time focusing because of any of the above mentioned reasons. And if you’re lazy this too can change.
Out Of Practice: You’re out of practice. Focus is a muscle and it’s use it or lose it. In our sensory overloaded world we’re unconsciously practicing keeping our attention span short and losing the skill to focus for longer. Think about the average time you spend on only one activity before moving on to the next.
What Happens In The Brain When You Focus?
The brain is the powerhouse of your focus. But what actually happens when you concentrate your attention? Our brain is very good at attending to what is important in a given moment. If you’re in a threatening situation you can bet that the brain has shifted all of your attention to that threat. The problem with our attention is that our brains are constantly being bombarded with new sensory information and it needs to decide what is most important to pay attention to at this time. This is why if we train our brain to pay attention to social media, for example, then we’re training it to make that decision on autopilot.
Picture yourself in a large room with many different groups of people chatting away. Their collective chatter is bombarding your brain. However, you’re able to tune out that noise and focus your attention in on the conversation with the people directly in front of you. Just as easily, if you get bored you’ll shift your attention away and you’ll notice all the other people and conversations happening around you. This is your brain and your conscious mind making a decision on where to focus your attention.
According to the University of Queensland, research has shown when we focus our attention the electrical activity of the neocortex of the brain changes. It is believed that the cholinergic system acts as a master switch and increasing evidence is showing that it also enables the brain to identify which sensory input is the most important. Robert Desimone’s MIT lab has found that when we pay attention to something the neurons in the visual cortex responding to the object we’re focusing upon fire in synchrony. This is in contrast to those responding to irrelevant information which become suppressed. It’s suggested that this synchrony “increases the volume” so that the neurons focused on the activity rise above other noise. When you focus you’re basically turning up the volume on the neurons that are relevant to where your attention is focused. There is a physical limit on what your brain can focus on at any one time and so a choice needs to be made.
Be mindful of how you condition your focus. I think I just heard your phone bing. You might want to check that. How does reading that sentence make you feel? Anxious? You’ve been conditioned, with your own help, to feel the need to draw you attention to these notifications. Just like Pavlov’s dog, your brain is readying itself for that dopamine hit that comes with a new notification. You’re letting your brain be impulsive and reactionary. I’ve personally turned off all notifications on my phone except for calls and texts. Yes even e-mails. And let me tell you it’s extremely freeing. Now let’s jump into 6 actionable steps you can take to improve your focus.
6 Actionable Steps To Improve Your Focus
As you go through this list keep in mind that some methods may work well for you and others will not. It’s going to require some experimentation.
1. Understand Yourself
Everyone is different and there is no “one sized fits all” approach to focus. Observe your current habits around work by taking a look at the length of time and intensity you’re able to give to your work. It’s important to write this down and offload the responses from your mind. Some questions you may ask in this exercise include:
- How long do I usually work for uninterrupted? This includes interruptions from notifications, social media, and other people.
- What are my current interruptions? What is currently competing for your attention when you work? Write them down. This will come in handy later. Is it your phone, or baby, or family, or the news or even your own worries.
- How intensely do I work? You’ll find that intensity and number of distractions are inversely related.
- How am I currently doing? Stress plays a big factor in focus. Figure out what has you stressed. Check in on your sleep, eating, and exercise habits.
- What’s the longest time on average I work on a work activity? This is your baseline to improve.
From your answers to the above questions you can form a baseline point of focus and strive to improve from it. For example, maybe currently you’re able to work 20 minutes uninterrupted before your mind wanders to new ideas or tasks or to check your e-mails. Or perhaps even after five minutes you reach for your phone because you heard a notification go off. Sure you may resist the temptation to check but part of your mind is now preoccupied with what the notification might be for. There will be moments that attention is lost to something else. Don’t be hard on yourself. Seek to understand what is helping keep you focused and do more of that.
The interruptions list is your competition for focused work and if their draw is greater than the task you’d like to focus on then they’ll win. That’s not to say that these attention grabbing things aren’t important but it’s critical to acknowledge that they’re there. They can’t be ignored forever. A baby must eat. Family matters need attending. That social media post needs to be liked, right?
2. Have A “Focus Plan” With Boundaries
Now that you understand your starting point it’s time to make a plan and add boundaries. This exercise is about making your ability to focus on your activity as easy and frictionless as possible. From your list of interruptions you’re going to want to set boundaries where it is possible and reasonable. Here are some ideas for boundaries and methods to include in a focus plan:
- Environment – The environment where you work plays a big factor in focus. Remove all the distractions. Leave your phone far away from you, preferably in a different room. Turn off notification sounds. Put content blocking on your computer if that is a problem for you. Clean your desk. Having a cluttered desk will be a visual reminder for you of all the other tasks that you have. Remove any distractions you may have in your environment. Perhaps listening to music is one way you can control your environment. Spotify has a whole genre dedicated to focus (click here to listen).
- Targets – Remember Parkinson’s law that states that your work will expand to fill the time you allot to it. Set target dates for completing the work. If you don’t have a finish date in mind, just select one. Be as realistic but also as aggressive as you can because you will find a way to fill that time regardless. Be strict with yourself and the deadlines.
- Offload – If you’re getting distracted by other tasks you have on your mind then offload them. Put them down in a list. How you organize your list is up to you. By writing them down you won’t forget them. Now you can give yourself permission to forget them in the present moment and focus on the task at hand. In my blog post “writing better to think better” I discussed how offloading your thoughts helps you critically analysis them. This is because your working memory is limited and the same applies to task management.
- Fun – I’m sure this will come as a big shock but it sure helps you focus if you’re actually enjoying the work you’re doing. It is easier to focus on a task that is fun. There is a flow state sweet spot found between work being too challenging and too boring. This is also, I think, the fun area. Think about something fun you’ve worked on and how you can get lost for hours on it. If you follow your interests you can avoid boredom and rise to meet challenges.
- Breaks – Plan to take breaks and set this boundary for yourself. Listen to your needs. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on something else all day. Keep your expectations realistic but also try and push them. The mind will want to take the easy way out even if there may still be more left in the tank.
- Measure – Track your time spent working on specific activities. By measuring this time you can see how you’re improving against your baseline you set in step one. I personally use the Clockify App (it’s free) to track time.
3. Do One Thing At A Time
“Fear is not the mind killer, context switching is the mind killer” – Elon Musk (Clubhouse January 31, 2021)
You’re going to want to have a one track mind when you’re working on an activity. Context switching will leave you with attention residue and over time your ability to focus will exponentially decrease. The costs of switching are high. Context switching is when you switch between different tasks in a short period of time and parts of your attention are left in the previous tasks. Take inventory on how often you switch between tasks. I know for myself I do this way too much. Way way too much. I’m working on it.
Attention residue means “people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another.” As you jump from task to task there is a part of your attention that will be left with your unfinished work. This is the residue left with you from your previous work. It helps if you’ve finished the previous task before moving on to the next.
“The “Zeigarnik Effect” is the principle that unfinished tasks are harder to get out of your brain than tasks that haven’t been started.” When you switch from task A to task B your attention doesn’t instantly change. You don’t want to always be working in a state of semi-distraction.
The solution to this is individual. Here are some ideas that may help you keep on one task at at time:
- Method: Select a time management method that will work best for you such as Time Boxing, the Tomato Method, or Batching. Experiment with the different methods and see what ends up working for you. It may end up being a combination or it could be an original one you think up yourself. By having a method in place you can implement it in such a way where you only focus on one activity at a time.
- Length: Pick an amount of time to dedicate to the one activity and stick to it. Length of time is an important factor to get into a flow state. Generally speaking it is going to take longer than you think to get into a state of flow or deep work (discussed in the next step). As you progress your brain will start “turning up the volume” of the neurons that are firing for the activity you’re working on. A good starting point may be 90 minute uninterrupted work periods on one complex task. From here you can gradually increase your session length to increase your attention endurance. Or decide to start with a shorter period of time and work your way up.
- Routine: Build a work routine and habit around your time management system. Practice putting in focus for longer periods of time. The routine will help you turn your longer term focus sessions into something that you do on autopilot. It will become habit and by making it a routine you’ll get into a state of flow quicker.
4. Get To Deep Work Or Flow States
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” – Cal Newport
Now that you’ve taken inventory of yourself, set your own boundaries, and understand the importance of one task at a time, it’s important to get into deep work or a state of flow. The idea is that the “quality of work produced = Intensity of Focus x Time Spent”. I think people have 3-6 hours of true focused work in them a day. At least that’s how I feel myself. This is the maximum amount of time I feel that I can produce quality work at a high intensity. In order to increase the intensify of focus you need to get into a deep state of work.
In Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”, he defines it as a “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” A flow state, attributed to Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi, is defined as “the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.” Athletes call a state of flow “the zone”.
The two terms are similar and have several characteristics in common:
- Being Present: Your mind must be present. It can not be thinking about the past or future, unless that is the activity you’re focusing on. Bring your mind to your activity and when it drifts slowly shepherd it back to the present moment.
- Distraction Free: Your environment needs to be distraction free and clear of any interruptions. Or your mind must be able to filter out the distractions so that they fade into the background. Any distractions will remove you from a state of flow. Once you’re in the state you want stay there because it takes time to get there.
- Takes Time: It will take time to get into a flow state and begin deep work. You may only reach a state of flow at the end of your work period or maybe it comes at the beginning. Either way it’ll come when it comes and you can’t force yourself there.
- Effortless: One characteristic people use to describe a state of flow is that the activity becomes effortless. You’re just going through the motions and before you know it you’ve had the most productive work session you’ve ever had.
- Trigger: Having a mental cue like a physical motion, a specific location, a mantra, or similar my help trigger these states. I find working in the same environment to be a powerful mental cue to enter a flow state quicker.
The path to getting into a state of flow, deep work, or in the zone is different for everyone. Athletes use triggers to enter the zone like squeezing their thumb. Writers may use a location specific to writing which is away from any possible distractions. No matter what method you use to find this flow state you’ll find that the key is to batch challenging but important intellectual work into long, concentrated, and distraction free periods.
5. Practice The Skill To Make It A Habit
Focus is like a muscle, the more it’s used the better it will get. Practice your focus plan. Having a work routine will help you practice the skill repetitively. Experiment with different methods and routines until you find something that sticks. I find my focus is best in the morning at my desk. Anecdotally, I can say that if I delay the first time I check my phone (in my case, really Twitter), I will focus better for the rest of the day. Keep adjusting your focus plan until you get it right. How will you know if you’ve gotten it right for you? I think you will find that when you start working you can get right into working, the work is interesting, time flies by, and the whole experience feels frictionless. There may be tougher moments but you power through them. At the end of the day you feel like you’ve lived well and produced what you had planned.
6. Recharge Yourself
Just like muscles, your focus needs to recharge. You are going to have a daily maximum. Probably even a weekly and monthly maximum. This is where knowing yourself will come in handy. But don’t sell yourself short on what you are actually capable of. How you choose to recharge is up to you but it should involve a break away from the work you were focused on. Some ideas you can try to recharge include meditation, walking, socializing, and getting in some of your favourite exercise.
The successful warrior is the average [hu]man, with laser-like focus. – Bruce Lee
Give these actionable steps a try and see how your ability to focus improves. I believe our world is not set up for long periods of focus by design. Therefore, you’ll have to make deliberate efforts to allow yourself the time and energy to be focused. Make it frictionless and set those boundaries. Thanks for giving it a read and be sure to let me know your thoughts.
I appreciate you.
- https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181227102057.htm#:~:text=Research has shown that the,start firing out of sync.&text=This is helpful%2C says Williams,sensory information in different ways.
- https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Anatomy-of-the-Brain#:~:text=Frontal Lobes&text=The prefrontal cortex plays an,%2C concentration%2C temper and personality