This is part I of a two-part series on improving your ability to focus. Part I emphasises how to accustom yourself to deep focus; Part II will deal with cutting out distractions; stay tuned!
When was the last time you could sit down alone and stay still without reaching for your phone every 5 minutes?
A recent survey published in the Straits Times found that 1 in 2 Singaporeans feel stressed out by the thought of doing nothing. At the same time, just as many people said that they “felt stuck in a daily routine they were unable to get out of.” Even though we’re well aware of our stress levels, we’re also trapped by our habits and lifestyles.
The digital age has dramatically eroded our ability to unplug from our lifestyles, just as it has also dissipated our adeptness at concentrating. It might sound counterintuitive, but the worse you are at focusing when you need to, the more subject you are to constant stress and eventual burnout.
Think about it. When you’re subject to a constant cacophony of pings, notifications, reminders, alerts, and alarms all day long, shutting out distractions can seem like a monumental task. Subsequently, when we need to concentrate, we fail to focus as deeply as we actually could.
We take longer to get fewer things done, we can’t fully concentrate at work, and we can’t shut off our work modes after leaving the office.
The solution is obvious. For higher productivity, better work-life balance, and less stress, we need to train ourselves for deeper, distraction-free focus. It’s easier said than done, though; cutting out distractions when they’ve become an inevitable part of your life is hard. So here are seven tips for you to work towards better focus at work and in life.
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Finding the best solution to any predicament starts from having a clear problem statement. Before you can do anything else, you need to pinpoint the biggest distractions that take away from your ability to focus in the first place.
For example, if it’s your phone, identify which apps eat up the most screen time. Likewise, if it’s checking emails or replying to office chats, think about which particular co-workers, topics of discussion, or comment threads, you tend to default to repeatedly and why.
Once you have a clear understanding of how you get distracted, go back to your short-term and long-term goals. Evaluate each distracting item with regards to how essential it is vis-a-vis your biggest priorities. As you evaluate, bear in mind that there’s a big difference between “necessary” and “vital.” Checking emails, for example, may be necessary, but it’s probably not vital for your success except for on occasion.
Evaluating why and how exactly you get distracted isn’t going to help you if you’re only doing it once in a blue moon. To facilitate deep concentration, you need to revisit your goals and priorities daily. Starting every day with a prioritised task list helps to get you in the right frame of mind for focus.
Since it gives you bird’s eye view of which tasks demand your attention, and for how long, you’re already aware of where you need to focus on instead of merely thinking “I have to cut out distractions and focus more” in a general sense.
In his book “Deep Focus: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World,” Cal Newport writes about the indispensability of having a daily deep-focus ritual.
To maximise the way we use our mental resources for personal success and productivity, we need to get our brains used to deep focus. When you’re first starting, this isn’t easy since we’re so used in this day and age to being constantly distracted.
That’s precisely what necessitates a deep-focus ritual. According to Newport, “rituals [minimise] the friction in this transition to depth, allowing [you] to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.”
For any deep focus ritual to be effective, though, it must address three issues:
Most beginners find it hard to keep going after the first hour of distraction-free concentration. Not to worry, though; there are other options to make the transition to deep focus easier on yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to experiment with different productivity techniques.
Newport suggests a “Roosevelt dash, ” a technique that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt utilised during his student days at Harvard. Here’s how to do it:
Alternatively, you could try the Pomodoro technique, which requires short 25-minute bursts of intense concentration. (Read more about it here.)