This post originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Time Management Magazine.
Focus is not a natural human activity; it must be learned and perfected, inside and out. For example, anyone who has ever asked a four-year-old child to sit still for five minutes knows that this is a virtually impossible task. The body and mind need to move, and young children, not yet yoked by the social obligations that come with maturity, express their desire to shift and fidget with great predictability.
We may all grow older, but that internal desire to fidget and move still remains. It is an offshoot of the primordial need to be aware of and reactive to our environment, to be able to avoid danger and pounce upon opportunity as needed. Focus is too narrow to be of use as a survival tool.
This is bad news for harried professionals, desperately seeking a few moments of focus in the midst of a busy day. If by some chance quiet descends upon the workplace, we know it will not last long, for soon another email will arrive, another colleague or customer will come to call, or another issue will make its presence known. The tasks that require total concentration will get put off once again, resulting in a decrease in overall productivity and a corresponding dip in morale.
Attaining focus requires an ability to conquer both internal and external detractors, which, fortunately have one thing in common: people.
- To develop true focus, you first have to fend people off.
People are the sources of interruptions, and interruptions are external destroyers of focus.
You must basically be able to tell people to leave you alone for a set period of time. This is not as career-limiting as it sounds. Although colleagues may not sympathize with your busy-ness, their own self-interest will be comforted by your announcement of an end-time: “I will be available at 11:00” sounds much more accommodating than “go away and leave me alone.” By giving people a fixed “known” instead of a vague “unknown”, their expectations can be managed and their actions can be guided. Similarly, use your voicemail greeting to inform callers as to when they can expect a return call, and inform people verbally that you generally reply to emails and texts within an hour or so. Give them a sense of when they can expect attention from you. If you do not give them this guideline, they will revert to the automatic expectation of immediate response, which puts you back in the corner. The goal is to fend off intrusions by satisfying their fear of the unknown (as in “when will I get a reply?”) in advance.
This keep-away approach allows you to work guilt-free, knowing that the needs of your colleagues and customers have been proactively met; working guilt-free minimizes stress, which tends to maximize the distribution of nutrients and oxygen to the processing areas of the brain, which results in greater capacity to focus.
- Once you have successfully fended off external interrupters, you must next fend off internal distractors – these are self-initiated destroyers of focus, as follows:
- Visual distraction: align your body and vision to allow only the work at hand to fill your field of vision. Looking up and around not only allows your mind to become distracted, but making eye contact with passers-by is the clearest of invitations for a drop-in visitor, not only now, but into the future as well. If you fear being perceived as anti-social when you adopt such a closed position, take the time to inform your colleague in advance as to what you are doing and why. They might be interested in adopting these practices themselves.
- Auditory distraction: use headphones to play music, white noise or pink noise to mask the ambient sounds around you. Since most of us are not capable of tuning out the sounds around us, a “cone of concentration” is the next best thing. There is a terrific selection of music for working and concentrating available online, and even if your office does not allow streaming, many of these can be downloaded for playback later through your phone or music player. Headphones or ear buds, by the way, make excellent props that say “do not disturb.”
- Moving to a neutral space such as a coffee shop also offers great potential for focus, since the ambient noise of a coffee shop is generally sufficiently neutral to become a curtain of comfortable sound.
- Know your attention span. People have different capacities for focus. Some people can work for hours without a break. Artists such as painters, composers, film editors and writers sometimes call this “flow” – the tunnel vision of creativity. Others call it “getting into the groove.” But if you find yourself needing a break after twenty minutes, do not despair. It is more important that you know yourself and the activities that you are capable of. For example, to work for twenty minutes and then to take a two-minute break, gives a type of pause and refreshment on par with rest between sets of exercise at the gym; it gives the body the opportunity to move forward without exhaustion. So, as paradoxical as it may sound, one of the best contributors to effective focus may actually be regular breaks. Just be sure these breaks are initiated and controlled by you, not someone else. That makes all the difference.
- Break your work up over days or weeks. If you are dealing with a long-term project that requires many hours of focused work, consider scheduling the work as a recurring activity, such as every weekday between 3:00 and 4:00. By making it an appointment in your calendar, this activity defends its existence against intruders such as other meetings or commitments; but more importantly, human memory is very good at picking up where it left off, thus minimizing setback and capitalizing on a “momentum of focus” that carries over from day-to-day.
To prove this concept, think about what you were doing “this time last week.” No matter what time of the day, or day of the week that you are reading this article, it is likely that if you think back to what you were doing exactly one week ago, you might find yourself asking the question, “was that really a week ago?” That is due to a variation of human situational memory that tends to build bridges across time, when recognizing familiar landmarks. The same reaction will happen when you revisit a place that you have not been to for a decade or more; familiarity and recall will make it seem like “just yesterday” that you were here, even if the trees have become larger and certain buildings have changed.
In sum, focus can be bridged the same way, across days and weeks, giving larger projects a chance at succeeding.
- Park extraneous thoughts, do not ignore them. If, while working on Task A, an idea regarding Task B pops into your head, then take a moment to write it down before continuing. This phenomenon is very likely, since the brain does a great deal of its processing obliquely, when not focusing on the problem at hand. Consequently, since your mind is not focusing on Task B, it is more relaxed about that task and is more likely to come up with ideas and solutions pertaining to it.
By acknowledging this idea and committing it to either paper or a saved file, you give yourself permission to let go of the idea and move on. By contrast, if you struggle to keep that idea in your head, you will do a disservice to both Tasks A and B, by reducing the processing capacity available for Task A, and ultimately forgetting the bright idea that you had for Task B.
Furthermore, by recording this good idea, you actually create space for additional good ideas, which becomes another paradox of great focus. By focusing on one task, you actually open yourself up to creativity on other task fronts as well.
Ultimately it must be recognized that focus is by and large a practiced skill. We as humans must remember how to do it, when to do it, and what external and internal detractors must be addressed and dealt with in order to set the stage for undisturbed processing to happen. This “practiced skill” will eventually lengthen the amount of time that you personally have for great focus, first, socially, by addressing the habits and expectations of the people around you, and next by flexing and strengthening the internal “muscles” of concentration, which, like all other muscles in the body, thrive and grow through increased use.
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