by Mack Lemouse
Focus is something we all can use but that few of us can claim to be able to obtain. Distractions are too easy to come-by and we all tend to procrastinate probably more overall than we actually work. For instance at work while you are writing or inputting data the chances are that you will stop after every sentence or two to think of an unrelated point, or just because you’ve lost your train of thought. This will already slow you down and means you work roughly twice as slowly as you could otherwise. Then as you get more tired later in the day these pauses increase, but that is not all. On top of these self-fuelled distractions are the distractions that come from your colleagues when they start telling you about what they saw on TV last night which turns into a ten minute conversation, your trips to the toilet, the break we are told to take every ten minutes (which turns out to just be a break from chatting and staring), snacks, smoking breaks, e-mail checks, Facebook checks and more…
However if you could overcome this, and if you could truly focus, then you could probably get all of your day’s work done in a couple of hours. The implications of this are huge – from a management perspective for businesses it could mean that every member of staff could be as valuable as several members of staff used to be (assuming they kept up this high level of productivity), but for the individual employees (or even better the self employed who have no angry boss looking over their shoulder) it could mean the ability to finish all the work they needed to do throughout the day in one quick go and then spend the next five hours relaxing and reading Facebook and e-mails to their hearts content.
Focus also means you have a high quality of output too because you’ve been actually paying attention, and if you can learn to focus when you are being productive you can then use this to focus on other tasks and activities too and perform better and more efficiently in every area of your life.
So true focus is something we should strive for, but how can you nurture it? Here we will look at some pointers.
Work through small things first: When we get distracted, procrastinate or otherwise just fail to focus, often we assume this is because we’re not as conscientious as we could be. However just as often the reverse is true and the reason we get little done is that we’re too conscientious. This is a problem when we have lots of things we need to do on our agenda including lots of smaller tasks and as such we feel stressed and stretched and do not know which to attend to first. That then means we end up trying to juggle tasks, or sometimes sitting staring blankly as we try to decide which to do first.
What you need in order to truly focus is to feel like the thing you are doing is the most important task and the best use of your time, and to solely concentrate on that. Thus you should endeavour to remove all other small tasks by getting these out of the way early on. Admin tasks then and other things you normally put off you should instead make a habit of quickly dealing with and this will then give you a long and uninterrupted period to focus on the most important job.
Make a conscious effort to focus: Often we find we do not focus and we tell ourselves off when we notice we’ve been procrastinating, but in reality we’re not really trying. This is because it is surprisingly very easy to forget that you are meant to be focussing and allow your mind to wander. As such you need to consciously be reminding yourself to focus at all times while doing the job. Each time you feel yourself drift off remind yourself and force yourself to get back to work.
Practice: Like anything focus is something that can be trained, and this means that it requires continuous concerted effort regularly and often. Do not expect miracles right away then, but continue to try to focus daily or weekly and gradually you will get better at narrowing your focus. If you do not need to focus regularly then try doing other things that you can use to practice focus such as reading textbooks for ten minutes at a time. Also make sure that you are strict with yourself and see suffering as training – so if you really want to check Facebook then even if it will not hurt you should hold off as that way you will be training yourself to deny your sudden impulses.
Improve the subject matter: If you really can not focus then it might be that the topic is incredibly dull. If this is the case then you should either stop doing it and find a way to do something you enjoy more, or more constructively find a way to make what you are doing interesting by coming at it from another angle, engaging with the material or making challenges for yourself.
Use feedback: Feedback means that you get data on what you’ve been performing. So if you were focussing on writing essays the feedback might be the number of words, or if you were entering data it might be how much information you got through. The reason this is important is that it allows you to set targets, rewards and to see what’s working to improve your focus and what isn’t.
Have breaks: You need to take breaks. If you do not take them at a set time, then your brain will force you to take them when you should be working. Make sure then that you have adequate breaks to recharge before you go back to intense focus. At the same time by scheduling your breaks and by using a reward system you motivate yourself more to work during the times you are meant to be focussing, and you will enjoy that time off more because you will not feel as though you should be working.
Have silence: Everyone thinks that having music on will help them to concentrate and we have all heard that Mozart is supposed to aid productivity. Psychologists have long thought that having some kind of noise distracts our ‘creative’ brain so that we can focus on the job in hand. However the reality is that the two halves of our brain almost always need to work together to perform a task unless you are literally copying – so for maximum focus you really just need silence.
Unplug the internet: The internet is the distraction of distractions and you will find you keep checking your e-mail and Facebook. The first thing to try then is to make rules about your internet usage – such as only checking e-mails once every two hours for instance and not looking at Facebook at all. If you still can not get this method to work though then unplug the internet entirely, or go outside where you have no connection. Finally you could try downloading ‘freedom’ which is free ‘internet blocking software’ designed to help you time lock the internet and save yourself from yourself.