Last year I noticed my priorities were out of whack and I spent several months woodshedding the latest productivity books and websites as I sorted myself out. One prevalent theme throughout the productivity world as of late is how to keep yourself focused. Keeping yourself on target is an important skill. Cal Newport wrote a good book about it and Shawn Blanc developed an entire online course around it.
Luckily, this is one of the few things I’m good at. I’m not sure if I’m a focus savant or it’s just a side benefit of having a regular meditation practice for over 25 years but I’m good at locking in on one thing to the exclusion of the rest of the world. There are actually some pretty funny stories about me growing up and being completely oblivious to the world around me as I read a book or was dialed in on something else.
Regardless, people are having a lot of trouble keeping their attention on a single task with all of these digital devices surrounding us. There is a whole cottage industry of apps that can do things like dim sections of your screen, hide your social media apps, and even turn off your internet connection requiring heroic efforts to get it back up and running all in effort to avoid distractions. My daughter routinely deletes social media apps entirely from her phone when she is working on a deadline.
A lot of people are going to some extreme measures in the name of focus and I’m not sure that is necessary or, in the long term, sustainable. It’s like trying to lose weight by not eating. It may work for a day or two but after that, it’s all downhill. Getting better at focus is difficult and it takes time to master. Here’s my list of suggestions for some help along the way.
Set Your Non-Essential Technology Aside
If you’re working on your Mac or iPad, just put your phone down with the glass on the table. When you get tempted to pick it up, you’ll see it is face down and remind yourself how much more fun Alto’s Odyssey will be after you finish your sales report/spreadsheet/term paper/whatever. Alternatively, put you tech in another room.
Nearly everyone, myself included, has let notification bloat creep into their lives. The first time you launch just about any new app, it asks for permission to tap you on the shoulder at will and you, in a fit of optimism, will think to yourself that “This garbage truck simulator app is the one. This is the app that will change my life and of course it should get notification privileges”. You’ll tap the button and then put up with needless notifications from that app forever. I made a video about notifications that show you how to fix that.
I suggest a notification purge. Why not try turning off all notifications on your phone? It’s not that hard (although I wish Apple would make it easier). Just turn off all notifications and live like that for a day or two and then only add back notifications for the apps from which you absolutely must get notifications. This clean slate approach is exactly the way I reduced the number of daily notifications from about 40 to about 5.
Use Calendars and Timers
The whole hyper-scheduling thing I’ve been writing about is in part my own effort to keep focused on the important stuff. In my case, it is more about the areas of focus than the ability to focus but it’s a similar problem. Blocking time on your calendar or setting a timer is a great way to focus in bite-sized increments. It’s the entire idea behind the Pomodoro Technique. I do think giving yourself a timed focus period is a good way into tricking your brain into getting better at this. Telling yourself to just focus for X minutes makes the lure of all those shiny technology interruptions bearable. Start with as short of an interval you need to succeed and then start moving it up slowly.
The “Not Now” Folder
Make a folder on your iPhone called “Not Now”. Put apps in there that are your frequent temptations. For some people, it will be Facebook. For others, it may be Twitter or even Email. Make opening the “Not Now” a deliberate act that you do only when you are not focused in on getting some work done. If you really want to go nuts, put the “Not Now” folder on page three of your home screen to really keep it out of mind.
Consider Trying a Little Meditation
It’s really not hippie nonsense. A mindfulness meditation practice is not a religion. It’s just a way to help you tame that wild organ between your ears and anyone can do it. You can learn more with an app, like Headspace or through a good podcast. It’s a great way to work on your focus muscles. And speaking of focus muscles ...
Think About Developing your Focus like Developing Muscles
It does take practice and time. Even if you take a pass on meditation, try to focus on what you are doing other times during the day. It’s easy to do that while you are mountain climbing or surfing but what about when you are driving, or eating an apple? Can you keep your brain on target then? You need to wear new grooves into your brain and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
There are so many articles on the Internet by people dealing with the focus problem that are beating themselves up about it. That just gets in the way. We have more distractions thrown at us these days than any time before in human history. We’ve all got to come to grips with it and it’s hard. Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you occasionally fall off the wagon, don’t get angry. Just get back on the wagon and keep trying.