Do you know it takes an average of 23minutes and 15seconds to regain your focus after being interrupted? Think about the impact this would have on your productivity each time you get distracted. Therefore, it is very important that you learn how to improve your focus in order to help you achieve more and avoid distractions.
Let’s take a look at this scenario.
Let’s assume it’s 1 PM
You just got back from lunch, still recovering from the fact that a potential client of your company has invited you over for lunch to discuss your proposal.
So far, you feel that the meeting really went well and that the odds are in your favor.
Ten minutes after, you’re still staring at your computer screen.
You’re comfortable and you want to take a nap.
You manage to break free from your impending sleeping spell.
However, you still can’t get over the fact that your first-ever pitch to a client is promising.
You let your conversation play over and over.
In short, instead of your going back to work, you’re distracted – you can’t focus.
This feeling of excitement has deprived you of few hours of work-time.
How To Improve Your Focus
So What Is Focus?
The dictionary offers a simple definition of the word ‘focus’ as a center of attention.
Others define focus as concentrating on your current activity.
If you think about it, the act of focusing is actually more than those definitions.
That’s because it is a function of choice, activity, and time.
First, focus is a function of choice.
That’s because you know what you should be doing right this moment.
If you decide to focus on that activity, then you’ve effectively rejected doing another activity.
Second, focus is a function of activity.
Whatever it is that you’re doing right now has your focus.
So, if you decide to continue daydreaming about that client meeting, then that’s’ where your focus is.
Third, focus is a function of time.
Your focus can switch from one activity to another.
So, after daydreaming, you decide to go back to work.
In effect, you said ‘yes’ to going back to work and ‘no’ to continuing daydreaming.
Collectively, those three functions effectively represent Tim Ferriss’ statement that what you can do is determined by what you don’t do.
Still, the question remains:
Why can’t you focus, and are there ways to improve focus?
Why You Can’t Focus
Your inability to focus can be due to physiological and psychological reasons.
However, understanding the mechanics of both will help you to increase your concentration.
On the physiological side, it involves two parts of the brain that are found in separate lobes.
1. Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex, which is found in the frontal lobe of the brain, is responsible for voluntary attention.
So, when you sit down and focus on studying your business plan, your prefrontal cortex is at work.
2. Parietal Cortex
On the other hand, the parietal cortex, which is the lobe between the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe of the brain, is responsible for involuntary attention.
So, while you’re focused on studying your business plan and your phone rings, you’ll probably hesitate on whether or not to answer it.
This feeling is caused by the Parietal Cortex.
These findings, which was discovered from a laboratory study in 2007, indicates a focus – distraction and re-focus relationship in the human brain.
However, note that while both cortices help us to focus, the distinction is clear: one allows us to really focus, and the other makes us re-focus.
Undoubtedly, focus, whether or not done voluntarily, still means focus.
This is because your attention is on the subject at hand.
This relationship spells the differences in your response on whether or not to continue studying your business plan while the phone is ringing.
Should you decide to answer the phone, it means that you’re taking away your focus from studying in order to re-focus on answering the phone.
This is what Tim Ferriss means when he stated what was mentioned in the previous section above.
The psychological side has more to do with making decisions.
From the above example, your actual focus was supposed to be on studying your business plan.
But then you decide to answer the phone and spend the rest of your time talking to whoever is on the other end.
Therefore, your decision is to stick on the phone and not on your business plan.
With that decision, you’ve effectively decided not to do the ‘studying your business plan’ so that you can do the ‘talking on the phone.’
However, there are instances where you can actually benefit from the powers of your parietal cortex.
For example, if you’re immersed in studying your business plan and the fire alarm in your building goes off.
Your decision to pay attention to the alarm spells the difference between you going out of the building safely or staying there and getting caught in the fire.
By focusing on getting out of the building safely, you save yourself.
Never mind the business plan.
You can do another one again.
Applied to a daily life setting, the reason that you can’t focus may have something to do with a lot of factors.
- It could be that a recurring thought is trying to grab your attention
- It could be that you’re consciously trying to block it off
- Lastly, it could be that you’re excited about a dinner date later on
The message here is, it can be anything.
Just try this: do not think of an elephant.
You just did, didn’t you?
Now, as much as you try not to think about it, your mind has conjured an image of an elephant.
In addition, does the image stubbornly stay on your mind?
Yes, it will until you wilfully try to re-focus.
That above is the enigma of focus.
Whatever might be the thought that is competing for your attention, you have the power to:
- Either entertain it, thereby losing your focus on your current activity, or
- You can ignore it even if you’re unsuccessful at it.
So, if these attention-seekers are seemingly a normal process that occurs in line with attention span, what, then, can you do in order to achieve mental focus?
How To Improve Your Focus
Prime your body and your brain for focusing better
Before you engage in an activity, condition your body and your mind.
It helps that you have a list of the things that you need to do for the hour or the day written somewhere that you can see.
This way, you’re priming your body and your mind for what’s coming.
For example, if you’re set to complete trivial tasks from 8:00 – 9:00, but your next task is to create a business proposal at 9:00 – 12:00, then your body and mind will accordingly adjust.
As you complete your trivial tasks, your body and mind may be in a more relaxed state.
However, as 9:00 approaches, you’re consciously aware that you’re about to engage in a more mentally-demanding task.
In doing so, your body responds accordingly because you may spend more than three hours completing the task.
To prime your body and mind, you can take a few deep breaths, sit in your most comfortable position, or perform the pre-work ritual that you love.
What’s important is that you’re able to establish a sense of readiness.
Here are more tips on how to improve your focus.
Work Out What Needs Your Focus The Most
On a given day, you may have lots of tasks.
List them all.
Afterward, go over the list and identify which of them deserves your focus in a given hour, day, week, month, and so on.
Once you’ve identified the ‘focus order’ of your tasks, put them on time blocks in your calendar.
Once done, revisit your calendar once in a while in order to re-orient yourself and to set your expectations about what you should be on to.
Knowing and expecting what you should be working on helps you to improve on your focus.
This follows the logic of the deadline.
You tend to focus your time to work on tasks that are due sooner and put the rest for another day.
But what happens if someone suddenly sends you an invite that interrupts your time block?
This is why communication is important.
You have to set everyone’s expectations – especially your boss.
If you notice, once you start to work on something, you develop a flow.
Whatever comes in the way of that flow becomes a distraction.
So, as you can see, it is important to let everyone know what you’re working on and what you’re expecting them not to do while you’re at it.
Take Your Breaks, Including Lunch
You’re not exactly being productive if you skip lunch or don’t take your break.
What you’re doing is that you’re increasing the chances of a distraction succeeding.
Hunger, physical and mental strain are only a few of the things that will eventually manifest into your consciousness and hinder your focus.
After this, you’ll feel tired.
In fact, you’ll feel tired a little earlier than everyone else.
That’s because rest is also one of the ways to improve focus.
If you’re able to replenish spent energy, then you’ll have a supply of it to last you through the day.
So have a cup of coffee.
Leave your desk, and go somewhere for lunch.
Laugh with your colleagues.
These things help you focus in ways that you may not consciously notice.
Put On Some Sound
Does music teach you how to focus?
It doesn’t in a direct way.
However, it does help you focus on the thoughts of your own.
That is if you like the music.
Studies have proven that playing music in the background while you’re working helps you concentrate.
Then again, if you’re working in an office setup, you have to consider those people around you.
Music is a highly personal preference, so you need to be considerate.
If needed, you can use your headphone.
The type of music that you listen to also helps in improving your focus.
The same goes for whether or not the music is lyrical.
There are people who focus better with instrumentals and scored, while there are those who prefer otherwise.
No matter what it is that you prefer in music, as long as it makes you focus then give it a spin.
Do Not Multi-Task
There was a time when experts in productivity advocated multi-tasking.
Even call centers advocate it.
In fact, they consider multitasking as a skill.
However, times have changed and for good reason.
Multi-tasking can become a challenge to focusing better.
That’s because the principle underlying focus is that your attention has to be dedicated to an activity and not to a set of activities.
Unfortunately, your brain isn’t wired to concentrate on two or more tasks at once.
Besides, you only have one prefrontal and parietal cortex.
Multi-tasking makes your brain switch from one task to another and then back again very quickly, such that your focus becomes the switching itself and not the tasks themselves.
At the very least, multi-tasking takes away your ability to concentrate.
But at its worst, it can lead you to waste time.
Manage Your Energy
In business and in the workplace, focus increases your productivity.
Most people in various industries believe that the key to productivity is time-management.
This claim makes sense.
What is that one thing you need in order to accomplish the tasks on your time-managed calendar?
The answer is simple: your own energy.
But energy is not only physical energy.
There is also emotional energy, mental energy, and spiritual energy.
Then again, the nourishment of all energies starts with the physical.
If your body isn’t well-nourished, then don’t expect to be mentally alert, emotionally resilient, or act goal-directed.
Healthy eating habits indirectly helps in improving your focus.
Now, granted that you’re fond of eating healthy foods, then you may not find it difficult to build up your energies.
The next question is:
How do you manage your energy?
The key is to take advantage of the times when your energy is high.
These are the times when you should be working on tasks that require a high level of focus.
What do you do with the times when your energy is low?
Do menial tasks.
These are tasks that don’t require too much focus.
Breathe And Meditate
Did you know that meditation teaches you how to focus better in as much as it helps enhance your brainpower?
In its simplest sense, meditation helps declutter your mind.
In effect, the decluttering process creates ‘space’ in your mind.
If your mind has space, it’s not too pressured to go to work.
This helps you create mental focus.
How about breathing exercises?
Breathing exercises help your body and your brain relax.
In addition, your blood helps transport oxygenated blood to your brain.
If there’s an ample supply of oxygen in the brain, it becomes more active, helping you focus better.
Put Your Distractions Away
This is something that you may struggle with, especially if you have open internet access.
While it is easy to tell you that you should put away your phone so that you won’t be tempted to check your social media feed, you may still be able to do it on your desktop.
The same applies to food and everything else that only function to take your focus away from what you’re doing.
But there’s an answer to it: self-discipline.
Your ability to restrain yourself from doing things that you’re not supposed to be doing in a given time is a sign of self-discipline.
But just like any other habit, self-discipline is something that you need to learn.
It’s also something that you need to build, and it’s something that you need to sustain.
So, if you’re well aware of the things that distract you, you know that you need to put them aside in order to focus better.
Identify And Be At Your Focus Zone
Where’s that one place that you feel is helpful to improving your focus?
That’s your Zen zone.
Having a place like that helps you in overcoming distractions and restlessness.
At times, your distraction can make you annoyed because all you may want is to be focused.
The thing is that your body and your mind have to be primed that whenever you enter that room or go sit in that place, you get your focus back.
Follow the logic of the bedroom.
If you have trouble sleeping, then it may be that you’re treating your bedroom and your bed as places where you can watch TV, where you eat, etc.
It’s no secret that your bedroom is a place to rest and that your bed is a place to sleep.
You should allow your body to be in conformity with the room.
The Rule Of Five By Sam Horn
Sam Horn coined this rule in one of his articles about how to focus better.
He proposed that whenever you feel that you’ve lost focus or if you’re on the verge of giving up, try negotiating with yourself.
‘Just five more minutes’ is effective enough a bargain.
How does this help?
If you push your brain to go beyond its focus limit, the rule of five teaches it to build endurance.
Repeating this process ultimately develops into a habit.
The bonus is, you may regain your focus in any minute within that timeframe.
The Rule Of Two Lists By Warren Buffett
Although not officially given a name, the rule of two is among the techniques for improving focus spawned by Buffett from his conversation with his personal pilot.
This technique involves writing as many goals that you have in any area of your life.
Since the context of this article is the workplace, your goals maybe all of the tasks that you want to finish today, this week, this month, and so on.
From your one huge list, encircle your top five goals.
Now, you have two lists, so to speak.
What will you do with the goals that you haven’t encircled?
You may answer that you can work to achieve them on an intermittent basis while keeping an eye on your top five goals.
Warren Buffett was of the opinion that the answer is wrong.
If you are to learn how to focus, he says, you know that the list with the un-circled items should not, in any way, get your attention until you fulfill your top five goals.
Final Words On How To Improve Your Focus
There are other techniques on improving focus out there.
Some of them are interesting, some of them are surprising.
If you want to learn more, have a go at researching them.
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