Being, and staying, focused right now is becoming tediously difficult with all the distractions around us.
Learning to be focused, is learning how to control our attention.
This article will explore the methods of becoming more focused and productive.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of Deep Work. It’s one coined by Cal Newport in his book by the same name.
"Deep work is professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” - Cal Newport
The opposite of deep work is shallow work. It’s the non-cognitively demanding tasks that are done while distracted, like email.
How To Do ‘Deep Work’?
The ability to focus. The ability to do deep work, is like a muscle.
It has to be trained.
This muscle is trained by doing ‘deep work sessions’ with recurring and consistent frequency.
It can often take a day of work to actually do deep work. So, it’s recommended to set aside a few days of the week for intentional deep work and make sure there are as few distractions as possible for you on those days.
If entire days aren’t possible, a few hours every day could do too. And during these periods, there can’t be distractions, physical or virtual.
If possible, disconnect from the internet.
As this muscle gets trained over time, its ability to do deep work increases from 1 to 4 hours. Even masters of deep work aren’t likely to exceed 4 hours of deep work.
Becoming A Robot
Turning ourselves into ‘robots’ is often thought of as unglamorous, but it isn’t.
What does it mean to be a ‘robot’? A robot, in this context, is someone who knows what to do and when to do it precisely. They know exactly where their time is going and have their entire day mapped. In other words, It’s someone who follows a routine.
Routines, when followed, leave little to chance for the situations they’re made. Having your days planned in advance lets you know, with precise clarity, what tasks to do when. This allows you to prepare for them in advance, and hence, be focused when the time to execute comes.
It also stops procrastination in some cases. Usually, you tend to be distracted, prior to or during, a task that is hard or boring. Time-blocking (setting a certain time on your calendar for a certain task) stops this. Because when left to your own will, you’ll procrastinate a boring, hard task forever. Time blocking creates a fake sense of a deadline, getting you to act with all your attention.
Of course, this varies from individual to individual.
Note: The pressure of time, even fictitious, gets you to act now and be more focused. Creating a fake deadline of any manner is great in stopping procrastination.
It’s important to have a time to shut off the ‘robot’. The robot executes, it doesn’t think.
The ‘human’ can come up with ideas and plans, it’s the creative part that needs to be intentionally activated.
Perhaps by scheduling time-blocks for creative thinking or activities which drum up ideas. What that activity is, depends on you.
Being More Focused By Being Less Distracted
When you inversely think about how to be more focused, you end up understanding that in order to be more focused, you also must try to be less distracted.
What is a distraction? Simply anything that interrupts the activity at hand.
Welcome & Unwelcome Distractions
I’m stealing from Ali Abdaal here, but, welcome distractions are the kind of distractions that you are happy to entertain.
Obviously, what these are is completely up to you, however an example Ali shares is leaving his dorm’s door open while studying in medschool, to welcome friends inside for a chat.
Unwelcome distractions are, as the name suggests, are unwelcome. This can be things like Instagram notifications.
Knowing your preferences between the two allows you to know how to react when one occurs.
The Importance Of Tidy Spaces
When what you’re doing isn’t interesting us enough, you tend to switch to other activities.
Keeping your workspace cluttered results in more options to pick from for a deviation from the task at hand.
This is applied to physical and digital workspaces.
In the physical world, perhaps an unnecessary bunch of pens would result in fidgeting with them, for what seems like a short time, when you’re bored.
Online, it could be keeping extra tabs open with different things you find more interesting than what you’re doing. This creates the optimal procrastination environment.
The Distraction Journal
For busy minds, despite few actual distractions, you could be thinking up ideas or problems that serve as distractions, during uninteresting work.
These could, as all distractions do, interfere with the task at hand
A distraction journal is a physical/digital place for you to offload thoughts you have during work. This needs to be someplace you trust because unless you’re sure the thought is going to be referred back to later, it’s going to keep distracting you.
Making Work Fun
As mentioned, focus tends to waver and distractions start to creep in when work is boring or too hard. So, the problem of how to focus can be solved at its core by making work fun.
The Carrot & The Stick
The mental model of the carrot and the stick indicates a reward for a job done, the carrot, or its subsequent punishment, the stick.
Setting up rewards and punishments for ourselves can create just the motivation needed to finish an important task.
In most cases, from personal observations, the reward creates more motivation than the punishment. Especially in cases where you rely on self-control.
Rewards can be small and consistent, like a 5 min break after 25 mins of work (Pomodoro technique), a piece of chocolate, etc.
Punishments can be prohibition or extension of something you dislike.
Here, as mentioned earlier, the pressure of a deadline can be helpful.
It’s likely that sometimes due to the extended nature of an activity or task you feel like you’re stagnated and so, you’re bored — leaving you prone to distractions.
Breaking up a project into small chunks allows you to place rewards after the completion of each mini task that creates just the dopamine hit needed to keep you going.
Also, you can visually track the progress of the completion of these mini-tasks to overcome that feeling of stagnation. This can be as simple as keeping a list of completed to-dos.
Doing all this reinforces the feeling of progress which fends off distractions and maintains focus...