How I nearly lost my focus and got it back – and you can too

In 2009, when I was leaving McKinsey, I was working 12 to 16 hours on an average day. The pressure was such that for every hour that went by, I felt compelled to produce some output (typically PowerPoint slides) – otherwise, I would start feeling a mild panic. 

Naturally, I was not enjoying this intense non-stop work pressure. 

But thankfully, when I quit McKinsey to join a private equity fund, things slowed down and the pressure was gone. Since our fund made only two to three investments a year, we had to be thoughtful, not frenetic. 

Initially, I was enjoying this experience but after a year or two, something started feeling amiss. I was not as efficient or focused anymore. I was not getting as much done and was feeling dissatisfied with myself.

What changed? How did I lose my focus?

Initially, I did not have answers. But gradually, as I reflected, I honed on to the culprit: my smartphone. 

During those early days of the smartphone, I had just bought a high-end Android device. Like most people, I was checking my email and WhatsApp every now and then. But gradually, it became a habit. Whenever I was bored or anxious, I would just pick up the phone to find an escape. 

I was no longer able to build deep focus as I used to earlier. And I hated it. 

‘Digital distraction’ was unheard of at that time but I had already become its early victim. And I had no idea how to handle it. 

A few years later, when I read Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’, I realized what was missing in my life – long hours of undistracted work. 

And yet, I could not change myself. I had more than 100 work-related WhatsApp groups and every time I checked the app, my focus was broken. Over time, my mind started craving that ‘WhatsApp break.’ And when the mind is craving an escape, willpower isn’t enough.  

But a few years later I made it my mission to solve this problem. I learned how to cut down my distractions and rewire my mind. And it changed my life. 

Not just that – these lessons also became the seed of my new startup. The lessons I learned turned into two of our bootcamps at HabitStrong: 

Now let me share some of the things I have learned over the years. 

Our most precious resource is our attention and we often just throw it away when we are distracted.

If we want to achieve anything in our lives, we have to beat our digital distractions. In fact, if we are chronically distracted and rarely present, are we even living our life fully? Let us not go through life like a zombie.

Fortunately, this problem is solvable. Here are some steps I recommend: 

1. Delete almost all the non-essential apps (e.g., Instagram, FB, LinkedIn) from your phone. Instead, check them on your laptop. The only exception may be WhatsApp, which doesn’t work unless installed on your phone. 

2. Remove all notifications from your phone and your laptop.

3. Start increasing your attention span. Two practices I recommend: 

 – Every day, for at least 1 to 2 hrs put away your phone, pick an important task, set your timer for 50 min, and work without distraction. It will not only skyrocket your productivity but feel very satisfying. Occasionally, you will experience the flow state, which we will discuss in another newsletter.

 – Regularly practice mindfulness meditation, particularly ‘awareness of breath.’ Training our mind to stay with our breath builds the focus muscle.

4. Get rid of social media as much as possible. I stopped using Facebook many years ago and sparingly check Twitter. A few years back, I deleted WhatsApp on my phone, though I am not suggesting you do that since it is also quite useful. 

5. Find an alternative activity to replace checking your phone. E.g., keep a book (or cartoon strip) you love reading, and every time you have a desire to check your phone, just read half a page from the book instead. 

These are just a few ideas to get started. 

Happiness comes not from owning things but from living life fully and experiencing flow. The constant bombardment of our notifications and mobile interruptions make it impossible to live fully. 

Let us live deliberately, not on autopilot. Thank you for reading this. 

Rajan

***

PS: We recently launched our digital detox bootcamp called “Beat Smartphone Addiction”. Earlier it was called “Reboot.” You can check it out here.

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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