In a world full of distractions, how do you get an important task done on time? Here is the bad news: It takes a lot more than sheer willpower to stay focused. But worry not. In this article, we will give you a step-by-step roadmap to improve concentration.
What is focus or concentration?
To answer this question, I would like to share this story you may have read in the Mahabharata.
Dronacharya took the Pandava brothers to a forest and showed a wooden bird he had put on a tree branch. He then gave them a task – they had to pierce the eye of the bird with an arrow.
He called each Pandava brother one by one, asked them to aim, and then asked them what they could see. They said they could see the bird, the tree branches, etc.
Finally, he called Arjun. When asked, he said he could only see the eye of the bird. Unsurprisingly, Arjun hit the target.
Arjun demonstrated what focus is – giving our attention to one thing to the exclusion of everything else. That is what we call concentration (or focus).
Arjun was able to eliminate distractions from all around him and set his mind only on the eye of the bird. Remember – focus is about eliminating from our mind everything but the goal.
Why is it so hard to focus?
Look around. Your environment is rigged against you. Your phone is constantly buzzing with text messages and social media notifications. There’s always an email to respond to, a meeting to attend, and a chore to do. Everything in your proximity seems to be clamoring for your attention, distracting you from your goal. These are the ‘external distractions.’
But there are also ‘internal distractions’ – the ones inside our mind.
There are two other types of internal distractions that come in the way of focus.
1) Tendency to wander
The first is our mind’s tendency to wander when we do something which is not super-engaging. When this happens, is a circuit of neurons called the ‘Default Mode Network’ is getting activated. As the name suggests, it is the default mode – if we are idle, it gets activated.
This mind-wandering especially happens when we are doing boring tasks, which do not grab our attention. It happens throughout the day. That’s why you often catch yourself daydreaming.
2) Tendency to worry and switch
The second type of internal distraction is our tendency to worry about and switch between multiple tasks. E.g., when we work on task A, and our mind remembers task B, which seems very urgent. This makes it hard to stay focused on task A.
This happens because we don’t have a clear prioritization.
The antidote is to know clearly that right now, A is the priority, not B.
How do these distractions harm you?
When your focus is diluted, you slow down and become inefficient. By how much?
We might imagine that the inefficiency would be something like 20% or 30%. But our bootcamp participants have often said that they got more done in 1 hr of focus during our bootcamps than they typically would in 3-4 hrs of their daily life.
Research has shown that switching attention destroys your focus, even if it is just a quick phone glance. Further, studies have shown that when people switch their attention to something else, they typically take more than 20 minutes to come back.
And the harm from distractions is not just reduced efficiency – they also prevent us from experiencing flow, where we get so absorbed in a task that we even lose track of time. Flow is a highly enjoyable state which helps deliver high performance.
Deep focus makes us productive and happier — distractions do the opposite.
How to focus
There are two parts to the answer we propose:
Part A: Break your smartphone addictions
To break your smartphone addictions, there is a whole gambit of ideas that we can’t cover here fully (we have a bootcamp for that). However, here are a few easy suggestions to get started:
- 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.
- Remove all notifications from your phone and your laptop.
- 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.
- Find an alternative activity to replace checking your phone. E.g., keep a book you love reading — every time you crave to check your phone, just read half a page from the book instead.
These are just a few ideas to improve focus.
Part B: Start building your attention span
Two practices I recommend:
- Every day, for at least 1 to 2 hrs, do focused work following the guidance below:
- Pick an important task you want to work on. Quantify your goal for the next 1-2 hours you will work on the task.
- Decide to do short focus sprints that can be 25 to 50 min long. For the sake of this discussion, let us take 50 min. During the sprint, you just work on one thing and one thing only – no attention switching.
- On a sheet of paper, write down anything weighing on your mind (e.g., other than the task at hand) and deprioritize them for the focus period.
- Remove all devices, close all browsers and applications you do not need and promise yourself that for the next 50 minutes, you will not switch your attention to anything else.
- Set a timer and work for the next 50 min, work on the task without switching.
- Regularly practice mindfulness meditation, particularly ‘awareness of breath.’ Training our mind to stay with our breath builds the focus muscle.
Building focus is a skill we can master. You and I can be twice as productive (or more).
If you need help or a detailed step-by-step hand-holding, here are our bootcamps which help build focus:
- Reboot – Digital Detox & Rebuilding Focus
- Deep Work and Flow: Do two hours of focused work, 6 days a week (3 hrs on Sat)
- Extreme Focused Learning: Do one hour of focused learning, 6 days a week (2 hrs on Sat)
Please check out these bootcamps if you find them of interest.
Learning to improve concentration is not something that will happen overnight. Remember – all the theory in the world is not very useful if you don’t practice it. So do start practicing these ideas today.