We all know that the ability to focus deeply is important. Actually, it’s not just important, it’s essential.
If you want to achieve your goals and live a better life, you need to be capable of focusing effectively on your most important activities… every day.
The bad news? The world we’re living in doesn’t make it easy. There are distractions everywhere and all the time, with smartphones and the Internet being the most common causes of procrastination, lack of focus, and low productivity.
However, this can also be a good thing. Think about it: if the ability to concentrate without getting distracted is becoming increasingly rare, this means that it’s also becoming more and more valuable.
If you can master this skill, you can have an incredible advantage over all those people who are constantly distracted and unproductive. And there are a lot of them.
So how can you focus deeply and reap the benefits of developing this habit?
That’s what we’re going to learn today, so let’s just get started.
Find a Distraction-free Location
First things first, location; because the environment around you is of paramount importance when it comes to focus.
“The more disciplined your environment is, the less disciplined you need to be. Don’t swim upstream.”
— James Clear
If possible, choose a quiet and distraction-free place where you can go to every time you need to concentrate. The more your brain gets used to doing focused work in a certain place, the easier it will be to focus when you’re there.
If, however, you don’t have a place specifically designated for this purpose, you can make one by getting rid of as many distractions as possible. Here’s how:
- Clean your desk. This is often overlooked, but having a clean and tidy desk is so important for your personal productivity. You should always only keep the essential things on it. Put everything else away, otherwise your brain will notice the mess and find it difficult to concentrate.
- Turn off your smartphone. Most people use their smartphones way too much. In order to really focus deeply, you have to turn off your phone or your notifications, at the very least.
If you need more tips on how to use your smartphone less, I’ve previously written about it: Stop Using Your Smartphone So Much: 10 Tips That Really Work.
- Turn off other distracting devices (TV, tablet, radio…).
- If it’s often noisy around you, you can also use a pair of headphones and listen to relaxing instrumental music.
If you really want to concentrate and get results, you must get into the habit of focusing on one thing at a time, not more.
Now, you might say that doing two things simultaneously is totally possible, and you know what? You’re right.
You can do two activities at the same time, of course you can. But to focus on both? No, that’s not possible.
I mean, why else do you think so many people turn off the radio when they’re parking their cars? It’s not just a random habit that most drivers have.
They don’t want to make mistakes, and to not make mistakes they need to focus as much as possible on one single thing: parking. Could they park their car even if they didn’t turn off the radio? Yes, they could, but that would lower their focus juuuust a little, which might cause them to make a mistake.
You see, what people believe to be multitasking is in reality nothing but a rapid succession of what I call “focus switches”, because all you do is switching your attention from one thing to another.
The problem with these switches is that they don’t happen smoothly or without consequences. What does this mean for your productivity?
It means that when you take a quick glance at your phone in the middle of a work session (a Pomodoro, for example), you will have a hard time going back to the task you were originally working on, even if you only got distracted for 5 seconds.
Why? Because checking your phone, regardless of whether it takes 1 second or 1 minute, is undoubtedly a new activity. So when you try going back from this new Activity B to your previous Activity A, here’s what happens:
- Attention residue is generated. Because the focus switch doesn’t happen smoothly, some of your attention will still remain on Activity B for some time, making it more difficult for you to fully concentrate on Activity A again. This is what is called “attention residue”, and it happens every time you do a focus switch.
- The residual attention might not come back for a long while. This can happen either because Activity B has not been completed, or because it has generated a new Activity C.
For example, let’s say you take a quick glance at your notifications, and see a message from your friend Jonathan that says something like “What do you think about these? Just bought them 5 minutes ago”. Your brain will want to see those “these”, obviously.
But if you decide to get back to work on A for the time being, you will unknowingly keep thinking about that unfinished activity. And even if you do decide to complete B (“see what my friend is talking about”), you would automatically create C (“give him my opinion on these”), which can very well create even more activities that, if left unfinished, will keep asking for your attention.
Forgive me for making such a long explanation, but I really wanted to make you see how dangerous distractions can be, and how multitasking is in reality just focus-switching.
So what to do in order to focus better?
Just do one thing. Pick one task and focus on it for as long as you need or have planned to. That’s it.
From now on, the next time you see a person who does many things every day—and actually accomplishes something, unlike those who look busy, but are not productive at all—you will know that it’s not because they multitask, but because they do all those many things one at a time.
Reduce Decision-making To A Minimum
Making decisions is not easy. The more decisions you make, the poorer these tend to become, because the process gets increasingly difficult.
Sure, there are things that are easy to decide and things that are not as easy, but making decisions is tiring anyway, even if we’re talking about something simple such as choosing what to eat for lunch.
You see, decision fatigue is real, so you really don’t want to deplete your willpower and energies unnecessarily.
This is the exact reason why some of the most successful entrepreneurs decide to wear the same shirt every day (ok maybe not the same, just multiple “clones” of one shirt). Having to choose what to wear can easily consume mental energy that should be saved for more important stuff. Of course, you don’t need to do the same, but you get the idea.
Now, if you recall, in the previous point we’ve talked about choosing one single task and focusing on it. However, you shouldn’t have to make that choice, especially not multiple times and not several hours into the day.
Ideally, you should have already made a plan at the beginning of the day (or the evening before), so that you won’t have to waste time and energy to make decisions “on the spot” as you’re going through your day.
To avoid depleting your energy, willpower, and time unnecessarily, you need to always know what you should be focusing on, without having to think about it. For this purpose, I highly recommend the use of a to-do list.
Even if you don’t want to use to-do lists, at least make sure to know what are the 3 most important things you have to do on that day, then put those activities before anything else. It’s a really simple thing to do, but it allows you to focus so much better on the right activities.
Get Strong Slowly
Focus is just like a muscle. A mental muscle, in this case. The more it’s trained, the stronger it becomes.
Just like when doing physical workouts, however, you can’t and shouldn’t go for difficult and highly demanding exercises right off the bat. When you’re a beginner, you need to start slow and easy.
So let’s say you have never really focused deeply; or maybe you have, but it happened only a few times, perhaps when studying the nights before an exam. Let’s also say that you normally tend to jump from one task to another, and that you get distracted fairly easily.
Now, if this sounds like you, you will agree with me that it’s unrealistic to think that you can immediately focus for hours in a row.
And here lies the problem with most “productivity beginners”: even though they kind of know that they should take things more slowly, in reality they don’t. They immediately try to go from zero to hero, and fail miserably. This makes them feel demotivated, so they tend to give up easily.
To avoid that, you have to train your focus gradually. A great starting point for your “focus training” is my beloved Pomodoro Technique. The mechanism is simple: 25 minutes of undistracted work followed by a 5-minute break. Then repeat.
Breaks are important (especially when your focus muscle is still weak) because they allow you to recover your energies (in part, at least) so that you’re able to focus for longer. This is why the Pomodoro Technique is great.
Other than using the Pomodoro Technique, I also recommend this “fun” exercise: “TL;DR? No thanks.” Basically, all you have to do is reading long stuff in full, from start to end, without looking at the TL;DR (‘too long, didn’t read’).
This exercise is particularly recommended to those who read a lot of stuff on the Internet, because… well, because that’s where people use TL;DRs.
Every once in a while, try to read a long explanation without skipping parts, try to avoid skipping comments just because they’re longer than 3 or 4 lines, and try to resist the temptation of quickly scrolling through long blog posts (such as the one you’re reading right now 😉 ). Also, as a general rule, read more books!
Keep A “Maybe Later” List
Getting rid of external distractions before a focused work/study session is an essential step, but what about the distractions that come up during that very session? If we don’t deal with them correctly, our focus can be easily ruined.
I’m talking about internal distractions, which tend to be much more numerous when you’ve never trained your focus muscle properly.
“What’s the news today?”
“Is that movie still in theaters?”
“I suddenly feel like eating pizza. I should look up places that make good pizza.”
The Internet and smartphones allow us to go and look up anything, all in a matter of seconds. So what happens when we do so every time a random thought crosses our mind?
You guessed right, it’s the infamous focus switch again, accompanied by its loyal sidekick, attention residue!
In order to avoid this, you should use a Maybe-Later List. On this list, you will write down, as soon as they come up, all the unexpected events and thoughts that randomly show up when you’re working/studying and that are neither urgent nor important. After finishing your current work session, you will then take a look at the list and check if you still want or have to do those activities.
Writing things down is useful because it takes the distracting thoughts from inside your brain to the outside, effectively freeing space in your head and, at the same time, reducing the fake sense of urgency for activities that are (for the most part) almost never urgent.
Basically, a Maybe-Later-List helps you protect your attention from external attacks.
It’s no secret that I consider sleep to be one of the—if not THE—most important habits in life, so I’ll conclude this list with an invite to pay more attention to your sleep, so that you can get the benefits and avoid the negative effects of neglecting it.
Lack of sleep reduces your ability to concentrate and to learn new things, and it makes you more impulsive, prone to making bad decisions, and more irritable than usual.
There are many other negative effects, but these alone can generate procrastination, low willpower, low self-control, laziness, and tendency to give in to distractions of all sorts much more easily.
To avoid (or at least reduce) all that and to be able to focus better and be more productive… Sleep.
If you’re not getting adequate sleep every night, or if you want to improve your sleep quality even more, I think this post will help you.
Focus is important, and here’s how to do it:
- Find a distraction-free location. The place you work/study in is the first thing you should worry about when it comes to focus. If you don’t have such a place, make one. The less distractions you have around you, the less distracted you will be.
- Single-task. Multitasking is not real; it is nothing more than focus-switching, which makes deep focus almost impossible. The best way to get things done and actually get results is focusing on one thing at a time.
- Reduce decision-making to a minimum. Making decisions is tiring, so try to reduce (as much as possible) the amount of decisions you have to make during a day. You can do so by using a to-do list and planning your activities in the morning or the evening before.
- Get strong slowly. Focus can be trained like a muscle, but you should take it slow, especially if you’ve never properly trained before. The Pomodoro Technique will help you in the early stages of your “focus training”.
- Keep a “maybe later” list. Even if you get rid of distractions before a work session, you can’t easily avoid those that come up in the middle of it. A “Maybe-Later-List” will help you protect your focus and handle those distractions better.
- Sleep. Improve your sleeping habits and you will improve pretty much everything, including your ability to focus and concentrate.
Focusing is not easy—especially in the world we’re living in—but is well worth the effort.
Once you develop the ability to focus and concentrate deeply (and then get better and better at it), such a skill is really going to make a BIG difference in your life. Really.