How to improve my focus
I was able to convert to this habit during my later years in college (my first two years in college consisted of laziness, video games, girl-chasing, and not so much studying) and when I headed into my professional career. I don't know if this works for everyone so feel free to ignore my advice or only use parts of it. Oddly enough, I've never used meditation even though it's been made available to me.
The main idea is to build up a self-image of being someone with a lot of focus over a long period of time by using short-term hacks (like "close all other applications") over time until you have a track record of being someone with a lot of focus and you and everyone else believes you have a lot of focus. This eventually becomes self-reinforcing because then you begin to naturally do things that stay on track rather than allowing yourself to become distracted. Like Nietzsche said, "there are no actors, only actions."
- So first, don't dismiss hacks like the one you describe above. Keeping a small bag of these and employing them faithfully will keep you on track and help build the image of having focus.
- Develop a habit of getting enough sleep each night. Sacrifice other activities in order to go to bed on time and manage your daytime schedule so that you can sleep as much as you need. 8 hours is good. Spend money on a high-quality mattress and very comfortable sheets. This is a very worthwhile one-time capital investment because you spend 30% of your lifetime here. Being sleepy makes you easily distracted and makes it more difficult to pay attention to topics for long periods of time (you may start to fall asleep and need to stimulate yourself awake by distracting yourself).
- Only work on a couple big things in your life at once. If you care about a lot of things, decide which 2 or 3 things you really really care about and then start ignoring the rest. This may involve ignoring certain long-time hobbies or even relationships, though remember that you are making the choices yourself (I mention that so that you don't grieve for the loss of those things, and also remember that you can reverse those decisions). Exceptional focus does not come without sacrifice.
- Exceptional focus does not mean that you are able to work during all your waking hours. During your "downtime" (time when you are not being productive but also not sleeping), don't try to work on lower-priority projects. Instead, make sure you are goofing off. The most focused people maintain focus over long periods of time (months, years) rather than working obsessively on something over entire days (which is likely to lead to burnout), so make sure your daily schedule involves breaks where you deliberately don't do anything productive. The idea here is to not fatigue your mind with focus, but to continually "re-attract" it back to the thing you want to focus on.
- Lastly, orient your thinking towards the notion of completion or goals. Whenever you are embarking on something, make sure you have a notion of the end goal you are trying to achieve, and drive primarily towards achieving that goal. Don't worry if the goals aren't exactly right; the idea is to reach them, and if they don't turn out to be exactly what you needed, you can just set new ones. The reason here is that high focus without goals is just obsession, but if you drive towards specific goals with a lot of focus, you will get things done, which allows you to "let up" on focusing on that goal and refocus on the next one. The ultimate effect is that you'll become a person who can focus steadily on achieving goal after goal without getting bored or distracted because you know that "soon" you'll reach your next goal and be able to work on the next thing (i.e. it's subverting your "distraction" tendency into being a "drive towards achievement" tendency). From the outside (and thus, when you look back on your life), it will appear as though you have a lot of focus on one overarching meta-goal that you are able to continually sustain over months and years. Only you will know that the secret is breaking it up into many little interesting and novel sub-goals!
For this question, I have a solution that always works for me.
Just follow this series of events every single morning:
- Get into your shorts and a T-shirt.
- Pull up your socks and put on your sport shoes.
- Go to a park/track/empty road.
- Plug in your earphones and play some energetic music.
Wondering how running helps improve focus?
- The Runner's High
Any sort of intense physical exercise leads to the release of endorphins in your brain. Endorphins act as a natural "drug" that makes you more energetic, awake, and happier. Endorphins kick in during and/or after a workout. This is referred to as a "Runner's high."
- Running changes your brain's wiring.
Research showed a runner's brain to have a greater connectivity in regions involving ‘working-memory' and ‘self-control'. Running demands immense self-control, and a ‘not-giving-up' attitude, which directly links to an increase in your focus.
- A short jog/run helps you regulate your emotions.
Endorphins helps you overcome negativity. This gives you more mental control over yourself and lets you focus on what is important.
- You learn to take control over yourself.
This is based on my personal experience of following the interval training methodology. For instance, one of my typical workouts involve:
This if repeated 3 times, makes a good ~30 min session. Practising this routine helps me build endurance and that in turn improves my focus.
For me, running not just improves my focus, but lets me improve as an individual.
Every session instills in me the essence of endurance, self-control, discipline, and most importantly, teaches me how to stay focused.
The after effect can't be put into words. It can only be experienced.
You know what they say?
One run can change your day.
Many runs, can change your life.
I see productivity and focus as two distinct things, albeit interrelated. I believe it is possible to boost productivity with a somewhat minimal increase in the inherent focusing ability of a person. However, an increase in focus should in general lead to greater productivity, apart from other benefits.
The Bhagvad Gita likens a persons senses to wild horses, and the mind is akin to the charioteer, who holds the reins of these horses. If you cannot rein in your senses, they will run wild and take you to places you don't wish to go. Focus essentially boils down to the absolute control of your senses, which is why meditation helps so much in improving it.
I'm sure lots of people don't read long rambling answers (which this invariably will turn into), so getting to the gist of things, this is what i believe would help a lot (note that I'm trying not to mention things that already have been mentioned) :
- Practice meditation (the duh! answer)
2. Listen to music (and I mean really listen)
Listening to music helps in improving your concentration and focus, but only when you really listen. Most people listen to it while doing something else; working, exercising, reading. Try and listen. After I started learning an instrument and really listening to the music, I realized that I could make out what was being played by the individual instruments, the patter of guitar strumming, the bass line etc etc. Thats when I really started enjoying classical music as well. A lot of people still don't have the ability to focus only on a single instrument and figure out whats happening. Try it, it adds a new dimension to the music you listen to and expands your tastes. (When you clear your mind out and let it be filled only with music, its also another form of meditation, where you are essentially clearing the 'clutter' of your thoughts and focusing on one thing).
3. Cut down your goals into smaller, achievable, more immediate targets
I've found that having just an end goal in mind, while providing an initial drive, can confuse and frustrate a person, and you lose focus. That's because if your target goal is difficult or big (as it should be), then you may not see any immediate results which bring you closer to it. Break it down into smaller targets, improvements that you ca achieve within a day or a week, and check it off as another rung to your 'ladder' of success.
4. Work when you are most comfortable
Some people work better at day, some at night, Sometimes your environment may just not allow you to relax during the daytime. I don't mean stay awake the whole night and work the whole day. Get your sleep, but work when you find yourself to be the most productive.
5. Start fasting a bit
Its well known that eating heavy slows you down, directing the blood to your stomach for the digestive process and making you sleepy. A small amount of fasting has a lot of benefits. It speeds up your metabolism to a certain extent and keeps you alert. Going on a juice fast is usually ok for most people. This isn't a quick hack either, because fasting on a regular basis would help keep you in good physical condition (your body only has certain nutrition requirements, we're not storing blubber for the winter here). Don't starve yourself though, death is counter productive.
6. Force yourself a bit, don't force yourself too much
Sometimes when we're feeling lazy, we need that little push to get us out of our state of inertia. That's ok, having to force yourself to start working is normal, the flow comes as you go on. However, there are times when you hit a mental wall, and you're mind simply refuses to go on with something. Don't force yourself too much at this point, even if you end up working it won't be really productive. Go do something else, let off some steam, preferably something much different from the work you were doing.
7. Delay gratification
There was a TED talk on how people who delayed gratification were more likely to succeed. I think there is some merit in this statement; people who can delay immediate gratification can focus better on the bigger picture and not be distracted. Incorporate this as an exercise in your daily life...let someone else have the last donut, don't smoke that cigarette right now, say no to the extra cheese, don't have fries with that, let that itch torture you a bit more, run away before climaxing...you get the point. At some point you'll realize its easier to say no to a lot of things, which means you have more yeses for the right things.
8. Wear light clothes when you can
Its good to have things ventilated. There's a reason meditation is done in comfortable clothes (or if you see the sadhus if India, in no clothes).
9. Sit with mother nature once in a while
The singing if birds. The crackling of twigs. The sound of wind through the branches. The babbling of a brook. The sound of waves. Just sit and listen sometimes. You'll feel at peace and calm. And being calm really lets you focus.
10 Give yourself some buffer time
Before starting something or while ending a work session. Wind down gently, don't rush into something else. A 5 minute silent breathing exercise helps a lot.
11. Don't procrastinate the little, unpleasant things that take a minute
Because they will weigh on your mind at some point. Lessen the burden, finish 'em off fast.
12. Exercise your mind everyday
Do some puzzles, do the crossword, engage people in impassioned discussions, get engaged in impassioned discussions, build something creatively, break something creatively. Don't let your mind idle. (Note: Meditation, or trying to have no thoughts isn't keeping your mind idle at all. )
13. Exercise your body everyday
you don't have to be ripped. But it's important that you're body is an asset to you, not a liability.
Bonus: Watch Game of Thrones
This won't improve focus but its awesome.
I got thrown out of school. "You are welcome to return when you are more mature and can focus" said the formal letter.
I was a failure, depressed, and lonely. My parents were upset and my friends thought I was stupid.
Why was I thrown out?
A) I was playing chess all the time. I couldn't stop. I'd promise my girlfriend when we were walking in that "Today I will DEFINITELY not play" and then I'd say to myself, "Well, maybe just one game."
Ten hours later I'd finally stop playing chess online.
For about a half hour. Then another ten hours later I might stumble home. I still play every day. Sometimes for an hour. Sometimes for ten.
B) I decided to be a world-famous novelist.
Even though I was studying computer science, I wrote ten pages a day (on days I wasn't playing chess).
I ended up writing four unpublished (or, I should also say, unpublishable) novels and dozens of short stories. Nothing ever published.
C) For awhile, I was always depressed about girlfriends. I couldn't concentrate on work.
I'd walk back and forth in front of my girlfriend's house (whichever girlfriend at the time, I was always walking back and forth in front of her house).
I'd wait for her to walk outside and then I'd say, "Oh hey! I was just walking by." And I'd hope we could walk together. I'd hope she would like me and talk to me. I would hope she would skip the day and just spend time with me.
My hopes rarely came true. And I was always seeking and I don't think I was ever sought.
D) I wanted to make friends.
Everyone in the same program as me was smarter than me. I wanted to be friends with all of them. Still, 25 years later, I am intimidated when any of my old school friends text me.
I would socialize too much. Even on the nights before finals and other exams. I thought I was a cowboy and could go out all night and ace all the tests. I failed every class except one in my first two years of graduate school .
I failed out of graduate school. And then I got depressed and it took a long time to recover.
I got good enough at chess to achieve a "masters" ranking with the US chess federation.
And yet: that ranking helped me later get a job at a company I loved (HBO).
Helped me sell a future company I started. Helped me raise money for the next company after that. And after that.
And has been a lifelong source of joy, competition, and new friends for me.
Even if I go to a new country, I just show up at the local chess club and there they all are! New friends for me. I can never repay my debt to this simple eight by eight board.
Guess what? The man who wrote that letter throwing me out of graduate school for lack of focus became my chess student for years. And now is one of my best friends.
He still wants me to come back to graduate school.
I never got a novel published (well, I secretly self-published one under a pen name but it's more like a novella).
But I did publish 18 other books. One of them has sold a half million copies. The rest have done well.
And my writing each month is read by 100,000s or millions of readers. And my ability to write has helped me win customers, clients, find partners, find friends, and enjoy reading in a way I never was able to before.
I thought publishing a novel back then would be a way for me to meet a girlfriend. It would be impressive!
It never worked. Bet maybe reading helped me understand a bit more what I was always doing wrong.
Because I lack focus, I forgot what I've written above so I had to scroll up and see.
Relationships are really hard for me. I don't know why.
Because I'm both shy and curious and eager to please I started a podcast just so I could meet more people.
I've done hundreds of podcast episodes now. With millions of people who have listened.
I try every day to improve my relationships. Although often it's difficult. I have to give myself permission to not be perfect.
Since I've been thrown out of graduate school I've had about (I am counting right now with my fingers..........13 or 14 completely different careers.
Sometimes I've started companies. Sometimes I've been an employee. Sometimes a writer. Sometimes a total loser.
Most companies failed. Most of my writing was no good. Most of the time I've been an employee I've been fired.
But overall, I look back and it's been exciting. And when I run into you in the street and we recognize each other from one of those horrific times, we always hug and catch up.
I'm grateful for the number of times one experience combined with another completely different experience, to create a new thought for me, a new idea. A new way to fail and mess up.
The other day, Howard said to me, "you are still screwing up all the time" but he laughed because now it's funny and when it's not sad it's always interesting.
I've never been focused. I never will be. I don't want to be. I am constantly trying to figure things out.
Here's what I have. A Plan B. And often a Plan C. And a Plan D. And a Plan E.
And sometimes if Plan A doesn't work out I go straight to Plan B.
Or sometimes I combine Plan D with Plan Q to make a new Plan A. A Plan A that surprises me but turns out to be the correct plan. For the day.
Or sometimes i write my list of ten ideas for the day and then I am tired and that was my plan for the day.
Or sometimes I write those ideas and one idea stands up and salutes and that becomes my master for the day, leading me in all the directions it needs to explore to become something real in the world.
I try to give myself permission to be healthy in every way rather than focused.
Sometimes my daughter wants to spend time with me. So all plans are laid to rest. No matter who is calling.
(I wish this were true all the time but sadly there are times that slip by and I will never get them back, all in the name of a faceless god named "focus").
And sometimes Life happens and all good plans disappear and some never come back. Some fly away and never return and I can't ask "Why?" because only frustration and anger are answers.
I never went back to graduate school. I never got mature enough. Most businesses I've started have failed. Most of the time, my life has been so crazy it's been like a roller coaster of exhilaration and depression.
But I look back and I'm proud and I'm happy. And I look forward and I'm scared but mostly I can't wait to see what's next.
I don't know what's next. The future is all out of focus. And I look outside right now and it's snowing and I want to play.
I took a massively open online course (MOOC), about learning how to learn. In fact, the name of the course was "Learning How to Learn" on Coursera.
Arguably, learning how to learn is the basic point of college or higher education itself--that the in-depth and concentrated effort and focus on one topic leads to an ability to go about understanding of any other topic. Learning this and being able to do this independently, is not exactly something that is taught in the K-12 period. Instead, "teaching the test" with a good amount of disregard for critical thinking or dialectic discussion, is what is emphasized. I remember a lot of teachers during K-12 who would pause and state, "ok class, remember this point, highlight it, it's important! <more pause> (it's going to be on the test).
During Learning how to Learn, there was a lecture that was of profound significance to me, something that I hadn't learned of before, but once understanding the topic, I realized that this was one of the great lessons that is often not articulated, but once understood, it beomes immediately apparent.
The brain has two general modes of thinking, learning, living.
- There is a diffuse mode of thinking and learning
- And there is a focused mode of thinking and learning
These two alternate periodically but not predictably or equally so, regarding time.
In the diffuse mode of thinking, the subconscious can tend to dominate, even though we are not aware of it. Our thoughts can often drift, and a good example given in lecture was how our thoughts tend to operate, while say, being in the shower. Some might even consider this synonymous with, or akin to, daydreaming. In my opinion, this is the sort of thinking that occurs when we are doing activities that are so routine to us, that our minds flip the switch onto autopilot. Much of our creative works come to us during these times.
In the focused moded of thinking, we concentrate on a task and deliberately beam our attention towards that task---what we are doing, how we are attending to it--and if we are using a skill that has been learned over time, like attending to a series of math problems, homework, we usually learn that directed focus helps us more efficiently solve the problems, and correctly, like with self-correction and attention to detail, in a more brief period, as opposed to spending "a lot of time and effort" when that is not a guarantee of results.
The focused mode tends to require greater amounts of energy, and use of the brain toward a task, in turn requires more energy to maintain that state of thinking, learning. This mode can't be sustained for very long periods, by its nature, regarding effort and energy (both motivational and nutritional).
That is the basis of the Pomodoro technique. One focuses on a particular task at hand by using a timer or stopwatch, for a dedicated and specified period of time like 20 minutes. When that time is up, one is free to revert to diffuse thinking; taking a stroll, taking a trip to the water cooler or coffee machine, chatting among colleagues. But during the period that is budgeted toward concentrated effort, one maintains their diligence to the task at hand.
Budgeting time into these periods, I have found, helps develop the ability to focus at will, as a learned practice. This is also congruent with the
Pareto principle, that 20% of one's effort will lead to 80% of the actual results, and that 80% of the effort one expends, leads to an actual 20% in gains, or outcome.
The distribution is claimed to appear in several different aspects relevant to entrepreneurs and business managers. For example:
- 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of its customers
- 80% of a company's complaints come from 20% of its customers
- 80% of a company's profits come from 20% of the time its staff spend
- 80% of a company's sales come from 20% of its products
- 80% of a company's sales are made by 20% of its sales staff
- Therefore, many businesses have an easy access to dramatic improvements in profitability by focusing on the most effective areas and eliminating, ignoring, automating, delegating or retraining the rest, as appropriate.....
The Pareto principle was also mentioned in the book 24/8 - The Secret for being Mega-Effective by Achieving More in Less Time by Amit Offir. Offir claims that if you want to function as a one-stop shop, simply focus on the 20% of what is important in a project and that way you will save a lot of time and energy.
There are a few good Pomodoro HOME - the Pomodoro Technique apps for smart phones, tablets, etc, that work as basic timers that serve to aid one in specifically conducting tasks in this manner.
By breaking down the essence of diffuse thinking and focused thinking into an applicable and specific way to attain this ability to focus at will, in order to produce greater results in less time, as opposed to simply grinding away at a task by means of sheer brute-force methods through hardened persistence (or attempts at it), I was able to learn how to cultivate focus in a way that is actually effective.
As a contrast what is described above, I have also found that the quote by Edison, regarding 1% inspriation and 99% perspiration, should not necessarily be taken seriously in real-life terms. He also said something similar, "I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work."
This was a person who was trying to find a more effective filament for use in an incandescent light bulb. He didn't invent the "bulb" or the general idea of running a large amount of current through a material that would easily disperse light as a result of cycling electric current through a thin wire filament, he just kept searching for the more approriate filament material for an incandescent bulb, and that was,building it from the the element Tungsten (W).
The mention of Edison is meant here to illustrate that it is often better to work smarter and not necessarily harder, through the use of applied focus while understanding that productivity is not based on the amount of time spent focusing strictly, but by understanding the finite nature of actual productivity in terms of the effort
One sort of exception to this is practicing a musical instrument or practicing a sport like gymnastics or golf. The difference is between trying to solve a particular problem or attaining mastery in a particular area.
More practice is defintely beneficial in the long run, but there also are smarter ways to to go about the task of practicing in fields that are inherently and necessarily time-dependent for successes, but the results are made better and more quickly by concentrating on disciplined, structured practice.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that learning to focus better is achievable, but trying to gain the ability to focus during most of one's waking hours, is not realistic or desirable.
edit: In a recent article, How Are You Protecting Your High Performers from Burnout? from Harvard Business Review there was an embedded link:
High performers hold great value for any company, delivering 400% more productivity than average performers.
The study cited addresses the Paretian distributions (power law, a la Pareto principle) as more closely modeling reality than the normal distribution (bell curve) that is used conventionally to reward merit in the workplace by human resources, et. al. The author of the article was alluding to the difference between 20% and 80%, being 400% (4x) the productivity.
- THE BEST AND THE REST: REVISITING THE NORM OF NORMALITY OF INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE (abstract)
- The research briefing on pdf, which states
In accordance with a Paretian distribution, the "picture of performance" resembles a ski slope. The typical performer would fall below the mean or average result. So there would be approximately 80% below average, 10% around the middle, and 10% exceeding; meaning that the assumption that the typical performer is average is a myth of the normal distribution assumption. The results lend themselves to the "80 / 20 rule," which assumes at 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.
- Merit-based systems commonly try to force-fit a Paretian curve into a normal, bell-curve distribution, which seems not to model the reality of performance in the workplace.
The relevance of the Pareto principle to a new study struck a chord, so I added it.