In the attention economy, focus is in short supply. With 70% of workers reporting they consistently feel distracted at work and 16% of them feeling like they’re “always” unfocused, the hit to your career (and pocketbook) is probably more significant than you realize.
But it’s not just being unfocused at work that creates problems.
An inability to focus spills over into other parts of our lives, leading us to be less present to what we’re doing and more anxious than ever before.
Plan Short “Sprints”
Attention works like a muscle. Train it and it gets stronger. Allow it to atrophy, and … wait, squirrel!
As with all training, have a plan makes it much easier to accomplish a goal of getting stronger.
Before we beat ourselves up over lacking focus, we should be clear about a few things:
- The world we live in now – the one that requires sustained attention on cognitively demanding ‘knowledge work’ – is a recent development. Evolutionarily, we never needed to have the stores of sustained attention we need now to survive.
- The ability to focus varies with age – young children don’t have the physical ability to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. For adults that haven’t flexed their attention muscles, 20 minutes is our typical upper limit.
In order to prime ourselves for success, it works best if we go with our (natural) flow, instead of fighting it.
To do this, plan your work in 20 minute chunks, with breaks in between.
Take this blog post, for example.
If I know that it will, on average, take 40-60 minutes to get this post written, then I would schedule two 20-minute chunks of time to knock out the task. In between chunks, I would give myself 3-4 minutes to let my attention wander, check news or scores, or enjoy distractability.
Then, back to work.
During that ‘work time,’ I might ask Siri or Alexa or whatever-AI-I-like to set a timer so that I don’t have to ‘wonder’ when my time is up. That ‘wondering’ will only lead to me getting more distracted, then checking the time, then messages, then…wait, what was I doing again?
This approach is typically referred to as The Pomodoro Technique and works wonders for developing attention because it plays to our minds’ natural rhythms and strength.
Over time, you can build up your ability to focus for longer periods of time, maybe 30-40 minutes.
But, out of the gate – 20 minutes is plenty. The first time you try it, it’ll feel like eternity.
But it’s SUPER effective.
Rest Your Eyes
In the same way that sustained cognitive focus is a relatively new development for our 200,000 year old hardware, so too is sustained focus on a screen.
Our eyes aren’t meant to focus on bright lights at near distances in the way we use them now.
Our eyes have muscles and focusing on screens all day causes strain, wear, and tear.
The older we get, the more we feel it.
So, during those breaks between sessions, it’s a good idea to allow your eyes to focus off in the distance, so they can reset at a far range. Or, take 3-4 minutes and shut them. Do a quick meditation to recharge your mind – and your eyes.
When our eyes get tired, we feel tired, and our focus wanes.
So, take care of your eyes.
If you’re on a screen all day long, consider investing in blue light glasses. These are glasses with special lenses designed to cut some of the glare associated with screens.
We are also not meant to sit all day long.
When we do, we shorten our hip flexors and weaken our back and glutes.
The result are muscle imbalances that lead us to poor alignment and possibly hip, back, or neck pain.
If you don’t have one, consider a standing desk or standing desk converter and alternate sitting/standing between work sessions. For example, maybe “odd numbered” work sessions are standing and “even numbered” ones are sitting.
This will help keep your body balanced and pain-free.
Both help with sustaining attention.
Turn Off Phone Notifications
Most of us are addicted to our phones, with the average person checking their phone once ever 10 minutes. Often, that number increases when we are involved in group chats or messages, on Slack teams, or have various phone notifications turned on.
Our relationships with our phones are hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but one of the major ones is because it robs our attention of focus.
The reality is that ‘multitasking’ is impossible and there is a cost associated with shifting focus. The cost might seem minuscule, but over time it adds up and erodes our ability to concentrate.
The best thing we can do is turn off notifications on our phones and put on ‘do not disturb’ settings when in a ‘work block.’
Instead, schedule time to respond to messages and make calls. Use your 4 minute breaks for ‘mindless surfing’ or texting and then put the phone away.
It’s very, very rare that someone needs our attention remotely, immediately, and can’t wait 1-20 minutes. If it’s a real emergency, they can/will bypass Do Not Distrub by calling repeatedly and you can address that rare case, then.
Otherwise? Phones off.
Outcomes, Not Tasks
Some work is borrrring.
So, we don’t give it attention because, well, we don’t want to.
When planning our work, it’s important to think in terms of ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘tasks.’
For instance, “my flight to Colorado is booked” is an example of an outcome while “Book my flight to Colorado” is a task.
It’s a subtle distinction, but the first one describes the state of something being completed, while the second describes a process for completing it.
Why does this matter?
Because, at the end of the day, most of what needs to be accomplished are outcomes, but we focus on the tasks to get things done. Not only can that be inefficient, task drudgery can hinder our focus.
For example, my flight to Colorado could get booked by asking my assistant to do it for me. Or my spouse. Using a service like Taskrabbit or Fiverr, it’s easy to find people who can do tasks for us that reduce our work and accomplish outcomes.
Or, maybe, I can find a way to automate the process I’m currently using for a task.
The point is that by focusing on outcomes, we open up possibilities for creativity in solving the problem. Not only does this engage our cognitive faculties better than ‘task orientation’ does, it can also make us more productive.
The side benefit of ‘outcome-driven’ work is that ‘outcome-driven’ and ‘purpose-driven’ are very closely related. When we perceive purpose in what we do, we’re more likely to be motivated to do see the outcome completed and give it the sustained attention it deserves.
Sleep is so important that billionaire Ariana Huffington wrote a whole book on it’s relationship to productivity and happiness.
Our brains consume a lot of energy – almost 20% of our body’s total energy. When you consider that our brain is less than 3% of our total mass, it’s easy to see that a healthy brain is absolutely essential for focus.
Sleep is our body’s way of repairing itself from the stressors of the day and recharging for the next.
Getting a good night’s sleep allows our brain to heal and recharge – including recharging our stores of attention.
Anyone who wants to be productive in the long-term, has to get their sleep under control.
Related to that – phones off 30 minutes before bedtime. Because being on your phone before bedtime can disrupt your sleep.
Heal Your Gut
It may come as a surprise to you to learn that much of your brain’s health is managed by…your gut.
Intuitively, organisms need to eat before they need to think – humans are the only rational mammals on the planet, but not the only ones that eat.
So, evolutionarily speaking, our guts came first.
More importantly, our gut is where we process nutrients, which then fuel the rest of our body – including that brain of ours, which is using 20% of our energy.
Bad gut = bad brain.
Healing your gut is a large topic, but at the very least, you want to make sure you’re eating clean, healthy food as much as possible and taking a strong probiotic. If you’ve lived life with a poor diet for a long time, you might need to get specific gut-healing supplements like this one or this one, as well as consider a cleanse.
Expect the process to take several weeks (after all, you didn’t get unhealthy overnight, so you shouldn’t expect to get healthy overnight), though many people notice dramatic results within just a few days.
CBD can help, too
We’ve already written at length how CBD can help with focus, even if there’s an ADD/ADHD diagnosis. CBD can help because it helps to reduce inflammation and can help heal the gut-brain connection. Our brains also have several receptors sensitive to the cannabinoids present in CBD.
Still, CBD should be used as a supplement and not a panacea for managing attention.
As you can see, focus isn’t as easy as ‘just do it.’ A lot has to go right, for us to be able to focus – even for people without an ADD/ADHD diagnosis.
But, with a little work and some helpful strategies, you can be on your way to boosted productivity in no time!