One the biggest contributor to productivity is the ability to focus; that is, the ability to narrow down our attention on something.
Focusing helps us keep our eyes on the goal. It’s a key to clarity, efficiency and concentration.
The problem is, attention is a limited resource and distractions are everywhere.
Whether we find ourselves pulled away by a talkative coworker, a sugar fix, digital media, or the new Netflix hit, we have more competing for our attention than ever before.
We’re so busy multitasking trying to accomplish things, people everywhere are experiencing an epidemic of overwhelm. For most of us, anchoring our attention has become a daily challenge.
Today we’re exploring the 5 steps you can take to dramatically improve your focus by learning how to enhance the awareness of your habits and ultimately be more productive with your time.
We’ll explore ways to prioritize, how to resist the pull of digital distraction, and prevent informational overload. And finally, we’ll discuss the benefit of slowing down and doing one thing at a time.
Develop mindful awareness of your habits
The most important step of all is developing an awareness of your habits and tendencies. If you can heighten your awareness of your tendencies and practice moment-to-moment awareness through the day, you’ll be distracted less often and have a much better chance of returning to your focus sooner.
Take a moment to review the things that distract you most frequently through the day.
Social media, television, talkative coworkers or family members, food, shopping, email or the phone. Perhaps it’s losing track of what you’re doing because you’re attempting too much at once, organizing your desk or your own mind, getting lost in daydreams.
The one thing all these distractions have in common is they’re a diversion from our priorities.
In order to tame these distractions we need to first be aware of what most easily captures our attention. And each time we notice we’ve been distracted and have drifted away, we make an effort to stop, and bring ourselves back.
When you find yourself distracted, your attention is diverted, so simply pause in awareness, and come back.
For today, simply notice when you’re distracted. You don’t have to do anything about it yet. Just try strengthening the quality of noticing. That’s the first step.
Be mindful of your priorities
Distractions are everywhere and they take a heavy toll on levels of productivity.
Think of it this way: when you allow yourself to be distracted, you're giving things that are of low importance, undue attention.
Therefore, one of the best places to start when making efforts to strengthen your focus is to be mindful of your priorities.
Every morning when you start the day or sit down to work, one your first tasks should be clarifying what you want to focus on.
Start by reviewing the tasks on your to-do list. If you have a list of ten, select one single priority from that list. Even if there several tasks of equal importance, just select one.
Once you have that single priority in mind get to work. Put aside everything else on your list, clear away all distractions, silence your phone and focus on that one priority.
When your priorities are crystal clear there’s less of a chance of being diverted from them.
Limit digital distractions
In the digital age of distraction, we have more competing for our attention than ever before.
While the Internet has produced boundless benefits, there are unattended consequences of the digital revolution. One of which, is that the technologies we use every day are extremely addictive.
Whether it’s the lure of Facebook, the pull of the inbox, or the seduction of a juicy headline, there are constant distractions vying for our attention.
Just think about how easy it is to get lost in a simple Google search. Millions of results pop up in our browser, our curiosity gets the best of us and we end up reading about an entirely different topic. We get lost in irrelevant blogs and unrelated You Tube videos. Our phone has become another limb, always connected to us, sometimes through the night so we don’t miss a text or email. We drop everything to stay up to date on social media - replying to posts, uploading photos and staying connected.
And even though all these distractions pull us away from what we should be doing, we keep clicking over and over.
Distractions arise frequently and in order to remain focused on priorities, the key is to be aware of distractions as they arise, noticing their pull and then coming back to our point of focus.
This is easier said than done of course and requires practice. Since digital distractions can be especially sticky, in addition to working with awareness, there are practical steps you can put into place to resist temptation.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Set pre-appointed times to check email, perhaps once in the morning, afternoon and night. The rest of the time when you’re working, do so with your email closed.
- Whenever possible, unplug. Use tools and browser plugins to disable your Internet connection and block specific sites. If you’re writing you can use distraction free text editors to keep you offline.
- Work in hour-long intervals. Set a timer for an hour or so and commit to yourself that during that time there’s no deviating from that task. Resist the urge to get swept away by other things.
Most importantly, practice awareness. Observe your mind. You will be distracted so when it happens, notice the pull of distraction and come back to your task over and over. Working in this way with effort, will allow your focus to strengthen.
One thing at a time
One of the challenges we face in modern life is information overload.
There used to be an assumption that we could pay attention to five to nine things at a time. But over the years, neuroscientists have learned that we can really only juggle about three things at a given time.
Anything beyond that leads to overstimulation and a loss of concentration so it’s no wonder we have problems focusing. Our minds weren’t created to operate the way we’re forcing them to.
It’s up to us to be mindful of how much information we’re processing.
Too much, leaves us unable to focus because it puts our brain into a state of decision fatigue. That’s when trivial decisions become as difficult to make as important ones.
This overload can also impact our health. It can lead to stress and insomnia. But we often don’t address our experience of overload for two reasons. First of all, absorbing information feels good and that little squirt of dopamine we receive is addictive.
Secondly, many of us work in occupations where being online, responding to texts and emails and being on social forums is a requirement. It’s not as simple as saying no and unplugging.
Switching our focus between points of attention slows down our creative and communication processes. It’s less efficient for us to be constantly stopping and starting, changing our focus, and breaking our flow. It also makes us more prone to errors and mistakes.
So whenever it is possible, we want to be mindful of keeping information overload at bay by focusing on one thing at a time in daily life. Doing so will leave far more room in our minds to focus.
This of course, requires mindfulness.
Being aware of the task or activity you’re focusing on and resisting the urge to switch to something else. You can practice this with sacred activities that don’t require being plugged in. Things like yoga or hiking. Cooking or playing an instrument. Turn off the phone and make these connected free times. Focus on each task with complete attention.
When you’re working, clear away any distractions that might make it difficult to focus all your attention on one thing only.
Be mindful of your priorities. When you’re doing too many things at once, ask yourself what the likelihood is that you’ll accomplish your greatest priority. And then, let go of everything that isn’t that.
Slow down + re-charge
Our obsession with productivity makes it difficult for us to give ourselves permission to stop. But in the same way it’s not possible to stay awake all the time, we can’t expect our minds to focus all the time. It’s like running a battery non-stop. Eventually, our mind needs to re-charge so we don’t burn out.
That’s why each day we want to take breaks to slow down, disconnect and rejuvenate. That might mean offering ourselves some solitude and reflection… It might mean going for a walk, having a conversation, or participating in a hobby. We can use cues like feeling overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted as indicators that it may be time to take a break.
Taking time to refresh through the day is an essential ingredient to sustaining focus so here are some ways to stop, disconnect and recharge.
Work in intervals the same way that’s common while exercising. For example, you could work for 45 minutes and then take a 10-minute break to stretch your legs or quiet your mind. When you offer yourself built-in periods of rest, you can better ensure productive periods of focus.
In the evenings and on weekends, take longer periods to fully disconnect and recharge. Go for a hike or do some yoga. Meditate to clear your mind. Throw yourself into a hobby or passion and fuel up so you can better focus when you return to work. Sign off for the weekend and hit the slopes or the beach.As you disengage and create balance in your life, your ability to focus will strengthen.
By taking these steps to strengthen your focus, you will notice that over time, your productivity naturally increase as well as your ability to bring more efficiency and creativity to your work.