I’m talking to my daughter about her research project, something that’s really important to her, but that I don’t totally understand. I want to listen carefully to see if I can make heads or tails of it. Suddenly I realized she’s stopped talking and I’ve been thinking about how I haven’t written an article for this month’s newsletter… Busted. Here I was trying to listen carefully to an important conversation when suddenly I realize that I’m a million miles away. How does that happen?
Or I sit down to write an important proposal when I notice that an email has come in. I stop to check it, then I respond to that email; then another. Soon I’ve spent 10 minutes in email 15 minutes looking a twitter and my proposal isn’t even started. How does this happen?
What if I told you that focus, the ability to choose to pay attention to just one thing, was something that you could improve with practice? But while we are trying to practice focus, our whole culture is offering to help us to practice distraction. Our phones, computers, cars, watches, televisions, employees, kids, customers (you get the idea, right) are all trying to distract us. Attention is the new currency of the internet – so every website, every app, is trying to get you to pay attention to them.
So focus takes practice, and everything around us is working against that practice – in fact it’s trying to distract us. But without focus it’s impossible do any significant work! Sounds like we’re in trouble, right?
Fortunately, there are some things we can do that will shut the door on distractions and help pave the way to better focus.
There are a few parts of this that are “easy”:
Turn off every notification on your phone, on your computer, tablet everywhere. You don’t need to be notified the second an email arrives do you? And leaving notifications on for social media is an invitation to distraction and productivity hell.
To gain more focus you need to be less available to your team. Maybe they’ll learn to answer some of their own questions?
There’s specific music to help you focus, other folks light a candle or make some other adjustment to signal that they are in a “different space” than normal.
Other parts are hard.
Changing our brain’s craving for distraction and novelty takes time and practice.
Meaning that when you try these practices, at first they don’t seem to work. The value of the practice can only be realized over time (like months and years). Here are some “exercises” that can help over time.
Prayer and meditation are practices that humans have used for thousands of years to quiet their mind and help them to be more present and available to whatever situation they are engaged in, from writing a proposal to listening attentively to my daughter.
I try to take one day a month where I am totally unplugged. No phone, no internet, like the stone age. At first it makes me very anxious, I dread turning off my devices. But by the next day when it’s time to turn them back on – I dread turning them on. The freedom and focus that I find when they are gone feels so great. And the more I do it the bigger difference I notice. By turning it all off it helps me to let go of the importance I have given those devices in my life; it loosens their grip. Not ready to go a whole day? Try turning off from 6PM until the next morning. Your family will thank you.
When I try to “maximize my productivity” by cramming work into every nook and cranny of my life I find that it makes me really anxious and worn out. When a wait in line at the grocery store becomes an impediment to my productivity I get grouchy and even mean. “What’s taking so long up there? Are you ringing them up on an Abacus?” When I can just wait I have the opportunity to connect with other people in line, or of notice the sunshine through the windows, or to just appreciate standing still. When I’m praying or meditating it feels a lot like doing nothing – like wasting time.These last 3 have all taken significant effort to achieve – but have, over time, vastly improved my ability to be present to the task at hand and I find distractions diminishing over time.
Is focus and distraction a problem for you? What has worked in your life to help to gain deeper focus to the most important things in your life?
Photo by: Muhammad Ashiq