Improving focus boosts our productivity. This week we consider why focus matters and how to improve it.
Focusing on focus–and how it affects our productivity
The topic of this week’s episode was born out of a practice a lot of people follow around this time of year, which is choosing a word for the year. I followed that practice for several years, then a few years ago I switched to choosing three words for the year, an idea I first learned about from Chris Brogan. According to Chris, the idea is to choose “3 words that have personal meaning to you that you will use as guideposts for your chosen path forward in the coming year.”
Whether you choose one word or more, the principles and purpose are the same. Your words don’t have to mean anything to anybody else. Simply choose words that mean something to you personally and that are connected to the goals you’ve set for yourself in the coming year.
One of my words for 2018 is focus. Like all the words I choose, it has more than one application in my life. When I’m thinking about focus as one of my words of the year, I’m thinking about it at two levels.
One level is staying focused on what I’m doing at any given moment whether it’s the task I’m doing or the person I’m with. I want to be focused in that moment by minimizing distractions and developing my attention muscle.
The other level is generally spending my time, energy, attention, and money on what’s most important. In other words, having a focus to my life, a direction and intention.
What is focus?
One online dictionary defines focus as “pay particular attention to.”
Wikipedia says “Focus or Attention is selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things.” It further explains that:
“Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether deemed subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of limited processing resources.”
Attention is a finite resource. There are limits to how much and how long we can focus. I’ll talk more about what that means for us below.
As I was researching for this episode, I happened to get an email from Skillshare about a course called Productivity today: Managing Attention in the Digital Age, taught by Kevin Siskar, managing director of the Founders Institute in New York. In the course, he refers to attention management as “the ability to focus your attention effectively and intentionally.”
Why does it matter? How does focus contribute to productivity?
Focus, at various levels, is necessary to accomplish anything we want to accomplish, from writing a book to completing a quilt to building a relationship. Anything we want to accomplish is going to require focus.
When we feel like we’re not getting enough done, when our “productivity,” in the sense of producing results, isn’t what we want it to be, the temptation is to look for a new system or approach or tool. But, as Francisco Saez notes in his article “Lack of Focus is Killing Your Productivity,” “personal productivity is a matter of habits” and when we’re not accomplishing the things we want or need to do, “the problem usually has to do with focus.”
Carson Tate (author of Work Simply, our first TPW Book Club selection), cited a study in her past Huffington Post article, “Pay Attention: Because It Impacts Your Productivity,” that found that “interruptions, distractions, and recovery time consume 28 percent of the average knowledge worker’s day.” She notes that experts say it takes an average of nearly 23 minutes to get back to focused work after an interruption.
Lack of focus not only slows us down in completing our work, but also may affect the quality of our work. For example, a study described in one article found that students who were interrupted while working on an essay produced lower quality work.
For me, this issue of being able to focus–that is, manage my attention–is about more than just getting work done. It’s also about nurturing relationships, something we can’t do when we can’t pay attention to the person we’re with because our mind keeps wandering off to things we need to do or remember.
In order to do the things that matter to us with a quality that we can be proud of, we need to be able to focus effectively, efficiently, and intentionally. That’s why focus is important.
What interferes with focus?
There are a number of things that interfere with our ability to focus, such as:
1. Overabundance of input
There’s so much so much information coming at us all the time, from the internet, social media, TV, podcasts, people in our lives, and so on. In last week’s episode, we discussed the constant noise that surrounds us, the absence of silence and the lack of time and space to think. There are too many things clamoring for our attention. Our brains respond to the new and novel as a potential threat, and our attention jumps to these things rather than staying focused on the project we’re working on.
Interruptions constantly interfere with our ability to focus. Throughout the day we deal with external interruptions such as people coming into our workspace, phone calls, emails, social media alerts, as well as conditions that impair our physical health, like insufficient sleep, illness, or dehydration.
We also face internal interruptions when we have too much on our minds. That can be because we wear many hats, or because we simply have too many thoughts running through our heads.
Of course, there may be neurological reasons we struggle to focus, such as ADHD, which we talked about with Emily Prokop in episode 80. According to WebMD, symptoms of ADHD include trouble paying attention (easily distracted), feeling restless and fidgety (hyperactivity), and poor impulse control. Anybody can feel any of these sometimes, but if it’s a persistent issue for you and affects the ability to do the things that matter to you, consult a doctor.
3. Trying to do too many things
Many of us simply have too much on our plate, too much going on. As a result, we may try to do multiple things at once such as listening to a podcast while writing a paper. But the truth is, you’re not able to focus effectively on either task. Over time, multitasking actually weakens our ability to pay attention.
Most of us are privileged to have many choices for what we do with our time and some of us want to “do it all,” so we have less time or attention for each. In the Skillshare course I mentioned above, the instructor mentioned a university study that confirmed the “Zeigarnik Effect.” This is the fact that people tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. So when there are many things on your mind or you have many projects going on at the same time, this impairs your focus because the things you are not doing actually draw your attention more than what you’re doing at the moment.
How can we create more focus?
I’ve struggled at times to stay focused on the task at hand because I have so many other things vying for my attention. That’s why I want to focus on focus this year! I want to improve my ability to stay on task and work more efficiently.
As a first step toward improving my focus, I’ve brainstormed some actions to take and new habits to develop and I’ve begun reading and researching what’s been said about doing so. Here are some of the ideas I came up with or discovered in my preliminary research.
As context, I’m mostly talking about the first level of focus–that is, staying focused on what you’re doing at the moment. In future episodes, we’ll talk more about staying focused in general on what matters once we’ve identified what that is and making space in your life for it by pruning less important things, but these ideas will help with that too.
1. Figure out when you’re naturally more or less focused
Become more self-aware. Track it for a day or two and keep a log. When do you catch yourself working with sustained focus on a project, or easily powering through your to-do list without becoming distracted? Make a note of the time of day, how much sleep you got the night before, what the weather was like, etc. Keep a log of what you were doing, or what you should’ve been doing instead. Observe when you find yourself ignoring your important work projects to check Facebook or watch YouTube videos or something else. See if you can find patterns. Which hours of the day are you most focused? When do you start to lose focus? Then if you can, adjust your work plans accordingly so you can work on the important things when you’re naturally more focused.
2. Cut the clutter that’s overloading your schedule by being more intentional
Be more intentional about what you’re doing and when. The log you keep from the exercise above will help with that. If you generally are good at focusing but can’t seem to stay focused on a particular project or type of project, ask yourself why. Is this something you shouldn’t be doing or something you can delegate?
Also, be more intentional about when you say yes and when you say no. Cut out the clutter in your schedule.
Reject multitasking and practice doing one thing at a time. When you find your mind wandering, notice it and gently bring it back to the matter at hand. Attention is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened, and there are ways to do that.
Meditation, even a few minutes a day, is a good practice for focus. According to the Skillshare webinar I mentioned earlier, studies have shown that regular meditation reduces “perceptual switching,” that is, how often subjects switched attention between two different things.
Meditation is a practice that can help quiet your mind. I’m not talking about it in a religious sense, but rather the practice of sitting still, staying quiet, and focusing on your breathing. It helps us become more comfortable being still and quiet, which is good for our attention-paying muscle.
I use the Headspace app on my iPhone for guided meditations. I’ve also tried the Calm app. There are even podcasts devoted to providing guided meditation exercises, such as Meditation Minis.
4. Take care of yourself
Simple self-care–caring for our bodies as well as our minds–can improve our focus.
Exercise, among its many benefits, reduces cortisol, a stress hormone. When we’re stressed, our bodies are in fight or flight mode so we can’t focus. How can you fit even ten to fifteen minutes of activity into your day?
Getting sufficient sleep can help us focus better. Lack of sleep affects both stress levels and our ability to simply pay attention. What steps can you take to make sure you get adequate amounts of quality sleep most nights? Perhaps start by creating a nighttime ritual to help yourself wind down.
Also, establish a no-screens time at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Get your phone/digital devices off your bedside table and read a paper book for a few minutes instead, to help quiet your mind and your body sleep better.
5. Create structure in your life that will help minimize distractions and improve focus
- Follow rituals that signal it’s time to do a certain type of work. Some writers I know turn on a certain type of music, light a candle, or meditate for a couple of minutes when it’s time to work on their novel.
- Establishing routines that you follow on a daily or weekly basis takes away the need to decide what you should do next, saving your brain power for concentrating on the important things.
- Practice time-blocking and set a certain time aside for certain types of activity. Two benefits of time blocking are that you can make sure you get the important things done and that you can set boundaries around the time spent on less productive activities.
Consider blocking out time for the key activities necessary for productivity:
- Time for “deep” work (requires focused attention): Review your log mentioned above and schedule this when you are at your freshest and most naturally able to focus.
- Time for Administrative work (requires less focus): Schedule work that can be done when you’re typically less focused and maybe more tired.
- Time for Review: Have a regular time to review and process the thoughts and ideas you’ve captured. Your brain will only stop bugging you about them if it knows what you captured will get attention at some point, that you’ll review that list and do something about it.
- Time for Fun: Block out time for the things you do simply because you enjoy it. I like watching YouTube videos about bullet journaling or those on productivity channels, but I can lose hours of time watching one after the other. I need to put boundaries around that activity, so I set aside 30 minutes after lunch or after a work day, or as a reward after a project gets done.
- Use timers to set boundaries around your activities, such as using the Pomodoro technique for focused spurts of work. or timers to limit your social media or game playing.
- Plan ahead. If you know what disrupts your focus and attention, have a strategy in place to counteract them.
Counteracting Internal Distractions
If you get distracted while you’re working by ideas for new projects or remembering other things you need to do, keep a notepad nearby and jot it down or record a quick voice memo to review at the appropriate time.
When your thoughts distract you, another helpful tactic is journaling. Set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes and just write, stream-of-consciousness style, whatever’s on your mind. Get it out there where you can look at it, evaluate it, decide to do something with it or not.
Counteracting External Distractions
- If you get distracted by people coming into your workspace, close the door and put up a sign that says, “Working on key project; please come back when the door’s open,” or go somewhere else to work.
- If phone calls or alerts interrupt you, turn off the phone or at least silence the alerts. Put the phone in another room while you work on focused projects.
- If you get sucked into a social media wormhole when you should be working, try apps like Freedom that let you block access to those sites for a period of time you specify.
- If your phone interrupts time with friends or loved ones, turn it off and put it away.
- Minimize physical distractions
- Keep a clean, organized workspace, both physical and digital. Clear workspace of everything except the essentials for the project you’re working on. Get all those files off your computer desktop into folders and close all the apps except the one(s) you’re using. Delete apps you don’t use. Turn off your alerts. Reduce the distractions that steal your attention and interrupt your work or your leisure.
- If interruptions by coworkers are a problem, talk to them about it. Propose an office-wide practice of “do not disturb” time for focused work so meetings and calls are scheduled for later.
- When you need to focus, find or create a quiet environment. Get rid of the noise so you have fewer sensory inputs. Go somewhere silent or put on calm instrumental music or use [email protected], which offers playlists designed to help you focus.
- Having a playlist for a certain project can help prime your brain for focused work. Designate a playlist for a project and play it only when you work on that. Your brain will kick into that mode when that music plays.
- Try changing the location you work. Find or create a place designated for a certain type of work where you will not be interrupted when you need to focus on a project.
- Remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing. When you decide to do a certain task or take on a certain project, write a couple sentences about why you’re doing it, what you expect to get out of it, and how you expect to feel when you’ve accomplished it. Post it somewhere you can see it and remind yourself when you feel unmotivated. We seldom lose focus when we’re doing something we’re really passionate about, so if we can resurrect that why, it can help us get back to focus.
What do you think?
Are you good at focusing on what you’re doing, or do you struggle to maintain focus? How do you stay focused when you need to? Please share in the comments section of this post or in The Productive Woman community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- Lack of Focus is Killing Your Productivity
- Pay Attention: Because It Impacts Your Productivity
- Focus! Distractions Kill Both Time and Quality
- Skillshare course Productivity today: Managing Attention in the Digital Age
- TPW Episode 80 (Guest: Emily Prokop)
- Freedom app
- [email protected]
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Rachel Abdy says
I love this episode; I decided on two words for my 2018 late last year and Focus was one… Clarity was the other. Great episode!
Laura McClellan says
I’m so glad you liked the episode, Rachel. And I love your 2018 words! How are you planning to implement those words in your life this year?
Rachel Abdy says
Hi Laura, I’ve got them on a post-it on my Today marker in my bullet journal to keep them front and centre, and twice this year so far I have sifted through all my tasks/projects/wishes/lists/note pages using those words to objectively decide a: ditch things off my lists or b: they are worthy to stay 🙂 Thanks for all the great tips in this episode – I particularly love your tip on silence which I find hard to commit to but it’s one of the most fruitful tools I find to support deep project or public speaking planning when I make the time for it.
Deanna Webster King says
Help! I will be working at a busy counter in a high school soon where interruptions are very common. I will have payroll work that requires concentration, but the position seems to require responding to staff members on the phone and in person whenever they call or stop by.
Any advice? I am the newbie.
Laura McClellan says
Hi, Deanna. Congratulations on the new job. It’s definitely challenging when your work requires focus but the environment you work in doesn’t support it. Can you talk to your boss about setting aside certain times of the day to work somewhere quiet for a couple hours, or even just put on some noise-cancelling headphones and put up a friendly “Do not disturb” sign for an hour or two? Explaining that you want to make sure your work on the payroll is as accurate and error free as possible might help your boss understand you’re not just trying to avoid helping staff members.
Mary Jo Pedersen says
Laura McClellan says
Very nice. I need to create something like that to hang in my office. How do you stay focused on what matters?