Our ability to purposefully focus on what matters to us plays a key role in creating a more productive and meaningful life.
Strengthening our “focus muscle” can help us prioritize what is most important so we have time for what really matters
In a recent social media post, Mike Vardy, founder of The Productivityist and host of the A Productive Conversation podcast said: “Time management is a misguided concept. It’s not about managing time but about managing what you can command, like your tasks. Don’t waste your time trying to manage the uncontrollable.”
When I read that I thought it was a profoundly wise observation. Although we talk about time management as an element of productivity, time can’t really be “managed”; it simply is. We all have the same amount of time in each day, and nothing we can do will change it.
What we can manage is our use of time. We can manage our energy and we can manage our attention, and by doing so we can make the best use of the time available to us.
Of course, this isn’t to say that it’s easy to do this. In particular, managing our attention–our focus–both in the moment and in the big picture seems to be a challenge for a lot of us. Mike’s comment and some conversations I’ve had recently inspired me to look at the subject of managing and maintaining our focus.
What does it mean to focus?
Oxford Language: noun – “the center of interest or activity” and “the state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition”; verb – “pay particular attention to”
Merriam-Webster: noun – “a center of activity, attraction, or attention” or “directed attention” (I like this, because it implies our ability to control it, to direct it) or “a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding”; verb – “to concentrate attention or effort”
In terms of our discussions about productivity, focus means the ability to direct our attention and energy at any given time toward a particular task or topic or person–toward whatever we want to accomplish at the time.
Why does it matter?
As author David Levitin has written in his fascinating book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, “Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism.”
The inability to focus and pay attention inhibits our ability to accomplish what matters to us and make the contributions we want to–to show up in the world the way we want to. When we succumb to distractions, we don’t get things done–or at least not the things we need or want to do.
Cal Newport, in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, talks about a state of distraction-free concentration that uses all our brain power to focus on a single task and says achieving that state is necessary to produce meaningful work and requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.
A lack of focus can impair our relationships. We can’t develop strong, nurturing relationships if our attention to the interactions is distracted by our phones or social media. Having a lack of focus also diminishes our society at large. As I said back in episode 79,
“It’s difficult to solve complex issues facint our society when we find it difficult to focus long enough to think through those issues carefully. Our collective attention span is too short. . . .”
- Outside — noises, other people’s requests, phone calls, etc. Constant connectivity, the pings and buzzes and popups, the easy hit of dopamine.
“In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be the stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually searching their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks.” ~ neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson in an article from Psychology Today.
- Inside — multiple projects/thoughts on your mind
Short attention spans and lack of respect for others
How many business meetings or social events have you been at with people on their phones, checking emails or social media or texting, which means they’re not giving attention to the speaker or the other people there?
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin says “multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system.” When we multitask, our brain releases cortisol and adrenaline, which can overstimulate the brain, causing confusion or mental fog.
The habit we’ve developed of “Continuous Partial Attention”
This term was coined by tech executive Linda Stone, who worked on emerging technologies at Apple and Microsoft Research in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It describes the modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything. “We’re picking up signals from all over the place, but we’re not concentrating on anything.” (cited in this article in The Atlantic)
When faced with a task that seems difficult or overwhelming, it’s easy to turn our attention to something that seems easier, to get that immediate reward of “accomplishing” something, even if it’s not what we really need or want to do. That’s how we end up being busy but not productive.
How can we focus better?
- Identify what’s interfering with your focus
Carson Tate, in Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, encourages us to become more aware and mindful about cultivating attentiveness and focus. She suggests tracking your distractions for a few days and then evaluating what you find:
- Is there a time of day you’re more easily distracted?
- Is it easier to focus after exercise?
- Are there particular types of activities that are easier to focus on?
- Use the information you get from that awareness to adjust your environment to support focus:
- If you lose focus because you’re hungry, keep energy-rich snacks handy
- Keep a sweater handy if chilly office temps distract you
- Use a supportive music playlist or an app like Focus@Will if area noises are a distraction
- Make sure your chair, desk, etc., are ergonomically sound
- Declutter and clear your workspace
- Develop strategies to deal with–or even avoid–interruptions. Whatever the source, interruptions interfere with our ability to pay attention and focus on accomplishing our work and goals. Some options to avoid these are:
- Establish office hours — either times you’re available or times you’re not available when you need focused attention.
- Make appointments rather than accommodating drop-ins.
- Find another place to work when you need to focus.
- If you can, leave your phone behind and go to a conference room, park, or the library.
- If the issue is avoiding those tasks we need or want to do because of perceived difficulty or overwhelm, find ways to make it easier or less overwhelming:
- Cultivate the skill of breaking projects down into their smallest components
- Give yourself permission to do one small thing, or spend just a few minutes–find the easiest way in–so you can start to create some momentum by enjoying the satisfaction of checking those small things off the list.
- Nurture a new habit of attentiveness – focus is like a muscle that can be strengthened by practice
- Practice single-tasking! And practice times of quiet.
- Create opportunities for undisturbed time spent on things that absorb your attention.
- Try the Pomodoro technique, starting with short (15-20 minute) focus sessions where you stay on task no matter what.
- Instead of popping up to do something that comes to mind, keep a notepad handy to jot a quick reminder, then get back to work.
- Start the day with a mind download–15 minutes or 3 pages of freewriting whatever’s on your mind.
A few final thoughts
The ability to manage our attention–to focus on the “right” things (as we’ve defined them for ourselves)–is key to our ability to make a life that matters. Although our modern way of life has been proven to diminish our collective ability to focus, it’s also a skill that can be developed and improved by cultivating awareness and intentionality. When else have we talked about focus?
- TPW250, Productive Reading: Free to Focus, by Michael Hyatt
- TPW194, 10 (or so) Ways to Stay Focused
- TPW173, Focus (a word for the year)
- TPW79, Staying Focused & Paying Attention
- TPW31, Focus on Building the Life You Want
What do you think?
Do you struggle with focus on the things that matter to you? What have you found that helps? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me
Resources and Links
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by David Levitin
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style by Carson Tate
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