Learning to Focus

Source: Scott Young website, Sep 2016

There’s two ways to approach improving your ability to focus.

One is what I call the “outside view”.

This is to try to improve your focus by constraining your environment. Eliminate distractions, turn off the phone, block the internet with apps like LeechBlock or better yet, don’t use a computer at all.

Another example of an “outside” strategy is the Pomodoro Technique. That’s where you decide to only focus for twenty minutes before taking a break, and you set a timer to tell you when to stop. The timer forms a constraint on your environment, so it’s easier to commit to focusing.

The “inside view” isn’t focused on changing your environment or external constraints.

Instead it’s about paying attention to the subtle conversation you hold in your head while you’re focusing. By paying attention to this, and changing the script, you can extract more focus from your limited time.

Recognize that getting distracted is normal, and instead of getting mad at yourself, just allow your focus to drift back to what you’re doing.

Stage 1: Drift back your focus naturally, no pressure to get work done

The first impulse I get to quit, I just remind myself what I’m doing and lazily return my focus back to the task. How you treat yourself here is important. If you chastise yourself or get angry, like a boss yelling at his employee to quit daydreaming, you’ll only exacerbate the frustrated or guilty feeling you have for not working hard.

On the other hand, if you treat your attention like a lost child who gently needs to be guided back to the task at hand, you’ll feel much better and focus can resume shortly.

Stage 2: Negotiate a future break

Sometimes the gentle prodding isn’t enough. Your mind keeps flitting away from what you’re doing and you can’t help but get frustrated.

Here, what you can do is negotiate a future break with yourself. Glance at a clock or timer and tell yourself that if you’re still unable to focus and it’s after some period of time in the future (say 5-10 minutes), you’ll allow yourself a short break. This can often reduce the feeling of being trapped in this semi-frustrated, distracted state of mind.

Stage 3: Take a smart break

Very often, ten minutes will pass and you’ll be back in the flow of working and you won’t need the break right at that moment.

But, if the time does pass and you still find yourself itching to quit, a good solution is to take a “smart” break. Smart breaks are activities that are relaxing, but unlikely to suck you into themselves. Going on the internet isn’t a smart break, because it’s very easy to get pulled in and find it hard to switch back to work when you need to.

Good smart break ideas include: going for a short walk, getting a glass of water, sitting with your eyes closed or doing pushups.

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