How to Focus

I spoke at an event recently about learning and my MIT Challenge. The talk was about which memory and insight-building methods I found useful during my experiment.

After the talk, one of the audience members came and asked me whether I felt the success of the project was mostly due to efficient learning methods or hard work.

This reminded me of the first weeks of the challenge. This was when I was still worried that the project may be impossible to complete, so I put in a lot of effort. I wanted to go somewhat faster than scheduled, to give me a bit of slack as I moved to harder courses. Mostly I wanted to convince myself that the project was doable at all.

The schedule I adopted was pretty simple: wake up at six, work until six. I usually took two twenty minute breaks plus a twenty minute break for lunch. In total, around eleven hours of work each day, six days per week, for the first three months (I slowly eased back on the schedule for the following nine).

My goal would be to finish the lectures of a class in 2-3 days. A class usually had 35 hours worth of lecture content, so this meant watching about 18 hours in one day. You can squeeze that into 11 if you play it back at 1.5-2x the speed.

Reflecting on this, I wagered it was mostly hard work.

Focus is Paramount

The difficulty isn’t putting in the time. Anyone can force themselves to sit in a library and study all day. The hard part is sustaining focus.

Focus matters more than time spent. Most tasks can be completed in a fraction of their normal time with complete focus. This is especially true for learning whereby the most efficient methods also tend to be the most mentally taxing.

Focus matters more than raw effort. The sun can’t burn paper without a lens to focus its rays. Similarly, you can burn yourself out working on a project, but if that effort isn’t focused, you won’t make tremendous progress.

I don’t think I need to preach this point. When I’ve asked readers what their biggest obstacle to learning is, the number one answer is always focus. Focus is essential, but it is also incredibly hard to do.

Learning to Focus from Meditation

Focus is difficult, but it can be learned. I don’t think I could have completed the MIT Challenge, if I hadn’t learned the skill of focusing. Some may find it easier than others, like all things, but I believe anyone can get better at focusing through practice.

I became convinced that focus was learnable when I first studied meditation. I’m far from an expert meditator, but what I gleaned from my early practice attempts years ago, was that focus can be trained.

Many forms of meditation are based on the idea of mental focus. Some have you focus on a particular sound or concept to quiet your mind. Others have you focus on intense visualization which, with practice, can push you into a semi-dreamlike state as you force out the sensory input of the outside world.

I don’t meditate much these days, although I have nothing against the practice. But I do believe being introduced to meditation gave me the conceptual tools for training focus in other areas of my life.

For anyone who is interested in improving focus, I’d try doing a bit of basic research on meditation. Transcendental seems to be quite popular, but I haven’t personally tried it so I can’t vouch for it. When I started I just picked a few random books from the library and tried out a couple methods for free.

I don’t think it’s the meditation itself which helps with focus. Meditation is an inwardly-focused activity which is very different from the outwardly-focused tasks most people want to be able to focus on. But learning a couple breathing techniques and methods for focusing inwardly, they give you a sense of what is required for focusing in your work.

Practicing Focus

The first feeling I had when starting to meditate was how boring it was. Sitting awake, eyes-closed in a quiet room, I felt intensely restless. I wanted to get up and doing something and my mind felt like an uncontrollable flow of thoughts, constantly jumping from topic to topic.

They teach you when meditating to ignore this feeling. Not to suppress thoughts, but to just let them float by without jumping on them. Eventually, you get into the desired meditative state, which depends on the style of meditation you’re trying to practice.

I think this is strongly analogous to focus in your work. When you’re sitting to work on a particular project, you feel restless. You want to check something on Facebook, read a blog article, check your email or listen to music.

Following the same analogy, however, I think you can continue a meditative state of work by learning, not to suppress those feelings, but just to ignore them. Eventually you can cultivate mental stillness and allow yourself to focus on what you need to work on.

A difference between meditation and focus, however, is mental engagement. I usually find meditation to be relaxing, but focus is draining. Practicing focus is more like a mixture between meditating and endurance running.

Mastering Focus

The unfortunate part is that the only way to get good at this is through practice. Just like strengthening a muscle, focus can only be improved by doing it more.

The two methods I’ve found helpful for practicing focus are cutting distractions and setting up time blocks.

Eliminating distractions is the most obvious way to improve focus. When I’m preparing to write an article, I’ll often sit in a chair with a blank document for 30-45 minutes as I think through possible ideas to write about. No music, no internet, no phone.

The best way you can help your focus training efforts is to purposefully eliminate all distractions. This way the only enemy you need to combat is the distractions of your own mind. Meditative techniques can help a lot with those.

The next strategy I’ve found effective is to clearly delineate chunks of time for focus. The problem many people have with focus is that they don’t establish which times are focus times and which are not. By setting up a particular set of hours in the day where you don’t allow interruptions or distractions, you can get a lot more done.

All training should be progressive, so note how long you can sustain your focus, record it and then aim to slowly improve on it. If you can only hold your focus on reading a book for twenty minutes, that’s fine. Try to go for twenty-five next time.

Limits to Focus

I don’t believe a person’s ability to focus is perfectly mutable. You’ll still need breaks and you’ll still need succumb to distractions. That doesn’t negate the utility of practice, just in the way that the human body puts limitations on maximum strength doesn’t mean you can’t get stronger by lifting weights.

I believe the real value of focus is that you save time. Learning to focus means you need less time to get the same work done. Although my MIT experiment was difficult, I point out that I still had every evening off and I always had one day per week where I didn’t do any work. Focus may be difficult, but I believe it is far more liberating than the alternative.

  • dag

    Focus may be the main reason whereby we learn faster, but there’s also a big problem with it. I find focus highly forgettable. I mean, if you are focused on a particular task and you let time go by before tackling another one similar, a big percentage of your concentration dissapears, so you must relearn it. That is what I hate more, because you must ‘waste’ time on it. Is there any means to prevent it?

  • Roy

    I’m very grateful after reading this article because you have taught how to take focus on every aspect in order to get a real success in the life. You have taught us with the important things on how to practice focusing to look for the good solution for resolving our problem whatever. This is very good lesson for us and thanks a lot for sharing this article.

    Great thanks,
    Roy

  • Niko

    Being able to put in effective 11 hours of studying day after day is astonishing. Sometimes when I have had free a saturday or sunday without any commitments or family present, I have worked or studied. Usually I have managed to put in some effective 5-6 hours of good focused working and had good progress (but still a couple of hours for breaks – doing household chores is a good way to give mind a rest). This is definitely better than a usual day at work where there is so much distractions. But 11 hours…my brains would not take it.

    At home one great trick avoiding distractions has been a simple rule: when I work/study at my desk with the laptop, no internet surfing, email etc allowed. If I want to do it, I can – but I have to take the laptop to the other room. Works well both ways in distuingishing between work and fun.

  • Ilham

    Hey Scott,

    Thanks for the article, it was published at the right time or myself. I always felt focus and hard work were more important than learning techniques, but some how I succumbed to expert opinions on techniques for learning being better. I should get back to the basics I think.

    Dag,

    I can’t say that I understood your full question, but from what I got I would like to add my own thoughts. When it comes to focus, I believe it is also important to put time limits to your tasks.
    Tell yourself that you have one hour to complete a task. Then after the hour is done, if your not finished that is fine, take a break (5-10 minutes) and come back to it. In this way your honing your focus to a certain point, and forcing yourself to finish on time. *NB: The times I gave are guides, adapt to your own circumstances.

  • Navaneet

    @dag Focusing is not a task like learning to drive a car. Once you learn to drive a car, you can drive in auto-pilot way (without that much focus). But focusing itself is not like. You have to tame your mind for that. So it’s not very easy. But once your mind is tamed, you’ll naturally have a focused mind or you’ll be able to focus easily. There is no much of any short-cut methods.

    “The unfortunate part is that the only way to get good at this is through practice. Just like strengthening a muscle, focus can only be improved by doing it more.”

    @scott: This is a very nice article.
    I do like to point out a spelling/typing mistake here:
    “…but if that effort isn’t focused, you won’t “may” (make?) tremendous progress…”

    Thank You.

  • Jefferson Leandro

    Great article Scott !

    It’s not hard to figure out that your ability to stay in focus in whichever you are doing dictated all the rules during your self-improvement process along all the years you’ve mantained this blog.

    My biggest problem is that I have to accomplish a bunch of tasks in my daily routine, and sometimes, this tasks is far different among them, in terms of mental work (e.g. studying programming is very different from studying a foreign language)

    Then, changing from one task to another is what makes me feel exhausted. If I wake up in morning and start studying a foreign language, it will be hard for me to switch to studying math or exercising. It usually turns out in concentration loss, and the quality of my work decreases.

    It would be great if you had some insights over this problem !

  • dag

    Hi and thanks, Ilham.

    I’ll build up my comment a bit more. From my experience, when I tried to focus on things namely studying a degree, learning a second language and starting at the gym, I developed a routine which enabled me to be focused on those activities.

    However, two months ago I moved to another country, so I had to suddenly stop doing those things. Now I want to build my routine again, I find it very difficult because I must learn again how to be focused on studying languages and doing sport. I learned to be focused on those things time ago, but after stopping doing them for a while my mind forgot how to be focused on them.

    I think I am somehow ‘wasting’ time in learning something I have already learned, because the ultimate goal is not learning how to be focused on things, but to do things in and of themselves.

  • copycaT

    Ilham,

    While I agree with you on most things, you’re forgetting about the fact that focus is (just like every other multi-genetic trait, such as intelligence) trainable only to a certain extent. I would in no way compare it with strength training in the gym – muscle phsyiology is well-understood and pretty straightforward while the way our brains work….not so much 🙂

  • John

    Hi Scott,

    I liked your post. I think it serves as a good guideline for the average students trying to improve his focus.

    BUT if you want to learn more from the Usain Bolt of FOCUS I would strongly recommend checking out http://www.neuro-sculpting.com…. The creator is T. Lavon Lawrence. The man is the master of brain training. His method has NOTHING to do with meditation.

    He has TONS of amazing content in this website. I just want to warn you that his content is for very high-level focus development (ex:focus easily for 3 hrs at a intensity of 10 out of 10)

    If your looking for the next level in terms of focus development this guy is the wrong guy. If you are looking for 10 levels higher than you are now than YOU MUST SEE HIS CONTENT.

  • John

    I found a program that helps me focus very easily. I am able to focus for hours at a time and I feel very engaged the whole time. They say that I am in a flow state. I sometimes even forget to eat a meal until I am really hungry because I am so focused on what I am doing.

    http://thesuperhumanproject.co

  • Sam

    Wonderful post.

  • GT

    Definitely spot on with how paramount focus is.
    I can’t focus well when I try to study – what makes me focus is either:
    1) the exam I’m studying for is imminent, so my mind focuses out of panic, and that becomes my motivation, or,
    2) I’ve already invested quite some time into solving some problem but can’t get it right – let’s say some coding problem, and I don’t feel good until I solve it.

    At some point in both of these scenarios, I might reach “state”/”flow” whatever you call it.

    But what you refer to focus might also be termed as the ability to concentrate on the task at hand during deliberate practice – something that is hard and not immediately rewarding. Reading over material for the first time and making no sense of it. Knowing that even if you drew conceptual mind maps and took good notes over and over, it wouldn’t “click” for another hour or two. That’s when focus is so easily lost, because its emotionally unbearable, and you question why you are even doing this. Suddenly, FacebookYoutubeReddit & co. become so, so much more appealing as a form of temporary escape from burden and ego damage.

    Another point on focus is that I was driving today and listening to The Economist, audio edition in my car. I was stopped at a red light, and when I tried to listen to every word and make sense of what was being said, I couldn’t. Was I supposed to form visual imagery based on the words? Was I supposed to just breathe and let the words come into my brain? Was I supposed to hang on every word?

    This is a problem for me in terms of focus, because the same thing happens when I try to listen to other people talking as well.

  • cicy

    Hi,

    Most of the time, I find it is easier for me to learn chemistry, computer science and whatever I am interested in. But I get easily distracted when I study my major, biology. Though I love it, I have to recite so many things which make me feel boring.

    What if when you have some important events happen in your life? Like I have to think about renting a new apartment and find a new roommate these days, while I have to prepare for the final exam… Such things really bother me a lot especially I have to deal with my current roommate who is hard to “fight” with.

  • MCC

    Nice post, personally I just take some Adderall when I need to focus but this works too.

    I guess there are benefits to being ADD

  • Rohan

    Thanks bro.

  • Dwayne On Inspirational Quotes

    Solid read! I have up a lot on focus and from what I can gather it is something that is practiced and mastered over time. Kinda like a muscle it needs to be worked, created and stretched.

    I’m like you, when I sit down to do work I turn everything off and give myself a solid hour. (lots of studies have shown concentration drops 20% between the 50min and 60min mark, and I would agree)

    But eventually my focus drops and I feel it. Usually after 9hrs of working.

  • Jez

    Well said. I wish more people would “get it” that focus is basically what life is about. It’s when people lack focus that they drift and when they fine-tune focus tightly, they live wonderful lives.

  • Peter

    Love this article Scott. The value of this subject to me made it easy to focus on it. Thanks a lot!

  • Peter

    I totally agree, there are many spill over benefits from learning meditation among these a sharper mind, which is invaluable. For example, some time ago I wrote about mindful language learning.

  • Scott Young

    copycaT,

    I make a point in the article that some people will learn focus better than others, as well as the imperfect mutability of focus, so the point was not forgotten at all. The analogy between muscular development and focus is an imperfect one, but I believe it holds merit in the way that I described (progressive training being effective).

    -Scott

  • Nahyan

    Thanks for the great article Scott.

    Immediately after reading I re-visiting an old tactic to work off a desktop stopwatch to schedule “focus zone” time. Remain single-focused on one task. Gonna do more of that.

    -Nahyan

  • Raindrop11

    You could also force yourself to focus when talking to others

  • VamosArnold

    Great article! I’m going to a Vipassana meditation retreat at summer, I will improve my focus a lot in those 10 days.

  • MichaelK

    Focusing for 11 hours with three 20 minute breaks – this sounds like a science fiction.

    When I sit through a technical lecture at a university, I’m having a hard time to stay focused for more than 30 minutes. Even when there’s no distractions. Even when the professor is good. Even if the material is interesting. Even if I’m fresh after a good sleep, and if I ate good food (no energy boosters). After 30 minutes, my focus drops somewhat, and I will probably need a few minutes to get it back, but it will be harder. After another 30 minutes of the lecture, I’m pretty much done, I’ve expended too much of my mental energy, and I need a break. Then, after 15 minutes break I typically regain 80% of my energy back, so I can sit through another lecture of the same duration (75min), but at the end of the second lecture I will be pretty tired. A third lecture after 15 min break would be a waste of my time – I would need a significantly longer break (e.g. 1 hour lunch) in order to regain enough strength to maintain my original focus throughout the third lecture.

    I mean I can push myself to do more, but my productivity would be miserable. Perhaps someone (like Scott) is different, just like someone is a naturally better runner than me.

    I use Pomodoro technique, and I believe it’s a more realistic and effective schedule for people like me (25 min of focus, 5 min break, repeat 3 times and take 20 min break, repeat 2-3 times and call it a day).

  • bunyon

    sigh not even meditation could help me to learn python scripting……sadly I have to go all out…

  • Jack

    I think learning to focus is something that could be mastered, but can be challenging since it requires alot of self discipline, self modivation and will power to be able to see the possible results. However it is possible to train your mind to do that. After reading Scott H Youngs blog on How To Focus i soon realized that this involves relaxing the mind. He has also recommended meditation the idea of improving mental focus.

    I also believe meditation helps to get rid of what you are constantly thinking about to get rid of distracting thoughts. And to be able to give your own personal time to yourself to appreciate every moment, to relax the mind, and free yourself from being the slave.

    We could possibly eliminate room distractions, but also our mind distractions which can be hard to defeat.

    If you want to save time when doing a task requires alot of scheduling skills, so you will not fall in a time lapse or either be left behind which causes more stress, distractions and no modivation. The task will require more effort. And the guilt will be going through the hard ships. This would not happen if you think and go back, if you would try to do that one thing differently, and later regret that thought.

    The idea behind this is to be devoted to your self, try to eliminate the distraction from yourself. If you are soloing a task which is done all by your self, than focus on your self. The experience would be better compared to working in a group, a party of 6 people including you. Where you could only get 16.67% exp. The percentage is not really an estimate. But realize the time it could take for you to get the task done as a group it would be slow, depending on who you are working with. Do not forget that different people learn at different rates, and if it is with six people often there are distractions, and if it is with your friends they might talk about some other topic that it unrelated to your task. Therefore the learning experience might not be there because you copy, there going to faster or either distracted.

    I think some people choose group study and some do not so it depends on you. Group study could be very effective for your needs on a task, it could be possibly done faster with team work.

    If you are doing a task for school, you could get help from a tutor you get 50% each. If the tutor could possibly follow your schedule, and with your scheduling where both members in this party will benefit 50% of experience. But having a tutor is quite good since the work can be done faster but at a 50% rate depending on how much help you get yourself or on the work done which is not focused on you.

    Using a check-list, would also help you focus on getting the task done just by ticking off every task you complete.

    Keep a time log, by writing the start and the stop time of each activity you do.

    Have a calender and plan your days ahead. You could make your own time table/time schedule and find the right time for studying when your most productive. But this blog is about focus what if your schedule does not go to plan, is it still possible for you to focus on a task without the necessary training, probably not.

    With mastering the skills of focusing with meditation helps you to focus on a task like a formula one level that is if your an expert. Learning the skills of focusing and scheduling can be hard at the beginning but gets easier later on when your trained. With being trained in the mind and getting the task done quickly will save alot of time.

    The rewarding part about the whole entire process is being able to keep information and appreciate it. My idea is collecting statistical information, but first i collect the information myself on how many hours i study for a week and have a years total of studying. But with using data on the computer i would be interested in seeing a progress so i would like to see a progress graph which represents how productive you’ve been, and time graph to see how much time you have used. That is why i mentioned the idea behind keeping a time log where you write down the start and stop time of each activity you do, and don’t forget to add the date in. I think by doing this all manually at first, think of this as a manual car you will to put this effort in when changing the gears do not forget that this is helping it to drive faster compared to an automatic car.

    But later entering the data in your computer that you’ve previously collected, i think we tend not to do this since it is time consuming but unecessary but this is part of self-motivating that we are avoiding, this does not apply to everyone else, but would work for me. Entering the data of the information in a computer program, not sure but i think all the effort would pay off simply by writing down the start and the stop time of each activity. By using your for all this, helps to improve your focus at a better rate. Make sure to have a study room, where it is a study room. Have no other things in that room that are unrelated.

    The information here is timeless, we all realise that the ticking time is limited and we are all living the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years of our lives.

  • PB

    Nice article Scott! I have a question, how to assess our own capacity? Does human mind has limitless capabilities? How can we turn impossible in to possible by Focus?

  • Daniel

    I’ve been telling people to meditate forever. It really does help a lot! I’ve been practicing Zen for years and I can basically push most thoughts out of my head when I want, and focus on my objective. Very very helpful. Thanks Scott!

  • Paint

    Hi Scott,

    This post really struck a chord with me, thanks so much!
    Your ability for focus is impressive–11 hours a day!
    I was wondering, though, how do you manage with the more trivial aspects of life in those heavily focused days… Do you prepare meals in advance? Do you stay at home? Skip exercise? I’m just curious.
    Thanks a lot and keep inspiring us.

  • Scott Young

    MichaelK,

    This isn’t meant to say that such focusing sessions are ideal. In my case, they were necessary, but most of the time they aren’t. My hopes with the article was to convey that improving focus is possible.

    -Scott

  • Karen

    Nice artlcle. I would like also your thoughts on how to get thru the business day with 250+ emails coming at you daily with half of them requesting immediate responses/meeting requests/changes to meeting times, etc. I am so sick of these emails, and nowadays, no one talks, calls or put in face time. It is all tapping on the keyboard and if you miss reading a note that does need an urgent/important reply, it is presumably your fault for not reading it or getting to it in time.

  • jane

    ive read this at a point in life were focusing was becoming really challanging 2 me. but i thank you for the article its given me a way foward and i hop il not have the sam problem next year same day.

    im greatful scott.

  • Max

    Wow! I like this article of ‘HOW TO FOCUS’ why? it’s because I have got new things that I almost need in my life. truly speaking, we to focus if we to get something in our life.

    Thank you very much

  • There is a perpetually free class on Coursera called Learning How To Learn. It introduced me to the idea of setting a timer for 25 minutes, focusing intently at the task at hand with all distractions eliminated, then taking a short break at the end. I have recently started a project with many similarities to the MIT Challenge, though not as ambitious as I have to balance a full time job, and have found it extremely helpful. The key is turning off every device or page that could possibly send an alert or other type of Ping.

    That course is where I first heard of Scott by the way.

  • Danny Turner

    There is a perpetually free class on Coursera called Learning How To Learn. It introduced me to the idea of setting a timer for 25 minutes, focusing intently at the task at hand with all distractions eliminated, then taking a short break at the end. I have recently started a project with many similarities to the MIT Challenge, though not as ambitious as I have to balance a full time job, and have found it extremely helpful. The key is turning off every device or page that could possibly send an alert or other type of Ping.

    That course is where I first heard of Scott by the way.

  • Dan

    The free course “Learning How to Learn” is very helpful in this regard. https://www.coursera.org

  • Dan

    The free course “Learning How to Learn” is very helpful in this regard. https://www.coursera.org

  • I’m a freelance editor of books and posts and such, which means I manage my own time. Focus = essential, and fair, if you charge clients by the hour as I have started to do.

    On a related note, I keep hearing about the benefits of meditation. Maybe I’ll crack soon and try it steadily for a week, rather than for five minutes every six months or so—my current routine. Haha!

  • Lauren I. Ruiz

    I’m a freelance editor of books and posts and such, which means I manage my own time. Focus = essential, and fair, if you charge clients by the hour as I have started to do.

    On a related note, I keep hearing about the benefits of meditation. Maybe I’ll crack soon and try it steadily for a week, rather than for five minutes every six months or so—my current routine. Haha!

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