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.

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