- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Increase Your Ability to Focus

This is the first day in a one-week, free, rapid-learning bootcamp. Every day, for the next seven days, I’m going to be sending a new email with a strategy you can use to learn more effectively.

However, this first email is the only one I’m making publicly available on the blog. What’s more, once the bootcamp is over, there will be no archive of the content, and you have to wait until next year, when I do a new one.

If you’re interested in getting the free bootcamp emails, sign up for the newsletter [1]. If you’re already on my newsletter, you don’t have to do anything to get the emails, you’ll get them automatically.

After the week is over, I’m going to temporarily reopen Learning on Steroids for new students. Learning on Steroids is a program I run with the goal of teaching you new learning skills and changing your studying habits permanently, so you can do better in school, advance in your career and train yourself to be smarter.

I could do a lengthy sales pitch, but that would be boring. Instead, I prefer to give away some of the best ideas from the program, so you can try them out yourself. That way, even if you don’t sign up when the week is over, hopefully you’ll have some new tools you can experiment with.

Now, back to the strategy I mentioned for increasing your focus…

The Book That Changed My Thinking about Productivity

The origin of this idea comes from a book that flipped my thinking about productivity. The book is called The Power of Full Engagement [2], by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. In it, the authors explain why people have difficulty focusing.

The answer, surprisingly, is time management.

No, not poor time management, but the fact that people prioritize managing their time at all. Let me explain.

People often complain that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. That they have too many things to do, and not enough time to complete all of the work. The proposed solution is better time management: organize the hours in your day better and you’ll get more done.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with this advice. But, why then, is it so hard to implement? Why do we incessantly procrastinate and waste time? Why do so many time management attempts burn out after only a few weeks?

The failed idea here, according to Schwartz and Loehr, is that we’re managing the wrong resource. Time isn’t what’s limited in the day (otherwise you wouldn’t waste so much of it) but your energy is. Energy runs out faster than time, which is why it’s easy to procrastinate, even when you have a lot of work to do.

This theory explains personal productivity much better than time management. If time were the limited resource, procrastination wouldn’t be an issue, only scheduling would be. It also explains why many new productivity systems work for a couple weeks and then fail. You can burn your energy reserves intensely for some time before they get used up and you slide back to a lower operating efficiency.

This also explains why focusing is so difficult. Focus requires a lot of energy to be used in a short burst. Learning is tough mental work, just as sprinting is tough physical work. Just as you can only sprint so long before needing to stop, or slow to a light jog, you can only learn intensely for a short period before you start getting distracted.

What Does This Mean for Improving Your Focus?

Well, once again, comparing focusing to sprinting is a good analogy. Nobody can focus indefinitely; you need breaks. You can improve your ability to focus through progressive training. Time spent relaxing isn’t wasteful; it improves your focus long-term, just as resting your legs helps the muscles build after a sprint.

Let’s consider each idea in turn, and then I’ll end with some specific actions for improving your focus both in the short and long-term.

First, just as sprinting non-stop is impossible, sustaining a truly deep focus perpetually is also impossible. You need to take breaks. However, how you take breaks can make a huge difference in your overall efficiency.

Good breaks are short, mentally disengaging and boring. Going for a walk, sitting quietly and drinking a glass of water or even a 15-minute nap are good breaks. Going onto Facebook, checking text messages or watching television are not.

Breaks are not substitutes for time off studying and work. During the MIT Challenge, even when I had to complete a class in as little as five days, I always made sure I never studied on the weekend or evenings. This wasn’t to preserve life balance, but out of necessity. Had I not allowed myself large chunks of time away from studying (not just procrastinating, but genuine, guilt-free relaxation) I would have burned myself out by the first month.

Improve Focus through Progressive Training

Second, focus can be improved through progressive training. That means your current ability to focus can be built up, in the same way that a bodybuilder gets bigger biceps.

When I was learning Chinese, I would often study for around 4-5 hours straight, without breaks. That’s not something I would advise, because the studying session would quickly devolve into a haze of distractions for most people.

But I haven’t always been able to focus like this. It’s something trained through years of practice. I started with a lot more procrastination and distraction, and I pushed myself to focus harder through tackling progressively harder increments.

A good starting point is doing twenty minutes of hard focus. The Pomodoro technique, is a good starting point: set a timer for twenty minutes and commit to working for only that length of time. Afterwards, take a short break and relax a bit before attempting another one.

To improve your focus, you can try adding more “weight”. Pick tasks of harder mental difficulty, which require increased focus to succeed. Alternatively, you can slightly increase the amount of time you’ll need to focus for: go for 25 minutes instead of 20.

There is a limit to focus, just as there’s a limit to muscular growth, that may differ for each person. I don’t believe the goal is to sustain 12-hour studying sessions without breaks. Depending on the type of learning involved, studying four hours a day, divided into 20-minute chunks with 10-minute rest periods, may be the optimum for you. Particularly if the quality of focus is quite high.

However, if you currently feel your ability to focus is underdeveloped, it can be improved through training, in exactly this method.

Rest is Just as Important as Focus

Finally, time spent not focusing is equally important as time spent focusing. Muscles need downtime in order to repair and grow stronger. Your mind needs downtime too, in order to maintain high quality focus for the next day.

If you’re studying full-time, I recommend establishing a policy of not doing any studying on one weekend day and on evenings, after a certain hour. If you’re juggling a job and learning, I recommend picking specific hours to learn, in advance, and don’t study outside of them. Many people I’ve spoken with have found early morning most efficient, since they’re not exhausted from the day’s work yet.

Learning, when done well, is like a series of sprints, not a marathon. That means you have bursts of focus, followed by periods of rest. Both are essential.

Take Action!

Okay, so you understand the idea, now it’s time to actually take action on it.

In this bootcamp, as in Learning on Steroids, I’m not going to just give you ideas. I’m going to give you specific homework to start making use of it. If you don’t take action immediately on this idea, then it won’t result in behavior change. No behavior change, no results.

I’ll keep it real simple, so you’ll have no excuse not to try it:

For right now…

Open your calendar or scheduler and write down exactly which hours you’ll use for studying in the next day. Don’t be ambitious. Pick an amount that makes you slightly anxious you might not get all of your work done. If you don’t feel that anxiety, you’re trying to do too much.

Example 1: I’m a law student, with a lot of reading. I’ve picked 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm to work on it tomorrow. Outside of that time tomorrow, I can’t pick up the textbook.

Example 2: I’m working full-time and preparing for professional exam. I’ve decided to wake up an hour earlier and put in 60 minutes of studying in the morning and another 30 minutes during my lunch break. No studying after work finishes.

Example 3: I’m studying Japanese at home. I’ve decided to put in 4pm-7pm to spend on active studying of the kanji. Outside of that time, I can do passive learning (watching television, socializing in Japanese), but no studying.

For the next time you work…

Begin your working time with a Pomodoro. That means set a timer for twenty minutes and focus exclusively for that time, followed by a mandatory break. When you take a break, take a helpful one: drink a glass of water, sit quietly, go for a walk, do some pushups, meditate, take a short nap. Don’t watch television, use your phone or go on reddit.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about how you should be investing these structured periods of focus in order to learn far more effectively. That way, even if you’re studying half as much, you can still learn more than you do right now.

As mentioned, this was the first in a series of seven free lessons designed to help you learn more efficiently and effectively. If you want to get the rest, you have to join the newsletter [1].