Lesson #1: An Unusual Approach to Improve Your Ability to Focus

Note: This is the first lesson in a multi-part series for learning faster. The other lessons will only be sent out to newsletter subscribers, so if you’d like to get the other lessons as they appear, be sure to subscribe here.

There are a few core skills that, if you can improve them, can multiply your efforts in almost everything else you do.

Not all skills are like this. Being able to play the flute might be nice, but it isn’t going to help much with helping you lose weight or getting a promotion.

Core skills, like goal-setting, being organized or communicating well, can have enormous spillovers. When you get a little better at that one skill it can be applied to many different areas of life.

Being able to focus is one of these core skills. In this email, I’m going to share an unusual way of thinking about focus that can help you get better at it.

Should You Take an Outside or Inside View?

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.

These strategies are all work. But they’re also probably the advice you’ve heard thousands of times before, so I wanted to share an alternative set of focusing tactics you may not have tried. These work in conjunction with “outside” strategies, so the best approach is to use both.

What are “Inside View” Tactics?

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.

This approach is very similar to what Buddhist monks often use when meditating. Meditation is a mental state very similar to focusing, however the object of focus usually isn’t a task, but your breathing, thoughts or consciousness.

One of the challenges of meditation is constantly being distracted by your own thoughts or impulses. It can feel almost like an itchy feeling where you constantly want to divert your attention onto some stream of thinking, worry or daydream.

This feeling, unsurprisingly, is very similar to what it feels like to be distracted when trying to focus on work. Although, occasionally, the impulse to move away from task at hand is caused by the environment—a ringing phone, a car siren in the distance—more often the distraction comes from within. It’s our own itchy feeling to escape whatever we’re doing and check Facebook, text a friend or pop open our email that pulls us away.

This problem also explains why, for many people, they can’t focus even when they pick a distraction-free work environment. Because the distractions are coming from inside your mind.

Tools for Combatting the Mental Itch to Distract Yourself

The first step to solving a problem is to properly understand it. So what actually happens, inside your head, when you lose focus?

If you’re anything like me, usually your focus slips without you realizing it. You notice your eyes have been moving but you haven’t actually been paying attention to the book you’re reading. You start thinking about some other issue in your life and realize you’re not actually working.

At some point, sometimes only a few seconds into your distraction, you catch yourself being distracted. This often comes with a wave of guilt over feeling like you should be working hard, but you’re not. Other times, the object of the distraction itself, seems to immediately demand you take action—“I should really check if so-and-so messaged me…”

I’ve often found, when you catch your attention slipping, there is a strong urge to stop with the task you’re focused on. You may feel guilty or frustrated. This may spin into a feeling that now isn’t the best time to work, that you really need a break or that it isn’t worth working on anyways.

How do you overcome this urge?

I’ve found that one of the best strategies is to copy what meditators do. 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.

It sounds simple, but amazingly, it often works quite well. By expecting that you’re going to get distracted, and simply allowing yourself to drift your focus back, you can often break the spell of a momentary distraction.

But what if that still doesn’t work, and twenty seconds later, you’re still itching to quit?

I’ve found there’s a good multi-stage self-talk habit I’ve created which helps me deal with it.

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.

Summary

Training your ability to focus isn’t easy. However, sometimes just applying outside-view tactics isn’t enough because they don’t tackle the real problem—distractions coming from inside your own mind.

Making yourself feel guilty or frustrated often only make things worse. Better is to gently guide your mind back on task. If that still doesn’t work, negotiate a future break time. If the time elapses and you still can’t focus, take a smart break, rather than one prone to distraction.

Above all, practice this skill. New meditators can only sustain the posture for several minutes, while experienced practitioners can meditate for many hours at a time. So it is with focusing, you need to build your ability over time. If you try these methods and can’t go very long yet, don’t worry. With more practice you can stretch it longer and longer.

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That’s it for today’s lesson.

Next lesson, I’m going to share the two most effective learning strategies, as found by a comprehensive meta-analysis of various learning techniques. Stay tuned! (Want to get the next lessons? I won’t be sharing them here, you’ll need to join the free newsletter to receive them)

  • Anders Baumann

    Hi Scott.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

    I am a computer programmer. I meditate on a daily basis and I use the Pomodoro technique for focused work. Your suggestions about the three stages are good. I have an additional technique that helps me stay focused and keeps my mind calm: During the 25 minutes Pomodoro every time I have an urge to do something else I write it down on a piece of paper next to me. For instance, “check email”, “check facebook” etc. This way I not only recognize the urge but I also tell my mind that the thing will not be forgotten. This technique calms me down and it lets me get back to the actual work. After the Pomodoro is finished I go through the list.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Anders Baumann

    Hi Scott.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

    I am a computer programmer. I meditate on a daily basis and I use the Pomodoro technique for focused work. Your suggestions about the three stages are good. I have an additional technique that helps me stay focused and keeps my mind calm: During the 25 minutes Pomodoro every time I have an urge to do something else I write it down on a piece of paper next to me. For instance, “check email”, “check facebook” etc. This way I not only recognize the urge but I also tell my mind that the thing will not be forgotten. This technique calms me down and it lets me get back to the actual work. After the Pomodoro is finished I go through the list.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Patty Brogan

    Hey, it works! Thanks! The meditation connection is very clever.

    Also, would you consider writing something about goal setting as a learned skill? I’m intrigued by the concept. I’d have to say that goal-setting is not something I’m good at. In fact, just setting a goal seems to bring out the worst in my character. I bite off more than I can chew, I procrastinate, I despair, I make elaborate plans for working instead of just working, I become a terrible perfectionist, I question the value of the goal, I question the whole premise of goal having. I drive myself crazy. It’s not an efficient process.

    Anyway, I’d love to learn more.

  • Patty Brogan

    Hey, it works! Thanks! The meditation connection is very clever.

    Also, would you consider writing something about goal setting as a learned skill? I’m intrigued by the concept. I’d have to say that goal-setting is not something I’m good at. In fact, just setting a goal seems to bring out the worst in my character. I bite off more than I can chew, I procrastinate, I despair, I make elaborate plans for working instead of just working, I become a terrible perfectionist, I question the value of the goal, I question the whole premise of goal having. I drive myself crazy. It’s not an efficient process.

    Anyway, I’d love to learn more.

  • Pat

    Hi Scott. Thank you for this post. Can you explain how to create feedback in process of training focus? In your post about learning drawing, you created feedback by comparing your drawings with pictures. But here I don’t see anything like it.

  • Pat

    Hi Scott. Thank you for this post. Can you explain how to create feedback in process of training focus? In your post about learning drawing, you created feedback by comparing your drawings with pictures. But here I don’t see anything like it.

  • Scott

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  • Scott

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  • Mark

    If one finds this article just now, there’s no way to get the other parts?

  • Well, I am already good in focusing.. 🙂

  • Yes Anders, it’s a very good technique, I do the same.
    What I also do is that whenever my mind interrupts me, I take a pause and say to my distraction, “you are very naughty. Please let me do this work in hand, and then we will do whatever you say”. This really helps.. 🙂

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