Focus is one of your most valuable resources. It acts as a multiplier on the value of your time. An hour of absorbing focus can be worth ten times that of a distracted one.
Unfortunately, focus is also hard. Distractions are everywhere. Even when they aren’t, it can often be difficult to get into a state of flow.
The good news is that focus is a capacity you can develop. If you’re not good at focusing now, you can make changes to improve your ability to focus. Like lifting weights at the gym, you’re training your mental muscles to be able to focus longer, more intensely and engage it more quickly to make use of shorter bursts of time.
There’s a lot of different changes you can make to improve your capacity to focus, and I’ve written about some of them previously. However, in this article, I wanted to compile them all together, so anyone looking to improve their focus could get the best results.
The key to cultivating focus has two parts: external and internal. External means changing your environment to make focus easier and more productive. Internal means changing your habits, behavior and thought patterns to increase focus.
You can improve your ability to focus by tackling any one of these parts separately. But for the biggest gains, you should look at all of them simultaneously. You may even want to consider a “Month of Focus” where you go through and try to optimize each of these so you can focus better than before.
Emotions play an important role in focus, perhaps a bigger one than is commonly suspected. One mistake to make is to get overly discouraged when you’re distracted, tired or otherwise can’t focus. The road to improvement has many dips and bumps, so it’s important to not let short-term failures cloud your overall drive to improve.
In this guide, I’m going to cover seven different angles you can approach the problem of focus, along with a systematic guide for improving each of them:
Even if you’ve tried one or two of these before, I suggest applying the full range. Every situation is unique, so for some people there problem might be porous boundaries causing unending distractions, for another it’s managing internal impulses that makes focus so much harder.
1. Eliminating Distractions
Distractions are the most obvious problem when it comes to focus, and they are often the easiest to fix. In particular, you want to find an environment for focus that minimizes both interruptions and temptations.
Interruptions come from the outside. While we can all imagine the tiny nook in the back of a library or silent log cabin in the wilderness as being interruption free, the best environment depends on what has the ability to interrupt you.
In general, the art of improving focus here has two dimensions. First, you want to eliminate distractions, so as to prevent yourself from getting derailed. For some people, that will mean retreating into total silence. For others, ambient noise or background chatter won’t interrupt them. I get a lot of my work done at a noisy coffee shop because I can tune it out.
The second part, however, is learning to turn on focus in less-than-ideal environments. Part of this is conditioning—if you get used to working in a less-ideal environment, you’ll cultivate the ability to tune it out. However, in the beginning, this is usually outweighed by the need to focus more. Therefore, I suggest optimizing your environment first, and branching out to training in harder environments later. You want a solid foundation before you start making things harder.
Temptations are, in our smartphone and social media age, quite often a bigger problem than interruptions. If you work from home, your house may be quieter than the coffee shop, but the temptation to watch television or surf the web might be overwhelming.
Like interruptions, we want to start by eliminating temptations. Later, we can train ourselves to succumb to them less, so that we can still get work done even though those same temptations exist.
Here’s some steps for eliminating distractions:
- Create your working space. It can be at the office, home, library or coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be yours, just the place you like to work.
- Eliminate noise and chatter. If you need to work in a noisy place, get noise-cancelling headphones. Otherwise, seek out quiet places with minimal auditory and visual distractions (no televisions in the background, or conversations that are easy to follow).
- Leave the phone (or internet) behind. Devices may be necessary for your work, but often the full suite of features isn’t. Airplane mode can avoid distractions on mandatory devices, but that won’t prevent you from giving in to boredom—best to leave things you don’t need at home or in another room.
- Get your environment ready beforehand. Need a drink of water? Plug in your charger? Forgot to text someone? Do a quick check-off before you start your focus session so that you’ll be less inclined to use one of these common things as an excuse when focus gets tough.
2. Negotiating Boundaries
Other people are the biggest obstacles to focus. A colleague wants to chat. You get a Facebook message about that party tonight. You hear the familiar ping of new emails that demand a look.
The difference between these interruptions and those previously discussed is that they very often include some social obligation to respond. While you can try to ignore the water cooler gossip without consequences, a delayed reply to a colleague or refusal to initiate a work discussion may run you into trouble.
This step requires communication with those around you so that they understand what you’re trying to do and are less likely to interrupt you if it’s not an emergency. Here’s some steps to take:
- Close the door. Shutting yourself away immediately increases the barriers to interruption. If someone has to knock or open a door to ask a question, that makes them think twice before doing it. Open office? Headphones also help do the trick. If someone has to pull them off you or tap your shoulder, this works similarly.
- Tell people when to interrupt you. Let people know which hours you plan to use for your prime focus time and ask them to interrupt you in defined intervals outside it. The flexibility here is enormous, so even if you’re in a job which requires frequent communication, you might even ask people to wait until the last ten minutes of the hour to interrupt you. I’ve often done this by reserving morning hours for focus and encouraging calls/discussion in the afternoon.
- Coordinate your plan with your boss/clients. A refusal to communicate can seem rude in the moment. A plan to improve your productivity for the benefit of your manager/clients is not. Better to talk about what you want to do, and get their input, before forcing an awkward moment later.
- Set up an autoresponder. If immediate emails are the norm, an autoresponder indicating your email-checking hours might help. You can do the same with texts/calls. Many phones have a special feature that automatically replies when you’re driving. You can rework this to be turned on manual and deliver a custom message letting people know that you’re in focus mode but they can cut through if its an emergency.
Negotiating boundaries is usually a lot easier than people assume. The difficulty is being okay with taking the initiative to ask for a different setup in order to increase your focus. Many working environments settle on different options out of inertia, not because there’s a defined rationale for them.
3. Optimize Your Schedule
The right length of time for focus is the time you have available. If you only have half an hour to squeeze in on a side project, then that’s the time you have. If you can devote a block of four hours every morning, make the best of that gift.
The ability to optimize your schedule is to use planning to give yourself more opportunities for focus. One way this can be done is by reorganizing. You may batch certain tasks or rework your schedule for meetings and calls to leave large swaths of the day untouched.
However, even if such reorganization isn’t possible, there’s still an advantage in being deliberate with your schedule. The deliberateness of making a plan helps you recognize and act on moments in time which might otherwise get lost. Knowing you’ll have a certain thirty minute chunk free means you can get some work done when otherwise that time might slip away.
Here’s how to do it:
- Optimize your meetings. If you have control over meetings and calls, try to batch them to certain periods of the week or day. I do nearly all my meetings and calls later in the week and later in the day. If I can’t, I often try to schedule the call quite early, so it doesn’t cut my morning time in two.
- Look at your week. Every Sunday, go through your week and plan out what work you’d like to do. Estimate which days you’ll be able to focus intensely and which will be more fragmented. A more intense day, when you have optimal focus, followed by lighter days which are more fractured is better than trying for average intensity all days and coming up short when the fractured day gets derailed.
- Plan out your daily schedule. If you have a relatively simple schedule with few key tasks, you may want to define your core focus hours and leave it at that. I often do this when I’m deep on a big project that takes up all my time. If you’re juggling many differen tasks, however, you will benefit from making a plan which allocates every hour of your day, so you can know what to expect.
- Avoid the long-term trap. One error many busy people make is committing to things in the far future more readily than they would in the short-term. Right now, they feel, they are so busy that they couldn’t take on any more, but months from now things will be easier. Invariably, the long-term becomes the short-term and they’re still busy and also committed to something that isn’t very important.
- Use your procrastination. I procrastinate on tons of work all the time. However, I try to procrastinate mostly on the things which are okay to delay. It’s far better to procrastinate on things which don’t demand your focus, so you can do the hard work which really does. If those things start to pile up, batch them into one day and get caught up on random errands in one go.
Most of optimizing your schedule is about looking ahead. Managing your time in the moment is hard because you have to deal with your emotional state, which may not be up for intense focus. Planning the future is a lot easier because you can calmly decide what is the best way to allocate your focus.
Eliminating distractions, negotiating boundaries and optimizing your schedule are helpful, but they only go so far. Ultimately, it’s dealing with the obstacles to focus inside your own mind which separates those who have excellent focus and those who do not.
4. Progressive Training
Imagine going to the gym, seeing the bench press and telling yourself you’re going to lift 300 lbs. the first day. That’s a recipe for injury and failure.
In contrast, many people aim for schedules with amounts of focus far in excess of anything they’ve pulled off before, and then feel disappointed they couldn’t pull it off. If you struggle to focus for more than an hour at some task, and you plan to do it eight hours straight tomorrow, you can’t be surprised when your plans fail.
The metaphor of progressive training is useful with focus for at least two reasons. First, there may be a real parallel between focus and muscular development. More time spent focusing may increase a general capacity for focus which improves over time. Although the neuroscience isn’t settled on this point, I think there’s a strong enough possibility for this kind of improvement to tentatively approach the problem this way.
Second, even if your deeper capacities for focus don’t grow like a bicep, the habits, behaviors, emotions and literally everything else surrounding focus can improve. These things take time and tweaking to figure out, so a progressive schedule for improvement is a better idea than going all-in.
Here’s how you should slowly build up your capacity:
- Start by measuring your current capacity. Spend a few days where all you do is work and keep a stopwatch running on your phone. Then, whenever you stop working to do something else (calls/bathroom/internet) press Stop and see what the number is. Averaged over a few days and different sessions, this should give you a realistic picture of where your focus is, not just where you’d like it to be.
- Work on building your focus duration. The first thing you can work on is building up your duration for focus. If you find yourself getting distracted after ten minutes, aim for fifteen. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and convince yourself to not switch tasks until it dings. Once you can comfortable get up to at least an hour consistently, this should be the main priority.
- Next, work on your ability to return to focus, after a distraction. Whenever you get interrupted, reset your timer and try to push yourself to keep working further. Your goal should be to get back to working each time you get distracted. Although the mental interruption can derail your work, the real secret is to not let it permanently stall you.
- Finally, work on building up your speed of focus. This is your ability to “turn on” focus in shorter periods of time. This is harder to measure, but one way to do it is to give yourself shorter chunks of time and see if you can get some work done. The shorter a runway you can take off from, the more you’ll be able to make use to the fragments of time that life gives you.
The recipe in each dimension of focus is the same: measure your current ability, make small efforts to improve and track those improvements. Doubling or tripling your ability to focus is doable, provided you’re careful in following these rules.
5. Warm-Up Rituals
A warm-up ritual is your pre-flight checklist you go through before you start focusing for a big session. It may be checking that you have water, that you don’t need to use the bathroom, that your phone is turned off or you’ve set yourself up to not be distracted by other people.
Warm-up rituals are powerful because they also condition a certain mindset. Even beyond just how the ritual impacts your ability to focus, enacting the ritual primes you to start thinking about doing real work.
Inevitably, we all create warm-up rituals, whether we think we are or not. It’s the little scripts in your head that say things like, “I can’t start work without my coffee,” or, “I check emails first before getting to work.”
The key here is to optimize your warm-up rituals so that they are maximally effective and don’t lead you into situations where they prevent you from focusing because conditions aren’t right.
Here’s what you should do:
- Is your ritual too demanding? You may want to lower the threshold for certain activities if those won’t always be present in order for you to work. Earlier this year, I noticed I was conditioning myself to only put in work on my book, if I went to a certain coffee shop, because it was my favorite place to write. However, sometimes I couldn’t go there, and so I might procrastinate in the intervening period. I realized I needed to recondition myself to start focus, even if I was at home.
- Can you reorder the ritual? Email first may be a leisurely start to the day, but doing the hardest things first is likely more productive. Noticing when you’ve fallen into a comfortable, but suboptimal ritual, can help you fix the problem. Experiment with starting work right away, or working in chunks of time you’d normally dismiss as being too short to work.
- Carry your ritual wherever you go. If your ritual involves certain thoughts or actions which aren’t tied deeply to a particular time, place or set of circumstances, you’ll have a lot more flexibility about when you can apply focus. Isolate parts of your existing warm-up routine that you might be able to reinforce more strongly and detach from other circumstances. Sip of coffee? Closing your eyes for a few minutes to meditate? Maybe even just conditioning yourself to respond to saying “Do it now,” in your head might be a more accessible ritual.
- Test your assumptions. Part of the power of rituals is that they condition us to focus. However, this conditioned pattern of behavior can easily turn into a belief that those parts of the ritual are strictly necessary for focus (rather than merely being your current triggers). Therefore, you may want to experiment with different ways of working that violate your current ritual in order to establish new ones.
Rituals exist whether we want them to or not. The power of thinking about your focusing ritual is to avoid maladaptive designs, which prevent you from focusing if in important situations, or places where you have encoded procrastination for too long. Used properly, however, a ritual can be a powerful trigger to start important focus when you need it.
6. Overcoming Impulses
The skill of focus basically boils down to a tension between two different forces: the desire to work and the desire to quit.
What makes focus hard is that the desire to work is often low, and may even be associated with anxiety or negative feelings that create a feeling of aversion. Distractions, conversely, might feel tempting and the desire to quit might be strong.
Improving focus is largely about recognizing these affective obstacles and reconditioning them.
The downside of this reconditioning process is that it is often task specific. Meaning it’s not something you do once and are done with forever, but something that may come up again and again, and which you need to recognize before it gets too bad.
I recently had this problem when writing a book. My imagination kept bringing up images of what a critic might say of my arguments, so whenever I thought about it, I’d get anxiety and negative feelings that pushed me away. These could be overcome by working for a few minutes, but I’d often procrastinate for days with “writer’s block” when I’d hit a hard part.
This aversive obstacle to focus is much more powerful than the others, because you are going to avoid working on something until the pain of ignoring it becomes so great that you can’t procrastinate any more. The only way to handle this problem is to deal with it head-on.
Here’s what to do when you’re faced with an aversion to doing the work you need to focus on:
- Expose yourself to your fears. In my case, that meant seeking out some of the people I imagined would criticize my book and talking to them first. Like a nightmare, you need to confront the absurdity of it before it stops scaring you. Getting that actual feedback, even if it is everything you were afraid of, can often desensitize you to its aversive effects.
- Stoke your enthusiasm. Action is the difference between the enthusiasm and aversion. If you desire something enough, this can push you over your fears about it. Motivation, in this sense, can help overcome those hiccups (especially until you can get contact with reality and diffuse some imagined aversions). Spending time imagining your goals, visualizing the reasons you’re pursuing them and having conversations with positive people can all help in tilting that equation in your favor.
- Systematic desensitization. If you feel chronic aversion to a set of tasks, the right solution might be to approach it head on. Push yourself in a situation that would make you feel extra uncomfortable, and make that (not whatever goal you’re trying to pursue) your main priority. That discomfort will eventually lessen as you’re exposed to it more and more. Exams making you feel tense? Sign up and write exams you know you’ll fail. Presentation gives you aversion? Join Toastmasters and give speeches until its nothing. Afraid of criticism? Ask someone to critique your work in the harshest possible terms, rinse and repeat until it doesn’t feel so bad.
The other coin of the affective dimension of focus is on the desire to quit or do something else. This can be an equally powerful drive, and sometimes is the one that’s more prevalent. Many people suffer from excess and diffuse enthusiasm that pulls them in too many directions so they achieve little.
Here’s how to manage that:
- Examine your vices. Look at the patterns you’ve set up that constitute your main distraction addictions. Instagram? Games? Checking your phone? Cutting out these vices can reduce their immediate pull on your psyche.
- Box in your distractions. There are many tools which exist now that can allow you to control your consumption of things that might distract you. Website blockers can limit your access to addicting sources to certain allotted periods of the day. Electric timers can make turning on your television or accessing the internet harder when you want to focus without them.
- Don’t respond. Ultimately, one of the biggest tools you can apply to dealing with the distractions is simply not to engage in them when you feel the desire to the most. This is hard, but it reduces their intensity for the next time. Even if you can simply interrupt them—waiting a few minutes before succumbing—you interrupt the pattern and weaken its grip on you.
Too many people focus on the easy aspects of focus, and too little attention is paid to the emotional side of focus. Very often powerful aversions and cravings are responsible for our inability to focus, and these take time and conscious effort to weed out. Recognizing what the problem is, however, is always the first step.
7. Optimizing Intensity
Researchers have known for decades that there is a relationship between the optimal intensity of attention and the complexity of the task you want to perform.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that increasing alertness has an inverted-U function on task performance. Not enough focus, and you perform poorly. Too much arousal and you’re also impaired over someone calmer. Importantly, there’s a relationship between the optimal top of this performance curve and the complexity of the task. Namely, simpler tasks suffer less from being overly alert than do complex ones.
One analogy to think about this is that focus is like shining a spotlight. A high degree of alertness (intense music, a few cups of coffee, etc.), is like making the beam of light very narrow. This helps if the thinking of the task can be neatly enclosed in that beam of light.
However, if you have a complicated or creative task, one that requires a more diffuse set of skills and memories which need to be drawn upon, then this highly focused beam is quite fragile. It needs to flit between things quickly and is more likely to break off and get distracted in the process.
For particularly creative problem solving, even a normal, relaxed state of focus may be too constrained to contain the answer. You may need to engage in a relatively low state of focus to be able to successfully pull together all the diffuse elements of thinking required to solve the problem.
Therefore, highly concentrated focus, while it is an improvement over absent-mindedness in 95% of cases, has some situations where it may actually backfire. In those 5% of cases, a distracted mind may be a helpful mind, provided it is distracted in the right way. Even if they are rare, these cases are often the most important, since creative breakthroughs often have disproportionate value over normal work.
The key to productive unfocus is simple:
- Focus until you get stuck. If a problem can be solved at a higher level of focus, you’ll be more productive overall to continue. It’s only when this fails that productive unfocus makes sense.
- No, really, focus until you get stuck. Staying focused in the “stuck” state for longer is going to mentally prime you to work on a solution in the unfocused stage, so you don’t want to prematurely wander off and forget about the problem altogether. Five to fifteen minutes of being stuck is good for a hard problem.
- Allow yourself to stop working on the problem, but don’t get focused on anything else. I recommend taking a “smart” break. This can mean going for a walk, meditating, sitting quietly, drinking some water or something that is otherwise not mentally engaging. Having a conversation with another person can be especially helpful, since it changes the patterns you were using to solve the problem individually before.
- In this time, think about things, but don’t try to control your mind towards a solution. You want it to wander a bit, but the priming given to focusing on the problem beforehand should mean you have an urge to solve it that keeps you from getting completely lost.
The way to think of this is like letting your beam of light go maximally broad and diffuse, to pick up wider routes to solve the problem than you might have otherwise envisioned. What you don’t want to do is focus on some distractor, since that will keep your attentive beam tight, but focused in an area of thinking that probably isn’t helpful.
How much time you spend in this absent-minded mode of focus and the more standard type will depend a lot on the problems you’re facing. It’s useful, however, to recognize how the intensity of focus relates to the complexity of the task you’re involved in, so that you can maximize the usefulness of your focus.
Apply This Now
Would you like to increase your ability to focus? I recommend setting aside a month in which you devote yourself to improving this capacity that can include:
- Organizing your working space to eliminate distractions.
- Talking to people around you to minimize interruptions.
- Planning ahead to make best use of your time.
- Measuring your focus and slowly building up the duration, flexibility and speed.
- Examining your current warm-up routines and adjusting them to be more useful.
- Diagnosing why you really procrastinate and conditioning yourself to avoid temptations.
- Using productive periods of unfocus at just the right moment to solve creative problems.
If you applied all of these ideas, and worked through them systematically for a month, it’s quite possible you could greatly increase your output for the kind of work that matters most. Even if you’re already decent at focusing, chances are there are still things which could be improved: do you waste too much time getting started focusing? Do you avoid certain types of work because of hidden fears or anxieties? Maybe you’re good at focusing for long chunks, but waste the slices of half an hour that come up during your day.
If you do decide to go forward, share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear your assessment of your current ability and which of these steps you’d like to take to improve!