How To Focus: The Ultimate Guide

I will teach you how to focus!

Is there something else you should be focusing on right now, but instead you’re scrolling through social media?

Don’t let anyone shame you. Earlier generations were just as easily distracted. But by what? A sunset? A bumblebee? Three whole channels of television?

Today we have Instagram and Twitter, YouTube and Netflix, XBox and PlayStation, Wikipedia wormholes and all of human knowledge just a click of your phone away.

Is it any wonder we have trouble focusing?

These are ninja-level distraction-delivery channels and they’re designed that way. Social media, entertainment, gaming, and streaming apps are designed by experts to be addictive.

They do this to capture your attention so they can sell that attention to advertisers, who put product offers in front of your story-scrolling eyes.

Meanwhile, your career suffers. Your business stalls. You fall behind on the trends and technologies you need to do your job.

All because you can’t focus.

How To Focus

What if you could learn how to focus and claim your attention back?

What if you could pluck it out of the hands of the attention merchants and devote it wholeheartedly to reading books? Scanning trade blogs? Completing projects?

What if you could:

  • ace your classes because you, alone amongst your classmates, did all the course reading … and still had time to socialize at night?

  • board a plane at JFK airport and instead of switching on the in-flight entertainment app, you cracked open an influential book you have been meaning to read … and by the time you landed at LAX you had finished it?

  • turn off the headphones at work and delivering high-quality results at work, impressing your bosses and enhancing your career prospects?

  • finish what you start? Build a business? Write a book? Launch a YouTube channel or podcast? Commit to a path that has the potential to change your life?

Focus is not a lost virtue of a bygone era, snowed under by video games and reality television.

It is a skill that older generations did not bother to teach you — not at home, not at school, nowhere.

They couldn’t have possibly predicted that focus would be the commodity of the century, under constant attack, and yet so critical for sustained success

How To Focus - Overview

How lack of focus impacts your mind and your body

The problem isn’t just cosmetic or financial. Distraction makes you measurably dumber. Worse, it threatens your health.

A 2005 study by Dr. Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry in London discovered that interruptions to check email or answer the phone correlated with a 10-point drop in functional IQ. For context, smoking marijuana correlated with only a 5-point drop.

 

Distractions ruin your IQ

What we tend to call “multitasking” is actually a habit of jumping from task to task. This leads to a state of that Linda Stone, a former consultant for Microsoft and Apple, describes as “continuous partial attention (CPA).” In this state, we are always “on,” scanning the world with continual alertness. This agitated state elevates our levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Too much cortisol and adrenaline in your system suppresses the natural “feel-good” hormones serotonin and dopamine. The body also responds to these hormones with inflammation and the production of hormones linked to depression.

In a cruel coup de grace, this hormone cocktail makes it hard to sleep. Sleeplessness slows reaction time, suppresses creativity, and reduces the brain’s ability to file recent events in long-term memory, resulting in forgetfulness and failure to retain information.

You can get laser-like focused in less than 30 days

Replacing bad habits with good habits does not happen overnight. Cut yourself a break — accept that you won’t go to bed tonight distracted and wake up a lean, mean focus machine just because you read a short guide on how to focus.

However, building good habits may be faster than you think. Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a day, and underestimate what they can accomplish in a month. It only takes 3-4 weeks to establish a new practice as a habit.

It takes 3-4 weeks to implement a new habit

All it takes is baby steps — a few manageable moves in the right direction. In 30 days, you can improve your powers of concentration so much that you may barely recognize yourself.

How To Focus - Ultimate Guide Structure

The How To Focus Ultimate Guide identifies the external changes required to reclaim your focus, including the need to …

  • Eliminate Distractions: How many interruptions make it to us.

  • Create Strict Boundaries: How we respond to the interruptions that do make it to us.

  • Simplify Your Schedule: Create space in your day where focus can take root.

It also pays special attention to internal changes that need to happen to increase your focus, including the benefits of …

  • Getting Into the Flow State: n internal condition of high focus that, with practice, can be induced intentionally.

  • Warm-Up Rituals: Priming the pump for stellar focus.

  • Controlling Your Impulses: Interrupting the reward-seeking behaviors that inhibit focus.

Without further ado, let’s start!

External Changes

If you feel hindered in your ability to focus, you are not alone. The problem is not entirely in your head. With entertainment, information, and connectivity in limitless supply, the information age seems built to undermine our focus.

This is no accident. Hijacking your attention is actually big business.

In his 2018 book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu describes how big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have turned your attention into a valuable asset.

Social Media Attention

1. Eliminate Distractions

We live in a distracted culture. A 2018 study revealed that adults check their smartphones every twelve minutes. 71% of the subjects never turned the phone off, and 40% checked the smartphone within five minutes of waking.

As much grief as smartphones get, the problem has been brewing for years. Test subjects in a 2002 study reported an interruption every eight minutes, up to 60 per day. Think of the concentration you could achieve if you could establish a firewall against sixty daily distractions.

Tips for Improvement

  • Disable electronic notifications. Turn off your phone, put it into “Do Not Disturb” mode, or disable notifications from social media, email, and other distractions permanently. Do the same for your computer. If cutting everything off is too big a leap, start small. Choose one social app to disable. Check in with it once a day rather than every twelve minutes.
  • Turn technology to your advantage. It may seem counterintuitive to fight apps with more apps, but a growing software niche helps us make our devices less of a distraction. Social-media regulators like the app AntiSocial, time-registering programs like RescueTime, and distraction-suppressing “writer’s room” apps like OmmWriter can make a big difference.
  • Close the door. If you have an office door, great. Throw up the “Do Not Disturb” sign. If not, putting on headphones can work wonders — even if nothing is playing on them.

2. Create Strict Boundaries

Some sources of distraction can be bottlenecked so that fewer distractions make it to you. The other piece of the puzzle is how you feel about the distractions that make it to you. Just because someone or something vies for your attention does not mean you have to give it your attention.

For example, a colleague sends you an email. You feel like you have to drop everything and answer now, no matter how trivial the email. After all, she is waiting!

Boundaries define what we let into our headspace. Lack of boundaries makes us “people pleasers,” susceptible to reciprocity (“He did X for me, so now I have to do Y for him.”)

While cutting filtering distractions helps, by working on our boundaries we come to understand that when distractions do make it to us, we don’t have to let them in.

Tips for Improvement

  • Set physical boundaries. Perhaps your offices is for work only, your dining room for eating only, your bedroom for sleeping or sex only.
  • Practice saying “no” … without explaining yourself. Give yourself permission to be direct. You do not need to justify your desire to focus. “No thanks” is fine. Start small—answer “no thanks” to “Hey, we’re grabbing lunch. Want to come?” Then try saying “Sorry, I have too much to do” when someone asks “This needs to get done now and I’m slammed. Can you help?” No is a liberating habit.
  • Train those around you. This includes colleagues, housemates, and family members. Respond to voicemails with emails. Only respond at a set time (say, 11am and 3pm every day) so they learn patience. Greet visitors to your desk curtly, get right to the point, and don’t engage in small talk. Make it clear that your work-time is sacrosanct. If they want a break, they should take it somewhere else. –
  • Evaluate toxic relationships. Tough as it may be, some of your friends or relatives may be constant attention-hogs. Consider who calls all the time to vent about their problems, can’t seem to think positive, always takes from you without ever giving back. You don’t have to have a dramatic “break-up” with this person. Just double down on the strategies above (training, saying “no”) to drastically limit that person’s access to you.

3. Simplify Your Schedule

Our culture valorizes “busyness.”

How often have you had this conversation?

“How are you?”

“Busy.”

“That’s great!”

Telling someone you are busy is almost a brag.

In some ways this is a consequence of the internet age. We have more options than ever. More opportunities to meet, connect, learn, and grow. Productivity software and instantaneous communication makes it physically possible for us to take on more projects than ever.

The problem is, the more things we cram into our to-do list, the less we can focus on any one of them. We end up with a bunch of hobbies, none of which we are good at … or too frazzled from multitasking to take on any hobbies.

“Busy” is not a synonym for “good.” In fact, “busy work” is colloquial for low-level tasks that make us feel productive but distract us from what really matters.

Instead of saying we are “busy” and mistaking this for a claim that we are “good,” why not put some air into that schedule and actually be good?

Tips for Improvement

  • Write down your values. What is truly important to you? It never hurts to check in with this periodically, as some values change over time. Go through your schedule and interrogate each entry — does it align with your values? If not, maybe it can go.
  • Prioritize the “Important,” not the “Urgent.” We tend to fill our days with “urgent” tasks — things that feel like they need to get done right now. The problem is, urgent tasks may not advance your goals or serve your values, meaning they are “unimportant.” Go through your schedule and see how many urgent-but-unimportant fluff you can replace with tasks that actually matter to you.
  • Don’t say “Yes” too fast. Keep a tally of how many invitations you say “yes” to and how quickly you agreed to them. Once we agree to something, we feel a sense of commitment and a social cost to backing out. Take a breath before you say “yes” to an invitation. “Let me get back to you” is perfectly acceptable. Even if the activity sounds fun, your sense of FOMO (“fear of missing out”) could be playing tricks on you. How much positive impact will accepting the invitation really have on your life? Enough to justify a break in focus? Taking just a little time to think it over could add hours of focus-time to your days and weeks.

Internal Changes

Managing external threats to your focus is only one side of the coin. We must also come to terms with the internal factors that prevent us from concentrating.

Our own deficiencies can be hard to face. However, the need for internal change is a good thing.

We can’t control every external factor. If the building catches fire, forget focus — you had better get out. If the boss knocks on your office door, the best boundaries in the world might not save your job if you try to send her packing. Your child takes ill, the car breaks down … some emergencies rightly command your attention.

 

You control your mind

What happens inside our head, on the other hand, is entirely under our control. You don’t have to change the world to learn how to focus. In some cases, all it takes is changing yourself.

Here are some internal changes that can lead to a massive boost in focus …

 

1. Getting into the Flow State

You may have heard of “flow state” and thought it sounded made-up or “woo woo.” On the contrary, it is a well-documented phenomenon. Numerous performance athletes report a sense of timelessness in the heat of a match, when ego falls away. A laser-like focus makes the task at hand not only clear, but manageable, no matter how steep the odds or high the stakes.

In his 1990 book Finding Flow, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described the ten characteristics of “flow state”:

  1. Clear goals.

  2. Concentration.

  3. An intrinsically rewarding activity.

  4. Loss of ego.

  5. Sense of timelessness.

  6. Instant feedback and judgement of performance.

  7. Secure in possession of the skills needed for the task.

  8. Sense of control over the situation or outcome.

  9. Loss of awareness of physical needs.

  10. Complete focus on the activity.

Csíkszentmihályi points out that this state is not limited to athletes. Writers, mathematicians, musicians, and professionals or hobbyists of all stripes report similar effects when immersed in their avocation of choice.

Moreover, this state does not happen by accident. It must be intentionally pursued … which means it can be practiced and mastered.

Tips for Improvement

  • Take up logic games. Sudoku, chess, and other puzzle games increase our ability to concentrate, a necessary component of flow state.
  • Take up a sport or exercise discipline. In addition to helping you sleep better and experience less stress or depression in general, conditioning your body makes flow state easier to achieve.
  • Push your limits with the “Five More” rule. Flow state happens outside of our comfort zone. A practical habit to push comfort zones, the “Five More” rule enjoins you to do “five more” of whatever you’re doing when you feel like quitting. Five more repetitions of an exercise, five more pages of a writing project, five more minutes of work … flow state could be waiting just on the the other side of those “five more.”

2. Warm-Up Rituals

No one goes from zero to ten in an instant. We all have warm-up rituals. For the unfocused mind, these might include hitting the snooze button several times, listening to the radio on the morning commute, or burning the first fifteen minutes in the office at the coffee machine.

Replacing unproductive warm-up rituals with productive ones is key to achieving focus. They help you arrive to tasks alert instead of groggy, prepared instead of overwhelmed.

Think of your warm-up rituals as your pre-flight checklist. By checking in with all your systems, you can feel secure that your focus won’t crash. Before you know it, big tasks are in the out box.

Tips for Improvement

  • Prepare for your day. Scan your calendar and your to-do list. Take mental inventory of what is on your plate and what needs to happen to clear it.
  • Warm up your mind. Read for pleasure on the train, listen to podcasts and audiobooks in the car. Puzzles like a Rubik’s Cube or mind-game apps like Lumosity are also great for stimulating memory and attention.
  • Ease into work mode. Start with low-hanging fruit — quick phone calls, easy emails, a few busy-work tasks. This may seem to contradict the earlier advice to focus on “important” work, but give yourself a break — ramp up to the big stuff. Even a well-oiled engine works better if it has a chance to warm up to the task.

3. Controlling Your Impulses

A deeply-rooted impulse is nearly impossible to ignore. It’s not just about willpower. Caving to an impulse is a reward-seeking behavior. The reward often comes instantaneously, whether it’s the relief of putting off a task, the buzz from a glass of wine, or the curiosity satisfied by checking your buzzing iPhone.

We all have different impulses, and nearly all of them impede our focus. The impulse to check social media breaks our concentration. The impulse to drink alcohol at happy hour clouds our mind and makes focus impossible. The impulse to procrastinate makes us rush tasks to completion without the kind of focus that results in great work.

Mastering an impulse takes more than a snap of a finger … but it starts with a decision. Consider what impulses break your focus if you succumb to them, and consider a plan of action to reduce the power of that impulse over your attention.

Tips for Improvement

  • Count to ten. Make a commitment that when you feel the impulse, you will count to ten before gratifying it. If that doesn’t work, count to one hundred. It may not work every time. Sometimes you may get to ten and still succumb to the impulse. However, over time, the interruption between impulse and reaction could reduce how often you give in.
  • Go easy on yourself. Satiating an impulse does not make you a bad person. It happens to the best of us. Practice mindfulness, noticing your susceptibility to impulses without judging yourself, and take dispassionate action where needed.
  • Baby steps. Remember, you don’t have to swallow the elephant in one bite. Focus on gradual reduction of the impulse’s impact on your life. Quitting cold-turkey may be unrealistic. Taper off. Slow and steady.

How To Focus – In Conclusion

If reclaiming your focus through these tips feels like an overwhelming task, remember — this won’t happen overnight. You don’t even need to implement every tip in this how to focus guide to enjoy a significant boost in concentration. Any one of them could do wonders for your attention.

Try this — pick one external change and one internal change to focus on for the next 30 days. You could even drill down further and pick one tip for improvement. Spend the next four weeks building a castle around those changes. Park the habit deep. Around Week 3, as your new good habit becomes second nature, success will breed ambition. Pick another internal or external change to add to your arsenal.

Your focus will become like a snowball rolling downhill, getting bigger and more unstoppable as it grows. You will discover better sleep, more energy, and hours in the day you never even knew existed. How’s that for a payoff in exchange for a little focus?

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Focus IQ

Do You Want To Know Your Focus IQ?

Takes 3 minutes

Focus IQ

Do You Want To Know Your Focus IQ?

Takes 3 minutes