5 Steps for Cultivating Focus

“Time is money.”

Time management is one of the first few skills that arise when addressing the topic of productivity. But what we do with time is much more critical than making more time. So if we go by the same metaphor, time is not money; attention is money.

Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

And because psychic entropy is the natural state of our consciousness, we need to learn how to focus our attention on our intentions. If you already focus pretty well and want to seriously optimize your focus, I would highly recommend applying the conditions of flow into your work. If you would rate your average focus under 7 out of 10, read on.

There are many tools and tips out there, but there are a few key principles that most people don’t yet practice. Without them, all the fancy strategies don’t work. So master these 5 steps first. Then move onto the rest.

1. Set the goal based on your priorities.

What is the objective? What is the task? Is it aligned with your current priorities?

Most of us have extremely long to-do lists and often, we just want to check off as many boxes as possible. But remember - busyness is not productivity. If we use Steve Pavlina’s definition of productivity as value over time - which tasks are of the most value?

Two ways to set priorities are the Eisenhower Matrix and The Pareto Principle. Which activities are both important and urgent? Which 20 percent of activities bring 80 percent of the results?

Say your priority of the week is to write the final paper since it determines 50% of your grade. You might have a few urgent assignments, but your priority of the day is to research for the big paper. When you sit down to work in the morning, your goal could be, “to find 6 articles to support my thesis in the next 2 hours.” Your goal should incorporate an action, a quantifiable result, and a time limit. The reason some people work better closer to deadlines is that time restraint sustains concentration.
 

2. Set the intention to stay focused and take measures to decrease distractions.

Which external stimuli disrupt your focus? What distractions do you need to clear?

We live in a society of information overload where many things want our sacred attention, right now. But a Buzzfeed quiz or an Instagram notification will not trump our priorities. So let’s take active steps.

Phones:

  • Put your phone on airplane mode for the next x hours.

  • Put it on silent mode and turn the screen faced down.

  • I work from home and will chuck my phone onto my bed, far far away, when I begin my work. Chucking it afar feels quite liberating.

  • Turn off ALL social media app notifications. Even the Facebook chat pop-ups.

  • Take it to another level and uninstall the tempting social media apps. You can always reinstall them later.

  • Track your usage with an app like QualityTime* or Moment to send you notifications for excessive usage or use other apps like Forest to prevent mindless scrolling.

Computers + laptops:

  • Only use browser tabs that you need (keep it under 3).

  • Use a website blocker to restrict mindless scrolling.

  • Track your usage with an app like RescueTime*.

People:

  • If you’re working with others, agree to spend the next 30 minutes with no talking, to save questions for later. If you’re collaborating, agree to not go off topic for the next 30 minutes. Take a break. Then do it again. (More on this on point 5).

  • If you’re working from home or in an office, close the door and/or put up a sign that says “do not disturb until x PM.”

3. Declutter and rejuvenate your psychic energy.

Are you focused or scattered? Are you thinking about the past or future, or are you here?

Now that you’ve removed external distractions, the next step is mental decluttering - letting go of internal information. If you’re thinking about or fixated on past/future events, write it out on paper and out of your mind, acknowledge them as thoughts, and let them go. If you’re feeling unpleasant emotions, breathe them in, feel through them, and let them go. Declutter your mind to refocus your attention on your task. Take a further step and meditate for 5-10 minutes to increase mental clarity. Or take 5 deep breaths and focus on each inhale and exhale.

4. Dive into the activity. Give it your full attention.

You’ve set a goal, minimized distractions, and increased mental clarity. It’s time to go all in. On the one activity.

It has become common knowledge that multitasking / task-switching doesn’t work. It’s a huge waste of time and energy. So don’t do it. Don’t multitask, monotask.

Toggl is a time-tracking tool that I find really helpful with monotasking. If it says content creation for 25 minutes, I know I worked on content creation for 25 minutes, not half-assed content creation and email responses for 25 minutes.

Efficiency and effectiveness are key. Just do the one thing.

5. Do it with sustainability in mind - in intervals.

When I lift at the gym, I’ll do 5x5 barbell squats, 5x5 overhead press, and 5x1 deadlift. It’s a lot. I couldn’t imagine doing all 55 reps in one go, so I do them in sets and take breaks. I take intentional breaks to get ready for the next set of intense lifting. Humans don’t have unlimited physical energy so we need to rejuvenate consistently. Now apply this to our mental energy.

The parallel would be short sprints of focused work with regular breaks - also known as the Pomodoro Technique. The gist of it is to work in sets of 25 minutes (one pomodoro) followed by a 5 minute break and after 4-5 sets, take a longer break (15-30 minutes). I use Toggl which has a Pomodoro feature, but other tools are available too (including a physical tomato timer).

I started using this technique with 15 minute sets as I could not focus for as long as 25 minutes without wondering “how much longer….” Then with continual practice, my attention span grew. Nowadays, there are times when I’ll work for a full 50 minutes and take a longer 10 minute break (when I’m really feeling it). But I always find that if I work for over 3 pomodoros at a time, my focus plummets for the rest of the day. Whether you follow this specific technique or not, take regular, short breaks. We could all use the extra mental energy.

Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

These 5 practices are super effective but many people will brush them off because they’re so simple. Consistency of small steps is key. There’s no grandiose multi-level strategy. There’s no magic pill for optimal focus. It takes a little bit of intentional effort, every day. Daily practice of intentional focus creates quality work and quality life.

EXERCISE: Choose 1-3 of these small habits to practice for the next 7 days. Get a friend or partner to do it with you. See how your focus shifts.

 

With love,

Ji-Youn


P.S. And if you're committed to optimizing your performance, with personalized strategies and fierce accountability, reach out and let's make it happen. Or if you're not ready yet, subscribe to my newsletter here.

*These are the tools that I personally use and recommend. I am not sponsored or affiliated with any of the tools/products listed in this post. They are simply suggestions that have the potential to help you out.