UNFOCUS! (even in the midst of high-focus work)

And learn how to break your concentration while you do it.

Why You Should Develop the Good Habit of Distraction

Focus is the buzzword of the moment. When you read the great books on productivity, you’ll see how important focus is. Multi-tasking — more accurately called switch tasking — is unproductive, because the mind needs to focus on one thing at a time.

Most of these productivity books and seminars offer a system which allows you to define your goals and focus on them within clearly-defined time periods. So, you should eliminate all distractions, set yourself a time limit and a goal, and then give your undivided attention to the blog post you’re writing, or the webinar you’re preparing.

The Problem with Focus

Now the best productivity gurus recommend taking a break after the focus period. But what about within the focus period?

What? During the focus time? That’s the time when we should be fighting off all distractions, right?

I say no. Or at least, not exactly.

In fact, I’d recommend building distractions as part of the focus time.

Guilt-Free Distraction

Why would you ever want a distraction when you’re in a state that is by definition, a distraction-free period?

Here’s why: it helps you focus.

Let me explain.

Some great sports people have a ritual just at the time when they’re about to enter their highest point of focus. It could be a tennis player who fiddles with his wristband between each point, or it might be a high jumper who smiles before starting the run to the jump of their life.

At first glance, you might think these insignificant activities are to help them to focus. In a very general sense that’s true, but in my opinion, it’s only in the way that staring out the window helps you to write the rest of that chapter.

It seems to me that, these little rituals are to help them break their concentration, before they jump into the next moment of intense focus. In other words, these little habits are forms of de-focusing. And that’s a Jolly Good Thing.

Built-In Distractions

You see, when you’re tuning a guitar, you may deliberately loosen the string to make it sound too low: the contrast with the right sound. Much the same with a camera, where you might deliberately take it out of focus so you can bring it into focus.

It’s just too difficult for us to concentrate for extended periods … and even for short ones. Hence the breaks that we schedule in, to make ourselves more productive. What if you had the reward of distraction even while you were in your high-focus session?

The human brain — as much as the human eye — needs a point of non-reference (for want of a better word) in order to find its true north.

Good Distraction, Bad Distraction

You see, not all distractions are evil. Not all of them are the enemy of being able to focus. In fact, everyone understands the importance of taking a break and not burning out. Working longer doesn’t necessarily increase productivity.

But even within the focus period — take writing, for example — there are probably some relief mechanisms you can take that aren’t the bad distractions of checking email or getting a cup of coffee. Those are things that take you off task, things you might do outside the focus period. However, within the focus time, you could:

  • take a breath for 5 seconds
  • stare out the window
  • glance at a photo of your children
  • say a little prayer
  • look up at the reward once you grow your email list / publish that book / write that article
  • juggle


The idea is what you might call a micro-holiday, which is a voluntary distraction that is small (it may take 5 seconds) and which doesn’t break the focus period.

In fact, you probably already do this anyway, but you are either unaware of it, or — if you are aware of it — it might be a guilty distraction, one which you think is taking your mind off focus. I say more power to you, because your mind is just taking a mental breath.

If you deny yourself legitimate distraction, you will seek illegitimate distraction.

These unfocus habits are simply ways of helping you focus by relieving some of the strain of high levels of concentration. I differentiate these unfocus habits from naughty distractions that are taking you away from your focus point. And I also don’t in any way to confuse them with legitimate breaks that are outside the focus times.

These unfocus points are good habits that you can help you get into the focus period, or keep you there, because you are already in familiar territory.