Training Focus (I Made an App!)

Success as a student and more generally in life is tightly linked to the ability to sustain focus; specifically, the ability to sustain focus on intellectually challenging tasks. This is something students struggle with. There is endless frustration and guilt due to failure to do this.

This doesn’t have to be something difficult. If we understand the mechanisms at play and then tap into the power of habit to build our familiarity with focus, it will become more natural and effortless over time. To aid in doing this (if you have an android phone) I have built an app that helps build this habit. It is more of a useful tool than a necessity however, and I recommend you read on if your phone has a partially eaten fruit on its back.

This post lays out somewhat nuanced ideas about the nature of focus within the mind. Many of the ideas I have only had time to touch on briefly as fully explaining them would take more than 2000 words, yet through analogy I hope they make sufficient sense for the idea I’m trying to put across to be clear. The strategy outlined in this post to build focus is simple and practical. In fact, it is an evolved refined version of those in previous posts. Through publishing these three posts on focus I have learned a huge amount and refined my thoughts considerably. I hope you benefit from them too.

It is well established that the most effective way to work is to alternate focus with breaks. This has led to endless frameworks such as the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of focus, 5 minutes off). This is by no means the only framework however. There is the 45:17, the 60:10 and others.

Personally however, my ability to sustain focus varies a huge amount day to day. Some days I can sit down for hours and work is effortless. Others, when I am hungover, tired, have ate non-nutritious food, I struggle to focus for more than a few without. As such, I feel the rigidity of such frameworks isn’t useful.

A good aim as a student is to build the ability to focus. More specifically to build the length of time you can sustain focus for on an intellectually challenging task. Anyone can concentrate for 4 hours on Minecraft or Call of Duty, yet it is hard to sustain focus on quantum theory, a difficult essay or a challenging read.

If you put effort into making the environment you are in as non-distracting as possible, silenced the phone etc, the biggest factor destroying focus is the mind’s self-distraction. Our minds have a habit of getting bored and taking us off task. When we first try and build the habit of sustained focus, this distraction will happen all the time. Each time we must exert mental effort to either resist this temptation, or overcome it to return to task. Soon enough we run out of mental effort and we need to take a break.

This mental effort isn’t just a fluffy idea. Every time the brain (specifically the prefrontal cortex) exerts willpower, there is a local depletion of glucose levels in the bloodstream. If we continue to resist temptations or continue to overcome distraction, the local glucose level drops ever lower until there simply isn’t enough glucose available to the prefrontal cortex to resist distraction. It is at this point we feel we cannot focus any longer.

If we take a break, the glucose level near the brain can be replenished as the blood flows around the body. Taking in sugar aids this process as it increases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream quickly, but it is far better to sustain the glucose level via slow break down of the larger food molecules: fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

The last two paragraphs are my best attempt to condense what Roy F. Baumeister and colleagues took a 300-page book to explain. Of course, this isn’t sufficient for understanding and I highly recommend you read his book ‘Willpower’ or at least some of the readily available papers he has published on the topic. With this whistle-stop tour of how willpower works within the body done however, it now becomes clear that we can increase the amount of time that we can focus for in any one sitting. We need to reduce the amount that our mind self-distracts or at least its tendency to do so.

The mind builds a higher tolerance for focus simply by practicing the act of focus itself. Over time, if we practice sustaining focus consciously, this state of mind will become normal for the mind. By the same token, if we practice distraction and diverted attention, this state of mind will become more common for the mind. You must practice focus to build focus.

The common habit of alternating between working on something and checking a phone every 2–3 minutes is, by this logic, cancerous to the ability to sustain focus as it builds the opposite habit!

Sitting with an intellectually challenging task is somewhat unpleasant for the brain as it requires it to work hard. Your mind must get used to that slight experience of discomfort. Each time you show the mind that it can escape this discomfort with ease, it will develop a tendency to do so.

If you were to never drink alcohol, you would have great fun at social events and parties completely sober and feel better for it the next day. Yet once you have drunk alcohol, the heightened emotions and experience means that socialising without it seems drab and unexciting and hence you always henceforth drink alcohol. This becomes your new standard for socialising. Being sober feels comparatively boring. To return to sobriety, drinkers must go through a difficult and often prolonged period of resisting the urge to drink such that their body and minds get used to the relative drabness of sobriety.

The same can be thought of for caffeine, sugary foods and for distraction instead of focus. To build the habit of focus we must remove the practice of being distracted. Immediately after this, sitting in focus will be incredibly uncomfortable. Yet over time it will become easier and easier, eventually becoming a natural state that our mind goes into following certain cues such as sitting down to work or drinking a coffee. (In the same way our mind goes into a free associative state when we socialise or a quiet state when we are doing something physical such as dancing or sport.)

The process of building a habit isn’t always easy. Charles Duhigg in his influential book ‘The Power of Habit’ breaks habits down into three simple components. The cue, the routine and the reward. That naturally follow one after another and together form a habit. All three are essential. Duhigg gives the example of his afternoon cookie eating habit that led to him becoming overweight enough for his wife to call him out on it. Around 3pm Duhigg found himself leaving his desk, going to the Café at work and buying himself a cookie. He would then sit in the Café for a while talking to co-workers and then return to his desk after 10–15 minutes. The cue is it being around 3pm, the routine going to the cafe, buying a cookie and talking to Co-workers. The reward at this point is unclear as it could be a huge number of things. It could be simply taking a break, having a walk, the sugar rush from the cookie, the taste of the cookie, the experience of talking to co-workers or something else.

Duhigg experimented with a few tests until he worked out it was talking to his co-workers for a few minutes that was the reward. With the cue and the reward worked out, he could then freely change the routine leading to a new habit. Through getting a coffee instead of a cookie, yet keeping the cue and the reward the same, Duhigg managed to lose the weight he had put on.

Changing a habit is difficult, yet building a new habit is relatively easy. It simply requires we build the three elements of a habit. A cue, a routine and a reward.

The cue:

When we sit down to work we can start a timer, starting this timer will serve as our cue.

The routine:

We can then work without distracting ourselves sitting through the inevitable periods of discomfort when the work is challenging.

When we find ourselves no longer sustaining focus and have reached that inevitable wall of distraction (the glucose levels running too low) we can stop the timer.

So what is the reward? The issue is there isn’t really any reward here. Our mind doesn’t get a kick from seeing ’43:12’ on a stopwatch. Hence focus isn’t a habit that we naturally build, in the same way we do build chocolate addictions, smoking addictions and coffee dependencies.

There needs to be a conscious effort to build in reward. Hence, I have built an app, currently only on android, called focus time. This exploits some of the basic aspects of the mind to prompt a reward mechanism after the cue and routine are followed. I mostly built the app as a tool for myself, in the same way a carpenter would build themselves a table. But I hope through sharing it I can help you.

The app asks you to log work sessions and then on the next page displays a list of four key statistics. Total focus time (the sum of all work session durations); average focus time (the mean session duration); longest focus time (the longest session duration) and days focused in a row. An increase in these numbers reflects an increase in our capacity for focus.

This may seem non-consequential at first, yet as humans we are incredibly simple creatures when it comes to statistics and numbers. We will play call of duty for hours, suffering endless deaths, failures and genuine rage purely to see our kill to death ratio increase from 0.8 to 1.1 and our rank increase from 12 to 13. Anyone who played Pokemon will tell you stories of hours of walking around tall grass to get the Pokemon from level 60 up to level 80 or even 100.

If we reduce the difficult and challenging experience of building the habit of focus into a game to increase the four numbers on the stats page; we will see progress. The reason numbers and metrics are so effective is our brain releases a hit of reward hormones every time we improve our scores. We experience this as a subtle sense of accomplishment, yet to the habit loops of our brain this is the missing reward element in the habit above. Hence building the habit of focus becomes far easier and seems to happen automatically.

I have had the somewhat odd experience where I feel addicted to recording the work that I do and feel regret if I forget to start timing a work session. These numbers have no real consequence to any aspect of my life, they are simply values in a database on my phone, yet I have found myself oddly invested in their increase. This is to be expected and is evidence of the odd effectiveness of this tool. It is the exact same as the drive to increase a kill/death ratio on a video game.

The app, although new and relatively undeveloped, is functional. I encourage you to download it and try it out. It may crash occasionally, but this is incredibly helpful as I can then work out what the problem is that caused the crash at fix it. Thanks for helping this process.

The last half of this post is effectively a theory based on my own limited experience, the test of which will be the impact and hence use of the app itself. In a few weeks-time, if those who download it are still using it and still seeing increases in the metrics of focus; then the theory is true. Consequently, more effort will be put into developing the app. This could involve making an iPhone version, adding clearer indicators of increase, comparisons with other users and more.

Link to download the app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ft.focustime.focustime&hl=en

Thanks for reading.

Writer: Jack Aspinall

Editor: Matthew Palmer