Sustain your focus over long time using these 10 ideas

Image credit: Je Shots, Unsplash.
The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult.

These are the words of Dan Ariely that describe how the discipline nowadays truly became an uphill battle. If we listened to every incentive from our environments, we would soon end up fat, broke and hopelessly distracted. The distraction is the aspect that worries me a lot because it sneaked in slowly and became a new norm, socially acceptable way of being. This means that pretty much everyone is on a constant alert, semi-distracted, anxious state all the time.

Back in the day, about 10 years ago, I had regular 4-hour long study sessions. (See the post below to find out more.) Today I have to fight for an hour on undisturbed time. But it’s not only about carving out that undistracted hour. It is also about our ability to use it productively.

10 years ago I checked email three times a week. Today, I check it multiple times a day. And I have a smartphone. And Instagram. And Facebook. And Linkedin. All of which fragmented my attention span into thin shreds. Furthermore, the constant state of alertness makes good rest impossible. The fatigue is only accumulating.

This year I decided to start the uphill battle to get my attention span back. Many of the strategies that I tried originated from the book Deep Work. It is an ongoing process, difficult at the times, but I definitely got better and got some great work done.

I would like to share with you the ideas that help me sustain my focus over longer time periods. I hope you find these useful.

1. Set a clear task

You cannot expect your mind to be focused if you don’t define a clear goal for it to work on. Choose one and only one thing from your to-do list, preferably one that is challenging, and set everything else aside. Challenging activities are uncomfortable, hard to boil down to the list of simple tasks that could be delegated to Joe. These are the activities that hold the biggest potential for our growth and contribution and require sustained focus. For me, this task could be writing a new post, or reading a scientific paper and figuring out their methodology and modeling completely. Creative work, figuring things out, trying something new, intensive learning, all of these are examples of one activity that you could aim to focus on.

2. Give yourself time

Our minds are all over the place all the time. We used to switch our focus every 2 minutes and now we are doing it every 45 seconds. We are all dealing with avalanches of emails, beeping cell phones, notifications from hundreds of apps. We have wired our brains for instant gratification of Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and we feel deprived without that little (but sustained) dopamine rush. And now we expect that all of a sudden we can shut everything down, work and focus like a ninja. Well, not exactly…

Give yourself at least an hour-long chunk of the time. Be at peace with the fact that first 10 to 15 minutes your brain will be distracted and you will not get much done. This is the transition period. Stay on the task and don’t give up. It will get better.

When I go on Facebook diets, I notice that the initial period is really hard, almost anxious, but later it gets much easier, so much so that I find it hard to go back. The same is true for deep focus. At first, it is hard to start, but once you get there, you will not want to break the bubble. Being calm and focused is much more natural and pleasant state of being than the frantic and distracted one.

3. Give yourself zero entertainment options

Here’s how Neil Gaiman writes: he sits by the window and gives himself 2 options: he can either write or look through the window. Sometimes, he spends awfully a lot of time looking through the window. But eventually, he writes some. And some more. And it piles up. And so Sandman, Coralline, and American Gods come into being.

The main idea here is that entertainment options should be completely eliminated. When you’re working on something hard, even a work email can seem very entertaining. Not to mention a smartphone. All of these must go. Turn off your email, switch off your browser, put your phone on airplane mode or pack it in a drawer. Remember, nothing fun, interesting, distracting. Only you and your work. And maybe a window.

4. It is a meditative process

In a nutshell, meditation process can be described like this: you relax and start focusing on your breath or mantra for as long as you can. Naturally, thoughts will pop up. As soon as you notice them, you will gently bring your focus back to your breathing or mantra. Your mind will stray and you will bring it back multiple times.

The same thing will happen while doing a deep work. Your mind will get lost, your inner voice will start bitching: “This is boring. This doesn’t make any sense. This is hard. Why don’t you check Facebook? Maybe someone liked your photo.” All you have to do is let these thoughts go as soon as you notice them and go back to work. Sometimes, you’ll get lost in thoughts for a little longer and that is OK. Keep in mind that your goal is to always go back and dive deeper. The key is not to be present all the time, but to go back when you stray.

5. Embrace discomfort

Deep work is uncomfortable. Period. Because it’s not well defined, 3-step, get-shit-done kind of thing, it provokes a great deal of fear, procrastination, and discomfort. It involves new ideas, creative exploration, getting stuck and getting unstuck, diving into the unknown, being confused, figuring new stuff out, learning, implementation. It is hard, therefore valuable and we should embrace it.

Nicole Antoinette has the best self-talk in uncomfortable situations, like long-distance running (but it can be translated to any realm). When things start getting uncomfortable, she says to herself:

This is uncomfortable and that’s why I am doing it. When I want to be comfortable, I don’t go for a run, I sit on the couch, eat cookies and watch Netflix. Now is the time for the discomfort.”

What a great message. Use it as an inspiration to give yourself a similar little talk on comfort and discomfort. Also, make sure that you actually build a little comfort windows into your day, when you allow yourself to enjoy, relax and do what you like. These will serve as your anchors and reminders that the discomfort is temporary.

If you give more to yourself, you can expect more from yourself, says Gretchen Rubin and I agree.

(Not opening up any space for joy, comfort and relaxation may mean that you are pushing yourself toward the burnout. Since it is impossible to work really focused for 10 hours a day, this pattern usually means that you are spending tons of time in a frenzy, distracted, multitasking mode. Not a sustainable strategy for success.)

6. Embrace boredom

In the last couple of years, technology has helped us practically eradicate the boredom. Are you bored in an elevator? Check your email. Are you bored while waiting in the line? Check your Facebook. Instead of reading one book at the time, now we have hundreds on our Kindles. Instead of waiting for the new episode every week, we can now binge-watch everything.

Did we ever think how will the lack of boredom impact our lives and work?

Manoosh Zomorodi did. That’s how her new book “Bored and Brilliant” came to be. Manoosh found out that we are getting our best ideas and breakthroughs when we are bored, and we should hence work on cultivating boredom.

Sustaining focus over long time periods will be boring. You will get stuck, or it will be too hard. You will want to check your Facebook, tweet something, see what Banana Republic offers for sale. Embrace the boredom instead. That’s where your best ideas, creativity and outstanding work are. And the fact that everyone else is numbing their boredom will only make your insights more valuable.

7. Have a sticky note handy

This is what is going to happen. You will start working, embrace the discomfort, embrace the boredom, and all of a sudden you will get an epic idea. Or you will remember something really important, like that you should pay the electricity bill or follow up with Joe about something, or that today is the last day to preorder that epic book. Now what? All of these thoughts may be valid and useful. But is it worth stopping the entire workflow for these? No, it’s not.

Here is a solution: have a sticky note handy and whenever a useful thought crosses your mind, write it down. Make a mini to-do list. When you are done with your session, you can address all of the thoughts and ideas, one by one. (FYI, this post was created out of the ideas on a sticky note that came to my mind during a deep work session.)

8. Play song on repeat

One of the best investments that I’ve made is Spotify Prime. It is only $5 a month (student price) and I can listen to all the music I want all the time, without being interrupted by Taco Bell commercials. When I am working, I am usually listening to long playlists of ambient, meditation, chill or classical music and it helps me improve my focus a great deal.

However, even if you don’t have Spotify Prime, there is a good hack. You can listen to the song on repeat and no commercials will pop up. Plus, it is amazing for focus. Your mind gets used to a repetitive, familiar pattern and it is ready to dive deeper and deeper. While playing songs from “Kind of Blue”, album by Miles Davis, I figured some crazy difficult papers out. Song on repeat works like a charm.

9. Schedule distracted time

Instead of being distracted by default, and scheduling a chunk of focused time here and there, do the opposite. Be focused by the default and schedule distracted periods strategically. For example, don’t have your email open all the time and deal with emails as they show up. Schedule an email time and check and respond to your emails only then. Schedule a time for surfing on Internet, browsing, reading, online shopping, and following up with people. The best period is probably in the afternoon or evening when your brainpower is already depleted. Don’t use all of these activities as handy distractions when the work becomes uncomfortable or you don’t know what to do next.

You may notice that these suggestions will make you more productive. And yes, they will. But that is a nice byproduct. The primary goal here is to rewire your brain so that it is less addicted to instant gratification of shallow activities. It will take time and effort, the engineers and psychologists in Google and Facebook did their homework really well. But you and I can do our homework well, too, and make sure that our lifestyles and schedules match our values and most important goals.

10. Be careful with your free time

Last but not the least, carefully choose how you spend your free time. If you are frantically hanging on Facebook and Snapchat in every free moment, you might run all the positive reinforcement you have created earlier during your focused sessions. Your brain will continue to crave cheap entertainment.

Instead, plan your free time so that it includes rest, recovery, physical activity, reading, doing something creative and the real human connection with your friends and family. Sustaining your focus and going deep is more than a full-time job, it is a lifestyle. Therefore, hacks do not really help, only the devotion and making deliberate choices over and over again.

Your turn. Which of these ideas you think would be most helpful to you? WJat are your strategies for sustaining focus over longer time periods? Let me know in the comments below.

Before you go

If you are on Medium you are probably obsessed with creativity, just like me. I made a FREE ebook “100 ways to be creative today”, with 100 creative prompts, most of which require 5 minutes or less, $0 and no special skills. Go HERE to learn more and grab it.