Most people can’t concentrate today because we are never taught how to concentrate and we don’t practice concentration. How can you do something if you are never taught how to do it? And how can you be good at it if you don’t practice it regularly? Moreover, the distractions are getting stronger and better every day.
Interestingly enough, I experienced first hand that it’s easy to focus for short durations but it is the sustained focus over periods of months and years that I am talking about here. I will admit first off that this is hard to do. The environments around us are making this harder. We need to take action and better ourselves. I started to contemplate what these actions might be and what it truly means to be focused.
I come to realize that what makes one extra-ordinary is their ability to focus relentlessly.
Perhaps, a good life experience a.k.a quality of life is directly related to what you choose to focus on and how much you focus on it.
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So, we need to talk!
Modern positive psychologists have found that the human brain can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, an individual takes:
7 bits of information at a time
1/18 of a second to differentiate between information
126 bits per second
185 billion bits for 70 year life span
60 bits to listen to one person
60 bits to listen to one person. No wonder we have trouble when 2 or more people talk at the same time. It’s because we can't process all the information at once.
Do you remember being in school and being told by your teacher to concentrate? “Pay Attention,” they said. What they were trying to do was to get you to submit as much of those 126 bits/sec to what was being taught in the classroom. But they never said how to pay attention and why.
If you can weed out the distractions and grow your focus, great things can happen. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your experiences. One experience at a time. Remember we have a limited number of bits/sec we can process. The degree of concentration directly affects our ability to absorb and experience something 100%.
What is Flow?
Related to concentration is flow. In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
This is also more commonly known as “being in the zone” — performing an activity, being fully immersed and energized by that activity alone.
In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihályi lays out the following three conditions:
- Goals are clear
- Feedback is immediate
- A balance exists between opportunity and capacity
When these conditions are met, it is said that an individual is in a flow state, enjoying the process along the way. In the absence of any of these conditions, some external factors need to come into play as a forcing function to make flow happen. We will dig into these external factors below.
Have you ever been involved in an activity like reading or painting or maybe studying for an exam and you were so focused that you disregarded your need for food or water or maybe even sleep? If so, you have experienced a flow state. I have been in the zone many times while coding, playing musical instruments, preparing for a job interview, studying for exams. I once remember studying and losing track of time only to realize that it was 330am. I was fully energized and making some amazing progress. I almost had to stop myself and go to bed and restart the next day.
Notice that passive activities cannot trigger flow. You need to be actively involved in doing something. You need to be a producer, not a consumer. Passive activities like watching Netflix, online shopping etc. will never set you in flow.
Finally, flow can be attained collectively amongst teams and companies. This is harder to achieve because it requires a mind-meld of sorts and requires everyone to be on the same page. In my experience, I’ve seen this in startups with small teams and team-based sports.
With that in mind, let’s dive into those 3 conditions:
Clear goals give direction and structure to an activity. In the absence of goals, there is misdirection and lack of motivation. Indeed clarity of thought & intent and consequently lack of confusion is the first step to attaining flow. This is one of the reasons leaders, founders, executives running organizations should focus on making their goals are clearly understood to the rest of the team. Explaining “the whys” will go a long way in getting people on board and on the same page.
Feedback provides the individual with the necessary information to negotiate and adjust the activity in order to maintain performance. An important point to note here is that some activities don’t possess the luxury of immediate feedback. Research is one example. Building a company is another. These activities take time to do and feedback loops may be ambiguous and slow. In such scenarios, something extra is needed to hold on. In the absence of immediate feedback, strong desire, belief, grit, and determination are the qualities that help you persist and get through to the other side.
Sir Andrew Wiles, had a childhood fascination with Fermat’s Last Theorem and decided to undertake the challenge of proving the conjecture, at least to the extent needed for Frey’s curve. He dedicated all of his research time to this problem for over six years in near-total secrecy, while he had a full-time job. He only released small units of work and eventually presented to the world. This is an example of an individual using his desire and determination to overcome slow feedback and maintain a flow state.
A balance between challenge and skill
The third condition for flow is the right balance between the difficulty of activity and skill level. If an activity is too difficult, it results in anxiety. If an activity is too easy, it results in boredom.
For example, when you are starting to learn to play tennis, just hitting the ball to the other side is an achievement. But as you get better at it, you need to increase the challenge. Maybe you need to learn to serve, maybe you need to play a game, maybe you need to play a game with a good player.
To maintain flow, ensure that you have a balance between challenge and skill level. First practice and upskill, then challenge that skill and finally, repeat. I have had some really good teachers through my childhood that have helped me maintain this balance. I was lucky.
When in flow, an individual
- is completely absorbed
- loses track of time
- loses worry for self
- lacks awareness of surroundings
It’s only when someone comes out of flow, that they become aware of themselves and their surroundings.
Musicians, especially soloists, have often said to have experienced flow state. The staggering thing is there is a strong correlation between the quality of experience and performance when in flow. The musicians in a study exhibited lower heart rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension, when in flow, at the same time heightened their performance levels. Flow, thus becoming a state of effortless high performance.
Software engineers also experience a flow state. Noise-canceling headphones have a small but important part to play here by eliminating the distraction information bits. The headphone rule is thus important.
So, how do you attain flow and thereby increase your focus?
In order to be focused pay attention to your desires, up-skill constantly and taking action by challenging yourself. Below are some habits that can help
Exercise, Sleep & Diet
Develop an understanding of your body. Measure everything you can about your internals, your vitamin and mineral levels, blood pressure, etc. Do your annual physical. This will help you establish your baseline. Then followup by consuming foods, exercising and sleeping for what your body needs. Design your food, sleep and exercise habits to optimize your body. You need to first take care of yourself before you can take care of the world. I got tests done after consulting my doctor recently and am now incorporating beet, broccoli and B12 supplement in my diet. These compensate for my deficiencies and I’ve noticed increased energy levels during the day.
Practice continuous awareness
Try to stay aware of yourself throughout the day. Try to be two people on the inside. One doing the worldly activities and another observing and reflecting. Failure is a funny thing. It made me reflect and helped me attain flow. On the other hand, when I tasted a little bit of success, I became less reflective and that eventually caused a mini-downfall. Try to maintain reflection and awareness regardless of external results. The way I think about continuous awareness is if I want to accomplish something by the end of the year, I need to have accomplished things every month of the year which will them accumulate to my yearly goal. To generalize, to accomplish something over a period of time, you need to accomplish a smaller goal in a smaller period of time. Eventually, every moment of the day you can ask yourself, what am I doing now, why am I doing it and how am I doing it. This will allow you to stay focused.
Single-task, don’t multitask
Try to focus on one task at a time and give it all the bits your mind can process. You can start paying attention and listening fully the next time you talk to your partner, colleague, friend or family. Context-switching is expensive. Don’t have FOMO. Within the realm of all possible things that you could do at any given time if you choose one thing and give it your everything and it will turn out wonderfully. If you are looking for a more structured approach practice Pomodoro Technique.
Staying focused on one thing means saying no to everything else. Your time is a limited resource. Use it wisely. When you have to say no, just do it. Don’t beat around the bush. But also explain why you are saying no to something or someone so others have an idea of what your priorities are.
Journalling helps with reflection. Writing brings clarity of thought. I use the five-minute journal: https://www.intelligentchange.com/products/the-five-minute-journal, which was gifted to me by my former colleagues.
Surround yourself with clean environments. A cluttered surrounding is a reflection of a cluttered mind. For starters make sure your study area and sleep areas are always decluttered. I do my bed when I wake up. I will feel accomplished and it sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Indeed the best leaders are the ones who serve. Teach people the things you’ve learned. Nothing will give you more clarity than knowing that you have to explain a topic to someone else. I break serving others into three areas
- Compliment when someone does well
- Give constructive feedback when you wish someone did differently (using Thanks For…Wish That… syntax)
- Challenge/Question if it’s no that the above
- Share your learning
Finally don’t forget to detach. You can’t force focus. Give your mind the rest it needs. Spend time with family and friends laughing. Look out of your window in a distance or go for a walk. It helps zoom out and recognize our insignificance compared to everything else that’s out there. I detach every day by watching comedy and listening to music.
Applying these methods in the workplace can improve morale by fostering a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment, which may be correlated with increased performance. In the book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Coert Visser introduces “good work” in which one “enjoys doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.” He then provides tools by which managers and employees can create an atmosphere that encourages good work.
Life is a manifestation of your focus. A distracted mind leads to a distracted life. Let’s all vow to increase our focus and build things bigger than ourselves.
I think building a resilient next generation is the best thing we can do for the world. If you have ideas on how to teach flow and concentration to school students let’s talk.