Learning to focus

Being able to focus for long periods of time requires that you master two broad categories: 1) Controlling your environment 2) Controlling yourself.

1) Controlling your environment

Depending on where you work, who you work for, and the people you work with; controlling your work environment can be extremely difficult. There is no quick fix or easy answer here. Open office layouts that are intended to encourage collaboration serve only to encourage distraction, and management will not change their open office layouts. The practical reality is this: the more you are collaborating, the less you are focusing. Focusing requires solitude and silence, not congregating and conversation.

If you are forced to work in an open office layout, you have to find a means of escape if you want to focus. This escape comes in two forms:

  1. Work from a designated quiet area in the office
  2. Work from somewhere other than the office

A designated quiet room can be created by commandeering a meeting room, and hanging a sign on the door with the following rules:

  • Rule #1: The only people allowed in the quiet room are people actively working.
  • Rule #2: There is no talking under any circumstances.
  • Rule #3: Keyboards and mice should be silenced (i.e., no mechanical keyboards or mice with loud clicks – a decibel meter can be used to verify this)
  • Rule #4: Any sound should be listened to through headphones at such a volume that no one else can hear what you are listening to.
  • Rule #5: Avoid eye-contact with people in the quiet room, and this is a signal that you wish to start a conversation.
  • Rule #6: Do not touch anyone in the quiet room.

If you chose to work for somewhere other than the office, make sure it is an environment where you can focus. If you are allowed to work from home, but your home is full of distractions, then you will need to find another location. Provided you are able to tether your laptop to your phone to access the internet from anywhere, you can work from any location where you have a strong enough cell signal. Experiment with different environments until you find what you need to focus. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Work from a coffee shop – and try different coffee shops
  • Work from a restaurant or cafe where they don’t mind your hanging out all day to work
  • Work from a library or library-like book store
  • Work outdoors in a park
  • Work for a co-working space
  • Work on a patio or deck attached to your office complex

When you can access the internet from anywhere, you can be creative. Don’t stop looking until you find a spot perfect for you.

2) Controlling yourself

Now that you have a working environment free from distraction, you now need to learn how to focus. The first step is to eliminate all distraction:

  • Close your email application
  • Close your chat application
  • Do not access social media through your browser (if that is too hard, use child-proofing configurations to block access to social media websites)
  • Power-down your phone

If the thought of doing any or all of these fills you with anxiety then you first need to address your anxiety before you attempt to learn how to focus. If you are constantly nervous that something might be happening that you desperately need to know about, you may have a social media addiction or a related disorder. There are resources for learning how to conquer FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that can help, but if they don’t seek out a therapist who can help you figure out why you are addicted to social media.

Assuming you have conquered FOMO, you are now ready to start learning how to focus. There are two stages to focus:

  1. Quiet your mind
  2. Engage deeply with your work

Quieting your mind is best done by meditation, and meditation is a learned skill. We all have thoughts that swirl through our heads that threaten to pull our attention (did I pay the bills? Is the oven on? Do I need to get my oil changed?), but you have to put these thoughts aside so that you can live in the moment, and being present in the moment a critical first-step to focusing. As an added bonus, learning how to be present in the moment will yield great benefits in your personal life, as it will greatly increase your ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to the people in your real-life social circles.

Engaging deeply with your work is entering the Flow State. This is “focus” in it’s purest form. This may happen naturally when you eliminate distractions from your physical environment, conquer FOMO, and quiet your mind; or you may need a lot of practice if you’ve never actually focused before. Do not feel badly if you cannot easily enter the flow state, or if you cannot maintain it for long. The more you practice preparing to enter the flow state, and the longer you can maintain it, the easier it will be to enter and maintain it.

Working in the flow state is deeply rewarding, fulfilling, and in many cases relaxing. You are in a partial dream-state where the rest of the world disappears and it is only you and the work. The quality and volume of work you produce may shock you if you have never truly focused before, and when you see these results you will want to work while in the flow state as often as you can. This then creates a positive feedback loop, where the more you see the benefits of focusing, the more you want to focus.

If the idea of entering the flow state seems foreign to you, there is a good chance you already do it:

  • When you are cooking, do you lose track of time and then suddenly realize that you are done?
  • When you are driving, do you lose track of time and suddenly realize you are at your destination.
  • When you are playing a video game, do you lose track of time, and suddenly realize that it’s late at night?

These are all you entering and existing the flow state, and if you already have these experiences (or similar experiences) then your mind is primed to enter and maintain the flow state. You only challenge is to achieve the same level of focus while working.

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