How to Focus

A Kind of a Stopwatch
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It’s Friday afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., and I should be writing promotional copy for a series of workshops I’ll be teaching this spring.  The materials will go to the sponsoring venue, and they will appear in slightly different versions on my website and in my weekly newsletters that go out to clients and colleagues.

However, I’m not doing that.   Instead, I am writing my blog post for today, because I’m doing this challenge for The Daily Post.  Yeah.  So the idea that I would share with you my top techniques for how to focus on a task, or how I do it successfully, is kind of laughable in the moment.

We’re only human.  So my first suggestion is, “Know thyself.”  My peak creative time is in the morning.  That’s why I try not to see clients before 11 a.m.   If I’m going to come up with something new, or if I have to crank out some work on a deadline, early morning is the best time for me.  Part of being able to focus is understanding when focus is actually possible for you.

Of course, there are different kinds of focus.  I’m very focused on my thoughts right now, and I remember especially as a child I had an ability to become totally immersed in something, so that my exasperated mother could hardly get my attention without setting off some kind of explosive device.  I can still do it. It’s just that the interruptions of life call for their own responsiveness, which is also a kind of focus, I suppose.  Some things require a laser-like, single minded focus.  I had to work out a problem on a tech support issue this morning, so I set aside a full hour, turned off the music, got all the documentation I thought I might need, turned on the speaker phone, and holed up for the task.  My clients require a softer, more generalized focus so that I don’t creep them out.  So, as with anything, “focus” is not just one thing.  It is a skill or activity or “mode” that adapts to the task at hand.  Ask yourself what kind of focus is required, and how to create the conditions so that focus and sustained effort is possible.

Another thing that I have learned about focus comes from the cognitive sciences, and from the Feldenkrais Method.    I know that it is best to take frequent pauses to refresh oneself.  This can easily become an avoidance tactic, so you have to monitor yourself for that.  But if you’ll set a stopwatch when you set upon a task, and then notice the first moment when you feel a bit bored, or your mind begins to wander, or you are feeling otherwise uncomfortable, tired, or distracted, then stop the clock.    Whether the time elapsed was 60 minutes, 30 minutes, or 10 — you have exceeded your “productive maximum.”

Here’s the trick: Back off about 10% from your maximum.  So, if you were fidgeting after 10 minutes, set a timer for 9 minutes.  Work until the buzzer sounds.  Stand up, walk around, get a drink of water.  Come back to work for another 9 minutes.  You’ll find that you get a lot done during that time when you are really paying attention — much more so than if you were cranky after 15 minutes, spent another 15 beating yourself up that you needed to focus, that you weren’t getting anything done, and stressing about the deadline, then getting so frustrated that you give up and go fix yourself a sandwich. Think of it this way:  when your mind wanders, you are already taking a break, so get over it.  If you take a pause JUST BEFORE  you go into distraction mode, and then begin again refreshed, you are always working at your best.  You have eliminated the long downward graph of diminishing results and returns on your investment of attention.

So, when the time comes that you actually feel frustrated at being interrupted after 9 minutes, or whatever — it’s time to Set the stopwatch again.  Begin to work, and once again stay tuned in to yourself to notice when your mind starts to wander, or you’re feeling frustrated or otherwise not fully engaged.  Stop the clock, check the time.  Chances are, you have expanded your maximum substantially — and can back off 10% from the new maximum and work from there.  Your capacity will steadily grow when you consistently work within it, and stay “in the black” as for as your energy and attention are concerned.

Everyone I know works really hard.  My circle includes a lot of freelancers, independent business people, and entrepreneurs.  They’ve succeeded in large part because of their  work ethic and their ability to stay focused, working longer hours than seems possible.  They also begin to burn out, feel run down, or experience sore necks, backs, or wrists as a result of relentless work — too long spent at one task without a break.  So if you find yourself afraid to take a break, or ignoring yourself and the honest requests from your body for sleep, nourishment, and a chance to hit the internal “refresh” button — then you will find the solution to be counterintuitive.  To focus better, be sure to take a short break — maybe as short as 5 minutes — every hour.  You’ll be amazed at how your productivity soars!

And now, I think I’m on a roll, and in the mood to create those promotional materials!

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