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Disclaimer: This post will require your undivided attention.
Focus, the concept of undivided attention is staying on a task for an extended period of time. It’s our capacity to do deep, uninterrupted, quality work. A recent Bankrate survey of top job skills that employers are looking for in Millennials calls its the new IQ. Employees are now required to show their ability to follow through with a job while not getting easily distracted and not quit when the going gets rough.
The nature of our lives now is reactive; literally reacting to notifications all day from social media apps and breaking news alerts from news apps. Being hopelessly attention deficit and overwhelmed by the influx of information is the norm.
It has taken me almost a decade to get my nomophobia, the fear of being completely lost without my cell phone, under control. When I had gotten my first iPhone, I had this urge to take it out and let it go for a spin even at the slightest possibility of a free minute. I would refresh my screen on loop, opening email, then Facebook, then CNN, then something else. Later Whatsapp became the new Facebook for notifications and alerts. If there was a spot in the home that didn’t have good Wifi connectivity and I happened to sit there, it was maddening to see the phone not get refreshed quickly enough. At the office, right in the middle of working on software coding, for absolutely no reason I would open a new tab and press any of my bookmarks to start reading an article on a website.
Well, you’ll need focus if you have goals to achieve. Research shows that 18 to 44 year-olds reach for their phones within the first 15 minutes of waking up. And reading emails that need responses and checking news that’s distressing can both increase anxiety levels. We now know every possible way of getting distracted, we are experts at it. Since 2007 or the heavy influx of smartphones into the masses, Time management gurus have been slowly transforming themselves into focus and technology addiction management gurus. Watching TV does not need focus because its a passive activity. Watching your favorite show in Netflix doesn’t need clarity, vision or sense of purpose to commit to it.
But the thing that is work, whether its writing a piece of journalism, coding a big block of software, preparing a presentation for a meeting, means focused heads down work until it gets out of the way. It cannot be done while you work on it in bits and pieces while spending most of your day on refreshing email and checking on your cousin’s jokes on Whatsapp. Working intensely with extreme focus in long pockets of time is now a concept called the Flow, as described in the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where you must lose yourself in the work you are at.
Calls for action:
Simplify your surroundings. Simplify the signals you are sending to your brain. Tame the monkey mind, in this case our conscious one which is eager to jump from one task to another not lasting even 3 minutes on each one of them.
First of all, we are not computers. So lets stop multitasking. As knowledge workers this is an essential skill to develop. The smartphones in our pockets are high powered machines that can multitask several processes in the background. But as humans, we are juggling many hats – work, personal life, family obligations. The call for action is to focus on one aspect of your life at any given time of the day for an amount of time that will either complete the task at hand or finish part of it that you had intended to before beginning it.
Cost of task switching:
The cost of mental juggling have been researched in the recent past. American Psychological Association says that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. This is what they have to say: “Throwing in a load of laundry while talking to a friend will probably work out all right. But, losing just a half second of time to task switching can make a life-or-death difference for a driver on a cell phone traveling at 30 MPH.”
I am a self proclaimed single Tab addict. If I end up opening a few tabs in the process of an hour, I simply save them all on Instapaper and just go on with my uni-task. If I think of something right in the middle of deep work, I quickly capture it in a small notepad that I keep with me to take care of it later. This system of collecting ideas that keep popping up separately is a proven way of not having to switch tasks and not feeling anxious about forgetting something.
Make focus sustainable:
Focus sustainable is focus achievable. Before your sit down for deep work, go to the bathroom, don’t be hungry and run from your smartphone. It’s really that simple. Time box your essential tasks and leave some unstructured time for yourself for unforeseen emergencies.
Time for mind wandering is necessary. It creates the sparks of brilliance where you let the underlying thoughts that are ruminating to make connections and form patterns and in turn give you terrific insights. Work intently, take a break to treat yourself to silence, go for a walk, come back and repeat.
Saying No to yourself:
I initially wanted to name this post, Shut the phone up. You get the point. Because we live in TMI(too much information) times, its important to control the information ingestion. There is so much good news about this. Distractions and notifications are all self-inflicted. And we know the technology antidotes. Most times a simple toggle button to NOT notify you of anything. If anyone is dying and you need to know, trust me you will know.
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goldman talks about two types of minds:
Bottom up mind: Responsible for our automatic and routine mental activity; is very fast, driven by our emotions and impulses.
Top down mind: Its in charge of planning, reflection and learning new skills is slower and requires voluntary attention and self-control.
“The difference between an expert and an amateur is that an expert will use the top down mind to actively reflect on the automatic, bottom up influence on their game, which enables them to continually improve their performance. Those of us who rely on using our bottom up minds are far more likely to lose focus and awareness in our immediate environment.”
Focus is a muscle that needs to be watered with time, practice and patience. Challenge yourself and stay upbeat and confident that you can get into the zone of deep work. Focusing on your shortcomings will pull you down, so trust yourself to achieve focus.
Making the change:
When you are tempted to “mind wander” in the name of harmlessly reaching for your notifications, think of what you have made out of your hour, your day. Maybe a little silent break will squeeze out a solution to a nagging problem you have been having. There must be some area in the world of art or science or product management or people management or sales that you are good at and that you can excel beyond your own imagination. Focus on the action and as you are building brick by brick, the bigger picture will emerge soon. The awareness to managing time gives us the ability to focus and prioritize our tasks. Completing tasks without procrastination in turn makes us less anxious, fearful, and let down.
Focus in and on life:
Give the luxury of your undivided attention to loved ones. Make yourself more dependable and empathetic to people in social settings by being attentive. Focus on the big picture to become a visionary leader. Run away as far as possible from your smartphone, and you will find yourself less of a distracted receiver and more of a focused giver.