Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Do you struggle to maintain concentration for an extended period of time? Do you find that the length of time that you can focus your attention has severely deteriorated over the past few years? Twelve months ago, I would have answered yes to both questions. There was a melting pot of reasons for this. Environmental, personal and structural tended to be the category headings for most. An open plan office, an inability to say ‘no’ and a daily structure that responded to the needs of others at the sacrifice of my own. I often left work scattered and unfulfilled. The day would start with the best of intentions but would derail and leave me feeling unproductive and to be perfectly honest, really unhappy. I felt like a passenger in my own existence, unable to produce the quality of work that I so desired. In his classic book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says

“the mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

In essence, your capacity to concentrate intensely, to focus your attention to achieve a goal is a major factor in determining happiness. I needed to make changes.

Twelve months ago I made some big changes.

It started with owning my morning. Running and exercise have always been great outlets for me. As I said to my wife, I am a better person when I run regularly (she agrees!). The challenge was that I loved to run after work and this is not easy when you have two kids under six. The routine takes over. So I had to run early in the morning. I started getting up at 5am (otherwise known as stupid ‘o clock) and running in the darkness. You learn to sharpen your focus quick smart when you run in pitch black. I also didn’t let inclement weather deter me. I ran when it was raining. I ran when it was freezing. The benefits for me far outweighed the costs. I also found the weather really helped keep you in the moment.

The next battle was with my attention. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg states that “to be genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention”. For me, the challenge was that I divided my attention amongst too many things. I needed to be able to prioritise better and to let things slide by. The change happened when I was introduced to meditation. The first introduction was via the Headspace app and is a great space for anyone new to meditation. I used to think that meditation was all ‘oms’ and ‘chakras’ but it is actually just about stopping and being present. Ten minutes a day doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it does when you are meditating. I found my mind wondering and constantly having to bring it back to focus. This is normal! Meditation came and went for a little while but I started a daily habit at the start of this year and I’ve meditated 99.9% of this year. I use Insight Timer as my app of choice. It has a great variety of meditations (short, long, morning, binaural beats, etc…) and is free. You can also earn accomplishments by keeping your streak of meditating going. I meditate every morning and it is a great way to start the day. My mind still wonders but I’m much more conscious of it.

Adam Grant, the author of Originals and Give and Take, is renowned for his quality of work and for his volume of work. He is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). His formula for success is easy.

High Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of focus

Having a large block of time with a clear goal is key. You then need to make sure that you work with intensity. In a previous life, I worked as a gym instructor and I would often marvel at the people who would come to the gym for hours and barely raise a sweat. Intensity is what helps you achieve your goals. I guard my schedule now. Morning meetings are really limited. This is the best time for high-quality work. I also try to keep meetings and emails to a minimum. I wrote a post last week on my personal inquiry into where my time goes. I am employed to do great work, not to warm chairs and play email ping pong. Yes, these are essential but a day that only consists of these is, in my opinion, a waste.

To help me focus in an open plan office, I use bucket headphones and Brain.fm. Brain.fm is music designed by an AI engine for the brain to enhance focus. I had read lots of binaural beats and power of the repetitive tones on focus. I tried YouTube clips of binaural beats, focus soundtracks on Spotify but eventually locked down on Brain.fm. I used multiple email addresses to sign up for the free ten sessions and I have committed to a yearly subscription. It is the best $47 I have spent this year. I find it really helps block out the background noise and focus my attention on the task at hand. I think of it as blinkers for the open plan office. When I am at home, I use a technique called box breathing (or four square breathing) before I start my writing/work. It is brilliant for slowing the breath and helping to start my focus period off in style. I use the BoxBreathing app for this. In combination with Brain.fm, I have seen huge improvements in my ability to focus.

The challenge with work that is digitally based is the click bait. Clifford Nass, a Professor from Stanford who studies behaviour in the digital age, has found that constant attention switching online has lasting negative effects on your brain. In his words, constant switching is making us dumber. A little sensationalist for my liking but still something to be really wary of. Are you constantly starting a task and finding ten minutes later that you are nowhere near that task or struggling to remember what that task was?  If so, take some steps. These steps worked for me. The first step is recognising that it is having an impact.

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