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5 Ways to Improve Your Focus

Nicholas Carr wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” [1]

When I came across the article, I was so excited to read it. However, to prove his point, it took me five sittings to finish it. What is happening to us? Is this open-multiple-tab-phenomenon shortening our attention spans? And most importantly, is google really making us stupid?

I’ve been looking into ways to increase focus, and still haven’t found a panacea that cures all attention problems, but here a few things I’ve learnt;

Pomodoro Technique

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s, this has become a popular time management method where you set a timer to 25 minutes during which you focus on the task at hand. When the timer goes off, you take a 5 minute break, after which you start your next session. I think it works for major procrastinators like myself for two main reasons;

1. The hardest part about working on a task that requires a lot of focusing is…starting. Using terms from physics, overcoming inertia is harder than maintaining momentum. This explains why you’ll notice yourself going over the 25 minute period sometimes, because you become so engaged with the task.
2. The light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel effect. For tasks you particularly dread, the idea that, “It’ll be over soon,” keeps you going.

The modified version I personally use is the Successively Decreasing Pomodoro Technique, where the first session is set to 50 minutes, and then 40 minutes and so on…Naturally, the breaks also tend to get longer as the work sessions get shorter. This goes with the idea that we wake up with a finite amount of willpower, and it tends to decrease over the course of the day.

Find Your Flow (and Ride The Wave)

We’ve all experienced moments of flow, where we’re totally engaged on the work at hand, and our sense of time dissolves completely [and if you haven’t, then you’re really missing out on life]. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, the conditions required to enter a state of flow when you hit the right balance of perceived challenges of the task and your own perceived skills.

Also sometimes when you’re done with a big project you’re really proud of, you get this huge rush of exhilaration and feel like you have the energy to work on something else. Because such moments are quite rare, ride the exhilaration wave, and continue working.

Silence Your Phone (Turn Off Email Notification)

It’s very hard to reach me since my phone tends to be perpetually on silent, which makes it hard to find whenever I lose it. But I read somewhere [2] that phone/email notifications causes slight release of dopamine hits, and being exposed to phone notifications perpetually conditions us to anticipate it – explains the obsessive nature of checking the phone five times a minute even when there are no notifications. So I tend to silence my phone most of the time, and for some people that might not be practical, so my suggestion is to silence your phone during your Successively Decreasing Pomodoro sessions.

Manage Your Internet Surfing

Turning off the internet might not be practical especially since a lot of times we need it for research. However, manage your multiple-open-tab-disorder by opening an article, going through the complete thing once, extracting whatever notes you need onto Evernote, and then close it. Keeping too many tabs open just worsens multi-tasking and multi-tasking is bad for your brain [3]. Then you need it for research, so to deal with the multiple-tab overload; open an article, go through one complete reading through it, extract whatever notes you need onto Evernote, and then close the article. Don’t keep fifteen tabs open at the same time because it’ll just send your focus

Build Your Focus With Something You Like (Just Not Youtube or Video Games)

The main reason we procrastinate is because we dread whatever it is we’re going to be working on. Maybe it’s hard, challenging and not quite fun. Because our focusing abilities have diminished thanks to the internet, I think it would be interesting to experiment if we can reverse this by building up our focus on tasks we like. Start with a 30 minute session, and then add 2 minutes everyday you work on the task again. It might be useful to work with one of the time-logging apps mentioned here such as aTimeLogger [4] to monitor how much time you focus on those tasks.

Now of course, ‘like’ is a subjective term. It could include reading, writing, gardening, knitting, painting, giving a talk; any task that requires focus but does not have negative feelings connected to it. I personally wouldn’t include youtube and video games because of the inherent sensory overload that comes with them. If you look at people who play video games, they’re totally focused for hours, but once they’re done, they turn into these zombies walking around in a daze with their eyes wide open. Of course, I’m prejudiced against video games [apparently there are some benefits to playing them], but again, I wouldn’t include them in the list.

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Published inPersonal DevelopmentProcrastinationProductivity