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How to Focus: 5 Research-Backed Secrets to Concentration

Jan 06, 2016
Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

A question a lot of us are struggling with these days is “how to focus.” Concentration seems hard. Why does everyone joke about having ADD? There’s a reason…

Ed Hallowell, former professor at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Driven to Distraction, says we have “culturally generated ADD.”

Via CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast- Paced Life:

Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice! When I spoke to Duke professor Dan Ariely about this issue he confirmed that, yes, the world is working against you. Here’s Dan:

The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult.

Let’s fix this. Let’s learn how to get our attention span back and be able to focus on the things that matter. (Hopefully you’ll be able to focus long enough to read this whole post. C’mon, you can do it. I believe in you.)

The first thing we need to look at answers the big question that’s on all our minds: why does it seem to be so much harder to focus than it was in the past? Here’s the reason…

1) Focus Is a Muscle

You bounce around between apps on your phone, email, TV and Facebook. We think those are just bad habits. But it’s a little more insidious than that.

Citing the research of the late Clifford Nass (formerly of Stanford University), Georgetown professor Cal Newport explains that too much unfocused time degrades your ability to concentrate when you need to. From my interview with Cal:

People who do a lot of attention switching, they believe they can focus when they need to, but the reality is they have lost that ability. When you give them a task that requires focus, they perform worse than people that don’t spend a lot of time fragmenting their attention.

Most of us know multitasking is bad when you’re working. But it actually has longer term effects. If focused concentration is a good workout for your brain, bouncing around distractedly is being a mental couch potato. Here’s Cal:

What research like Clifford Nass’s makes clear is that focus is actually a skill that has to be trained. You can’t just decide, “Now I’m going to go focus intensely for the next 3 hours on something.” If you haven’t actually built up your capability to do that, you’re going to have a very hard time. When you’re checking Facebook all the time on your phone outside of work, that has an impact on your ability to perform the next day when you arrive at the office.

Much like lifting weights at the gym, the more time you spend doing it, the stronger you’ll get. And if you haven’t been spending much time focusing, it can take a little while to get that skill back up to speed.

(For more from Cal on how to best manage your time, click here.)

So to be more focused you need to spend more time focusing. But what’s the first step to getting down to business?

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2) Clear Your Head

You want to focus but you’re worried about the 900 other things you have to do. That’s a problem. Unresolved issues in your life don’t just distract you; research shows they actually make you stupider.

What’s going on here? Citing a study amusingly titled “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, Cal refers to the problem as “attention residue.”

When you are still thinking about other stuff it reduces the amount of mental firepower you have to devote to the task at hand.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

The problem the research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

The solution is to get the worries out of your head. Write them down. Why does this work? Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains that writing things down deactivates “rehearsal loops” in your brain.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

When we have something on our minds that is important— especially a To Do item— we’re afraid we’ll forget it, so our brain rehearses it, tossing it around and around in circles in something that cognitive psychologists actually refer to as the rehearsal loop, a network of brain regions that ties together the frontal cortex just behind your eyeballs and the hippocampus in the center of your brain… The problem is that it works too well, keeping items in rehearsal until we attend to them. Writing them down gives both implicit and explicit permission to the rehearsal loop to let them go, to relax its neural circuits so that we can focus on something else.

Okay, so you should write down your concerns. What else should you write down? A plan for how you’ll take care of them.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

…they could significantly reduce the effect’s impact by asking the subjects, soon after the interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. To quote the paper: “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”

(For more on how to reduce worry, anxiety and heartache, click here.)

The next step has nothing to do with you personally or your brain. It’s all about real estate…

3) Location, Location, Location

A number of experts I’ve spoken to all agree that the biggest part of focus is merely removing distractions. Productivity guru and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss explains:

Focus is a function, first and foremost, of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating… I think that focus is thought of as this magical ability. It’s not a magical ability. It’s put yourself in a padded room, with the problem that you need to work on, and shut the door. That’s it. The degree to which you can replicate that, and systematize it, is the extent to which you will have focus.

What does research show the most productive computer programmers have in common? They had employers who created an environment free from distraction.

Via Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.

One of the most powerful ways to change your behavior, proven in zillions of studies, is merely picking the right environment.

Willpower is great but it’s not the best solution. When I spoke to Cornell professor Brian Wansink about using willpower instead of context his answer was simple: it’s too hard.

Have a spot where you’re usually productive? Go there. Wendy Wood, a professor at USC explains how your environment activates habits — without your conscious mind even noticing.

Via Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore:

Habits emerge from the gradual learning of associations between an action and outcome, and the contexts that have been associated with them. Once the habit is formed, various elements from the context can serve as a cue to activate the behavior, independent of intention and absent of a particular goal… Very often, the conscious mind never gets engaged.

Again, there’s solid neuroscience behind this. You want to associate focused work with a particular place and then go to that place and crank.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

One way to exploit the hippocampus’s natural style of memory storage is to create different work spaces for the different kinds of work we do… If you’re working on two completely separate projects, dedicate one desk or table or section of the house for each. Just stepping into a different space hits the reset button on your brain and allows for more productive and creative thinking.

Cal Newport tells a great story of how extreme you can go with this idea. Peter Shankman had a very tight deadline he needed to make to get a book finished. He knew he always worked undistracted on planes. So what did he do? Here’s Cal:

What he ended up doing was actually booking a round trip business class ticket to Tokyo and he just wrote the whole way there, had an espresso in the Tokyo airport, turned around, and wrote the whole way back. To him, sitting in that seat on the plane where there’s literally no other things to capture his attention. With no internet, with nowhere else he could go, it put him into such an intense mode of deep work that he ended up writing a whole draft of his book in that 36 hour window.

(To learn what the most productive people do every day, click here.)

No, you don’t need to fly to Tokyo and back. But aligned with a good location is a particular attitude you need to have that’s very rare these days…

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4) Stop Being “Reactive”

Turn smartphone notifications off. Your computer should not be chiming when you get a new email. You need to stop being in a mode where you are reacting to things. Everything must start and end with your decisions.

It’s the attention residue problem again. Any time you are reacting to new stimuli it pulls you out of focus. And then that can linger in your head, draining your ability to concentrate on what’s important. Here’s Cal:

It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The state that almost every knowledge worker spends their day in is a terrible state if your goal is to actually focus with any intensity. I think it’s the equivalent of having a professional athlete who’s coming to most games hungover.

(To learn what the most organized people do every day, click here.)

So maybe you try all this and you still can’t focus today. It might not be due to anything going on right now. It might all be the result of what you didn’t do last night…

5) Get Your Sleep

What’s one of the main reasons you spend so much time aimlessly surfing the internet? Studies say it’s lack of sleep.

Not getting enough shut-eye reduces willpower and depletes the self-control you need to avoid bad habits like watching cat videos. And if you’ve missed sleep, you’ve reduced your intelligence.

Via Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School:

Take an A student used to scoring in the top 10 percent of virtually anything she does. One study showed that if she gets just under seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and about 40 minutes more on weekends, she will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, everyone has heard of Anders K. Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” of deliberate practice study. But there was something else besides time practicing that contributed to the skill of those experts: getting a lot of sleep.

Out of the 10 everyday activities, only sleep was rated as reliably more relevant to improving one’s violin performance than the grand mean, and 5 activities were rated reliably less relevant.

In fact, some people’s emotions are so disturbed after a night of sleep deprivation that they could be classified as psychopaths.

Via The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest:

All of these things combine to change the way they score on clinical mood disorder scales, often tipping perfectly normal people over the edge into the clinically relevant zone, so that, if tested on that particular day, they could be classified as depressed or even as psychopaths.

(To learn how to get a great night’s sleep, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and get the skinny on the most important reason why focusing is so important…

Sum Up

Here’s how to focus:

  • Focus is a muscle: The more time you spend focusing, the better at it you will get. Don’t give up.
  • Clear your head: Got concerns? Write them down. Make a plan for how to conquer them. Then get to work.
  • Location, location, location: Go where you know you’ll get stuff done where there are no distractions.
  • Stop being reactive: Turn phone notifications off. No interruptions. It all starts and ends with you.
  • Get your sleep: Or you’ll be dumb and impulsive. More sleep means better performance across the board.

Yeah, if you are really focused you’ll perform better at work. Duh. But what’s an even more important reason to build up that focus muscle? You’ll be happier.

From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

“Five years of reporting on attention have confirmed some home truths,” Gallagher reports. “[Among them is the notion that] ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’ when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.”

Paul Dolan teaches at the London School of Economics and was a visiting scholar at Princeton where he worked with Nobel-Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. He explains the importance of attention in his book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think:

Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention. What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together… The scarcity of attentional resources means that you must consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways. If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating your attention… So changing behavior and enhancing happiness is as much about withdrawing attention from the negative as it is about attending to the positive.

You create your world with what you pay attention to.

There are a million things happening right now: some good, some bad.

Focus on the bad and life’s not going to seem so hot.

Focus on the good and whaddya know — the world’s suddenly a much better place.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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