By Eric Barker
January 6, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of 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:

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:

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:

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:

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?

Eric Barker: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

 

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 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:

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:

(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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

(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…

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

 

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:

(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:

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.

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:

(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:

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:

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.

Eric Barker: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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