We live in strange times.
Artificial intelligence has transcended our lives. Self-driving cars, personal assistance apps like Siri and Alexa, algorithms which ensure we see more of what we like on social media — the list goes on and on. It won’t take long before Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot becomes a reality.
We’re the creators of a whole new world using technology. Yet, we’re slaves to what we’ve created.
One notification ringtone is enough to throw our routine in a frenzy. We’re the most ADHD-affected generation in the history of civilization. We can’t stay focused on a single task without getting distracted, even if it means watching an entire episode of Game Of Thrones.
The ability to perform deep work has become rare. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly valuable in our economy, believes author Cal Newport.
We know this. And we try hard to focus on what’s important for us. Yet, we succumb to the temptations of distraction all the time. It’s like smoking — people know it’s bad for them, but they just can’t stop.
I rarely touch my smartphone while doing deep work. But if I do check for missed calls, I end up browsing the internet. Or if I go to check my notebook, I find my phone and end up spending fifteen minutes with it. I forget to refer to my notes.
Does this happen with you too?
I cannot blame technology. The logic that smartphones and apps should govern themselves and be less distracting is bullshit. If I follow that belief, I’ll continue failing in my quest to do deep work. I cannot demand external circumstances to change if I want to improve my focus. Instead, I must focus on my internal locus of control.
The more you develop your focus, the more you develop a certain something known as willpower. Willpower, according to stoicism, is the only aspect under our control apart from our perceptions and actions. But this willpower is like a muscle, which gets fatigued each time it’s used. That’s why you feel exhausted at the end of a day when you’ve taken many decisions.
The stronger your willpower is, the easier you find it to stay away from distractions. You can also follow a healthy diet and focus on important tasks.
But you must strengthen your willpower through consistent training, just like you strengthen your physical muscles at a gym.
6 Techniques to Focus Your Mind
I’m not a willpower guru. But in the last three years, I’ve come a long way in fortifying it. Here are six steps I’ve followed (and still follow).
1. Use Inversion
We keep thinking about what we must do to become productive. As a result, we try everything we read. Yet, we have no idea about what works and what doesn’t. We waste more time researching how to become productive than taking action. Instead, apply inversion — a mental model which makes you think backwards.
Negative thinking comes easily to human beings. We find it easier to think about what we should avoid rather than what we can do.
Once every few weeks, I ask myself, “what can I do to distract myself and lose complete focus?” The answers include working in a noisy place, keeping my phone within reach, checking for new notifications, being interested in what others do, and so on. Once I’ve identified these toxic actions, I avoid them.
Thus, I’m more productive than I would be if I drank mugs of coffee, listened to music, or consumed substances to increase focus.
Takeaway: Instead of trying to work on improving your willpower, ask yourself, “How can I lose my willpower?” Note down the answers, and take steps to avoid them.
2. Turn Off Notifications
Until recently, notifications were my biggest distractions. A WhatsApp message or Twitter mention was enough to set me off course for almost an hour. So I turned off ALL my notifications.
Social media, email, apps… I receive no notifications. Now I open the app I need, finish my task, and put my phone away. I still get distracted if I open an app I shouldn’t, but those instances are far lesser now.
It felt frightening at first. I wouldn’t know if I someone messaged or tagged me. But within two days, I noticed the world didn’t stop spinning. Life went on just the same for everyone. For me, it became calmer.
Takeaway: Turning off all notifications on your phone and laptop might appear alarming at first. But you’ll become less distracted and more focused. You’ll also witness an improvement in your willpower. If you want to be productive in the true sense, take this step now.
3. First Things First
I know. This is one of the rules in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Sometimes, I pick up my smartphone during a break. (Trust me, it’s a bad idea.) I might open LinkedIn to connect with potential leads, or open WhatsApp to message a client. But before getting to that, I get sucked into — press the green button when you get the right answer — notifications.
I’m human after all. When I get a notification, my brain quietly tells me I’m important. I want to see what others say about me. But it also pulls me away from my task. I drift towards mindless chats and notifications. Before I know it, I’ve wasted fifteen minutes of time allotted for deep work.
When you pick a task, finish it task first. Block out everything else. You won’t always succeed (God knows I’m still working on this). But each time you enjoy a small win, you strengthen your willpower by a fraction. The cumulative result of these fractions, in the long run, is mind-blowing.
Takeaway: When you pick a task, finish it first. You can cave into distractions later. They will stay right there. (If you have suggestions to improve this trait, do leave a comment. I would love to try them.)
4. Use the 5-Second Rule
Pulling yourself out of distraction or laziness is tough. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s human nature. But you can take conscious steps to get yourself on track.
I follow Mel Robbins’ Five-Second Rule. It states that when you don’t feel like doing something important, or when you know you must pull yourself away from a harmful activity, tell yourself, ‘I’ll [insert activity] in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.’ When you end the countdown, start the activity in the self-dialogue.
When I don’t feel like getting out of bed, I say, “I’ll stand up in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” After the countdown, I gingerly keep my feet on the floor and stand up. On other instances, when I become aware of the time I’m wasting on my smartphone, I say to myself, “I’ll put this phone away in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” and put it away.
The more you practice this rule, the easier it becomes to follow.
Takeaway: When you become aware of doing unproductive work while more important tasks loom overhead, tell yourself, ‘I’ll start [insert deep work activity] in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.’ Then stop what you’re doing and return to the important task.
Conventional wisdom states exercise helps you lead a healthier lifestyle. Coupled with a good diet, it helps you live a healthier life.
But the results of exercise are much more. They cascade into all aspects of your life, including boosting your productivity. Research shows that exercise releases endorphins, the happiness chemical, in the brain, which enhances your state of mind.
Exercise trains you to push yourself. Often, your mind gets exhausted before your body does. When you push your body a little more, you subconsciously strengthen your mind too. Gradually, you improve your ability to focus.
Exercising doesn’t have to include heavy lifting or rigorous strength training. It can range from a brisk walk to working out or training for a marathon.
Takeaway: Physical exercise will train your mind to push itself to the next level. Exercise for three days a week and witness your willpower strengthen with time.
6. Switch Off
We love staying connected 24/7. It makes us appear like we’re on top of things. In reality, though, we become slower.
Staying involved in something all the time pulls you into tactical issues of every moment. This impedes your ability to focus on larger and more strategic aspects of life. As a result, you’re like a hamster on the wheel — running hard but barely moving forward.
Psychologist Amos Tversky believes, “You waste years by not wasting hours.” Farmers leave soil barren for a year to let it recover and become fertile for the next season.
Once a day, put all your entertainment devices, books and work away for ten minutes. Just be. Observe your thoughts. Ponder over important aspects you’ve put off since long. ‘Wasting’ an hour a week will save you from wasting years.
Takeaway: Switch off for some time every day. It gives your mind some space to breathe. Become wise enough to recognize that constant activity is not a productive way to live.
In the late 1960s, a team at Stanford University experimented with children. They offered each child a marshmallow and gave the child two choices — s/he could eat the marshmallow now, or wait for fifteen minutes and get rewarded with two.
In follow up studies, the researchers found that children who waited longer for rewards had better outcomes in life, like SAT scores, educational attainment, body-mass index and other measures.
A Dunedin study on over 1,000 children showed the same thing — the ability to apply willpower and delay gratification is directly proportional to positive outcomes in life.
You don’t have to “do so much in such less time.” You don’t have to keep complaining how difficult it is to do more because you’re stretched to the limit. Because, admit it — you’re not. You’re stretched far less than you’re capable of.
Fortify yourself to work on tasks which matter, and break away from those which don’t. The more you follow the steps mentioned above, the stronger your willpower becomes. And the stronger your willpower, the better your focus.
Successful people are no different from you. They just work on what’s important and ignore what isn’t. They know they cannot do everything, so they don’t even try. They know what to focus on, and they go after it with fervor.
You can do the same. Don’t let technology make you feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel. Instead, leverage it to become productive, and grow yourself to the next level. Run hard, but move forward.
(This article originally appeared on the Aha! Now blog.)