Focus and getting focused! This is what I’m writing about this week.
One thing I encounter in a variety of ways with my students, hypnotherapy clients, and in particular the hypnotherapists that I mentor is that they have a lot of goals that they wish to achieve. Typically, they give me a long, long list of all the things they wish to do and achieve, and I feel tired and overwhelmed reading it, let alone attempting to guide them to achieve it all.
Without guidance, often these people take a small bite out of each of those many goals each day and ultimately make very little progress, despite working very hard. They can end up demoralised as a result of the lack of achievement. They get mega busy, but are not productive. They lack focus. Here’s some writing on a serviette to reinforce the point….
We therefore narrow things down to the most important goals and we then concentrate and focus on the plan of action to work through each of those goals methodically.
I often make reference to the 1980s film, the Karate Kid. The star of the film, Daniel, moves to a new town and is bullied. During one ordeal with the bullies, Daniel is rescued by Mr Miyagi who uses Karate to send the bullies fleeing. Daniel asks for training from Mr Myagi who agrees and tells Daniel to turn up at his house the following day. Daniel turns up expecting to learn karate in a particular way, but his expectations are dashed when Mr Myagi gets him waxing his car in a very particular manner. Daniel is a bit miffed, but waxes his car using the technique as instructed and then Mr Myagi sends him home. The next two days are the same, with Daniel being shown how to paint Mr Myagi’s fence, and sand his floor. Eventually Daniel erupts with emotion and angrily tells Mr Myagi that he is not here for slave labour and has not learned a thing. Mr Myagi then throws punches at him and asks Daniel to do his ‘wax on’ move to block the punch, as well as his sanding and painting moves – he realises, he learned a great deal. He just needed to focus on the component parts of his training and ease away from the big picture from time to time. Without wanting to ruin the film for those of you who have not seen it, he does go on to become Daniel-Son.
The big goals in life are what we want, but the actions required on a daily basis to make solid measurable progress towards them require focus and concentration. For those of you interested in some brilliant ways to get more productive, read this article: How To Be Incredibly Productive: 10 Keys to Productivity.
The skill of focus and concentration is incredibly important in and of itself as I’ve explained. Additionally though, in many cases advanced concentration and focus can help us to add more value to a task that is being completed. Researchers also believe that focusing on a singular task enables a person to get the task completed quicker, as it reduces the “switching costs” involved with transferring from one task to another task. It also helps us to achieve much higher levels of creativity and innovation when dedicated to one particular task/outcome.
Spira and Feintuch (2005) conducted a study and found that the average knowledge worker loses 28% of their day due to interruptions and the recovery time associated with them. Twenty-eight percent may not seem like much, but, when you run the numbers, 28% is roughly the equivalent of an entire work week every month. Our inability to protect our focus is a significant challenge.
“My key to dealing with stress is simple: just stay cool and stay focused” —- Ashton Eaton
Is it as easy as that quote insinuates? Focus and concentration can be difficult to master. Sure, most people want to learn how to improve focus and boost concentration. But actually doing it? We live in a noisy world and constant distractions can make focus difficult. As with most things I write about though, focus and concentration can be developed as with many skills.
Here are some research backed ways to help improve your ability to focus and concentrate:
1. Organise and Prioritise to Realise:
You need to start by organising your priorities on a daily basis. For example, what are the most important items that you must complete today? What are the most important goals that you wish to complete in your life? Having this information creates a guide with regards to what you will need to concentrate most of your time on for that day (or that morning/afternoon or whatever period of time you have set for productivity). After you have a list of items, then you need to prioritise them. Make sure to prioritise your list based on items that are important (adds positive value) and urgent (based on time). Being focused doesn’t necessarily mean you know exactly “how” to tackle your problems or achieve your goals. It just means that you can reflect on the main objective and remind yourself that less important things may need to take a backseat. Don’t feel guilty about prioritising, it’ll advance focus!
2. Time Is Currency:
Every person has the same amount of time each day, but the way you use it determines whether you will be successful or not. Time is like currency, and you have to be mindful of how you spend it. As you focus on completing a task, remember to set “time milestones”. Will this task take 20 minutes, 1 hour or 3 hours? Benchmark your actual time for completing the task against the time you estimated, and if there is a significant difference investigate why. Were you distracted, were you tending to other tasks too? Did you lose focus?
3. Understand Your Windows:
You have to realise that we are all unique; special in our own way. With this in mind, you must understand which window(s) of time work best for you in terms of your ability to focus and concentrate. For me, it is first thing in the morning whereby I’ll get to work on my ‘deep work’ as Cal Newport refers to it – the work on important projects and my prioritised goals. I use the end of the day for replying to emails, setting up things for the next day, making calls and doing admin or ‘shallow work.’
4. Own Your Environment:
We use our senses to experience the world that we live in. As such, our environment has a huge impact on our ability to concentrate and focus. An unpleasant scent can be distracting, lights that are too bright can reduce your ability to focus, too much noise is a clear distraction for some etc. In as much as you can influence it, you need to be sure to create an environment that supports you and enhances focus. Common attributes that generally create a positive environment to concentrate include: minimal noise, comfortable accommodations, a space you are familiar with, little visual distractions, reminders of the value of focusing on your goals etc. Let your workspace fuel your focus by your design.
5. Minimise Time Wasting Situations:
Minimise your exposure to Time Wasting Situations and even more importantly Time Wasting People. I am sure that you can think about a situation when you looked back and thought “Wow that was really a waste of time” or “I wish I had ended that conversation sooner because I could have used that time on something else”. If you want to aggressively improve your ability to concentrate, you have to aggressively minimise and avoid these situations.
Removing potential for those kinds of distractions is important, starting with…..
6. Turn Off Your Smart Phone:
Smart phones zap focus. If you’re a slave to your smartphone and check it several times an hour, as many people do, turn it off or move it out of easy reach when you’re trying to accomplish something significant. It is easier said than done but because of that aforementioned point, people are extremely sensitive to the objects in their immediate environments. Changing the environment changes what your brain believes is possible. Remove the biggest sources of distraction, and you’ll find it easier to pay attention and focus on the work that needs to get done.
Clear the decks while you want to focus. Have emails off, phone out of reach or unplugged, and so on. Make your point of focus dominant, work on it and through it, then have time for catching up with the world later, you’ll be so much more productive as a result.
7. Switch out Caffeine with Exercise:
Studies have shown that aerobic exercise may improve our short and long term functioning in brain regions related to attention. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Relying on caffeine can cause dips in our focus. Instead, punctuate your day with regular breathing exercises and oxygenate your brain, get regular exercise and notice how your fitness levels correlate with your ability to focus and concentrate for longer.
8. Take a Break:
Spend a few minutes to clear the clutter of the day, step away from your regimen, breathe, be mindful, take a walk, meditate, do self-hypnosis, watch something that makes you laugh, and generally reinvigorate and refresh yourself so that you can then…. Focus in and remind yourself of your top priority. Think of taking steps towards the end goal again, or if you feel fatigued with regards to it, focus on something else or call it a day – you are the only one who knows when your focus and productivity has peaked.
9. Be Grateful:
Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for, improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. In research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved focus, mood, and physical well-being. It’ll freshen up your senses and give you more focus for sure.
10. Prioritise your Sleep:
More quality sleep = more quality focus. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which contributes to dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Stressful projects often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep, but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control.
Ok, so self-hypnosis can help you with virtually all of these points mentioned here today, importantly though it is majorly useful at advancing focus and concentration and refreshing the brain, so once you have employed as many of these strategies as possible, go and read this article that shows you how to use self-hypnosis to advance your ability to focus: Using Self-Hypnosis For Increased Focus and Concentration.
There are many more ways to harness your focus. Remember that reshaping habits takes time. You need to put awareness, effort and commitment into making it happen. Managing your brains day to day in simple ways helps you move positively and productively toward these goals.