In one of the whatsapp groups that I regularly engage, we were talking about Michael Jordan and one of the members asked how successful people manage to keep their high levels of focus and consistency. Right there and then it hit me that with all of today’s being “plugged-in” it becomes quite easy to keep track of everything else that is going on except yourself. In the same group, one of the regular contributors described focus as the ability to get things DONE. The energy, time and amount of single-mindedness attention are what he has come to be know as focus.
The question that comes up in my mind is how is focus measured? And how does one achieve it?
To be honest, we all struggle to maintain focus in our daily lives. Endless distractions keep our brains from focusing on a set of tasks as we struggle to get things done at work and complete projects around our homes. But what is actually happening in your brain when you’re lost in a project? And more importantly, how can you train yourself to induce that focused state? When you are focused, your perception of the world around you changes and you have a heightened ability to ignore things around you. This is being in “the zone,” or “the flow.” It is when you are focused and do not notice events around you unless something initiates your bottom-up attention system.
We are all different people and it is likely you know that one person who can enjoy reading with a TV on in the background or who has no problem concentrating on a task while blazing loud HipHop. Like most people, I find it increasingly difficult to focus at work these days. The endless flow of e-mail, text messages and social media plays havoc with my productivity more often than I care to admit.
We all get distracted by different internal things throughout the day. Those thoughts might be about what you’re eating for dinner, why the girl at the coffee shop didn’t want to go out on a date, why your son keeps using the word because, or that stupid thing you said to your boss. You can, however, limit those brain wanderings when you need to focus on a task by simply putting the brakes on the thought process.
You can set up your environment to diminish distractions, decide on a routine or ritual that feels to you like a good way to begin your focused work. But in reality, our minds are so busy multi-tasking and keeping track of so many inputs that it’s going to take a genuine decision, a commitment, to make that transition from “all over the place” to “right here, right now.”
Each time your focus is broken, you restart the process and use up your brain’s resources. Picture your attention system like a glass of water. When it’s still, it’s easy to see through the glass and concentrate on one thing. When you hit it everything is disturbed and takes a while to calm down so you can see clearly through it. Over time, the water evaporates and by the end of the day you’re left with nothing.
Have you ever noticed different routines that people take before embarking on an activity? Many professionals start their work with a ritual-like practice:
- Doctors scrub up before surgery,
- Tennis players bounce a ball three times before serving,
- Superstar basketball player for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors Stephen “Steph” Curry has a complicated pre-game routine consisting of various difficult shots that are done to get him into the zone before the game tips-off.
These are things that researchers tell us done to enable the professionals get into “the zone” and get “locked-in” to their chosen craft.
Our ability to focus and concentrate lets us accomplish amazing things — when it’s working well.
Distractions are the main reason we lose focus, but often these aren’t as obvious as you might imagine. If you have poor focus, you may feel as if you simply have to try harder but this strategy probably won’t help. Instead, you can have better focus creating the conditions that make it easier to concentrate and complete your work, you can feel sharper and more focused especially when you have a specific task to accomplish.
Some factors that impair focus
a) Lack of sleep: This is a big one because if you don’t get enough sleep — even for just one night— your thought processes can slow down, you’re less alert than normal and your ability to concentrate suffers.
b) Hunger : Hunger is a distraction we’ve all had. Hunger is tied directly to low blood sugar which quickly leads to fatigue and low energy levels — and all wreak havoc on your ability to focus.
c) Hormonal changes: Normal hormonal fluctuations and shifts, like those during pregnancy or menopause, can affect how well women concentrate.
d)Stress: When you become mentally exhausted, you eventually will have difficulties with concentration and attention. If you have to reread things a lot because you can’t focus, your work may not get done, and of course, that alone causes even more stress.
e) Lack of physical activity/ exercise: If you don’t exercise, you won’t know how deeply your ability to focus is affected until you actually get moving.
f) Your environment: Is your environment filled with distractions like ringing phones, humming light fixtures, rattling heater vents, or visual disruptions? All of these elements can affect focus.
Factors that will improve your focus
Good sleep every night: Just as important as the food you eat, is sleep — both are basic components of good brain function. Get seven hours of sleep per night, or up to 8 hours on occasion.
Exercise: Exercise can do wonderful things for focus: just one session can improve mental focus and cognitive performance for any task you’re trying to complete.
Stress reduction: You can limit the effects of stress on your ability to focus by simply taking a break at midday and doing absolutely nothing for a solid ten minutes.
Learning to deal with distraction is great, but what’s more sustainable in the long term is training your brain to focus better. Training yourself to take control of your ability to focus is not easy, but is the most recommended method. If focusing has become more difficult for you, do something about it now before it gets worse. You can also try the following techniques that you may have learned as a student.
They really help:
- Work in “chunks.” Split your work into parcels and enjoy a timeout between each chunk.
- Take a break. Staying on the same task or topic for too long fatigues the brain, just as too much exercise exhausts the body
- Set a goal. Establish an endpoint for your task and reward yourself when you reach it with a refreshing drink, a social phone call, or a walk outside. For longer jobs, plan them out in phases and take little breaks between each stage — just enough time to rest without breaking your momentum.
It should be noted that whereas not everyone has that “focus”, it is something that people need to develop and practice very often. One of the ways to nurture or increase focus is through meditation. Usually, people only get time to focus after they are “excluded” from their social networks for many reasons including stress.
Another approach to take when you can’t concentrate is to listen to your brain and your body and take a rest or switch to a different activity briefly. After all, everybody needs to hit the reset button now and then. But if being able to focus feels impossible for you, it’s time to make some of these changes. It will make a big difference in your quality of life now and in the future.
Lastly, as people we can have two lessons to learn from a Chameleon. Chameleons have a great capacity to focus and refuse to be distracted against all odd. To focus better, we must learn to adopt to environments so that we are not aliens to it. This way, we get accepted and tend to (pay more attention on what we want) focus better.
By Edmund Kamugisha
Edmund is the Engagement Director at BLEGSCOPE®, and has 10+ years of management consultancy experience notably in MSMEs, FMCG companies and in the service industry. You can follow him on twitter: @edmokmg