How to Develop your Focus Muscle
Written by Professional Academy Management and Leadership Tutor, Kathryn Knights
Being able to focus is becoming more difficult in the modern world – distractions and interruptions are everywhere. Focus is a skill you need to work at and develop over time. By doing so it’s possible to create time in your schedule to spend on your most important tasks, no matter how busy you are.
We live in an age where information and connection rules. We are bombarded with a constant stream of updates from news channels, social media feeds and personal messaging apps. There is a lot of information out there and some of it is beneficial to us. But we need to go further than focusing on the things that give any benefit and instead give time to the things that give maximum benefit. By doing so you will streamline your life. Eliminating unnecessary information and reaching your goals more quickly and efficiently.
If you don’t know what product a company is selling, then you are probably the product – and social media is a prime example. The tough truth is that all social media companies want you to do is spend more time on their app. They are fighting for your attention – not because it’s for your benefit (although they’ll frame in that way) but because they have designed their apps to feed our desire for attention and recognition. In doing so we create content for them and also more revenue.
Every time you receive a notification from a social media app you get a dopamine hit – and that’s addictive. The software companies know this and they develop their platforms based around it. What does this mean for us? It means we get stuck in a cycle of distraction and interruption and that’s of no help when you need to focus.
The Art of Focus
Focus is a skill and, as with all skills, you can develop it over time. The more practice you put in the better you get. That’s hugely beneficial, not only for your personal effectiveness but also for the organisation you work for. The ability to focus creates value as you become better at solving problems, coming up with new ideas and discovering new ways of working that stand you apart from the competition.
Deep Work Vs Shallow Work
So what type of work are we doing when we are focused? Cal Newport coined the term 'deep work' in his blog, Study Hacks, in 2012. When we are doing deep work we are pushing our cognitive capabilities. We are doing tasks that cannot be replicated (e.g. writing a song) and they often involve creating new concepts and ideas. Deep work pushes the world forward and helps it to evolve. Think of it as doing mental push ups. The benefit being that the process of doing deep work regularly makes your brain bigger, better and stronger.
The flip side of deep work is shallow work. Most of us are familiar with shallow work. It comprises non-cognitive tasks that are often completed while doing something else. They are easily replicated or delegated and create no new value – they include email.
Deep Work Strategies
There is no one right way of weaving deep work in your working way, but here are some approaches you could take. It doesn’t matter which one you choose (it could even be a blend of all four) – just start the deep work habit
1. Monastic Strategy
Isolating yourself for long periods of time i.e. weeks or months to focus on deep work. An aspirational approach but not practical for most.
2. Bi-modal Approach
Splitting your week between deep and shallow work. For example, spending two days on shallow work and three days on deep work.
3. Rhythmic approach
Splitting your time each day into shallow and deep work. For example, spending the morning on deep work and the afternoon on shallow work.
4. Journalistic approach
Switching between deep and shallow when you have the time. The danger of this approach is that you never get to the deep work.
How to make deep work inevitable
Here are some quick and easy ways to make deep work an inevitable part of your day:
1. Ask for deep work time
Speak to your line manager and agree on a way forward that will allow you to spend time doing deep work. Bear in mind the value you can bring when you are focused – not only as an individual but as part of a team.
2. Schedule deep work on your calendar
Deep work won’t just happen. You need to schedule time in your calendar for it to take place. Be honest with yourself about when you find it easiest to focus and how long for.
3. Batch for meetings
Whether your meetings are on or off-site they are hugely distracting and interrupt the flow of your day. Batch them up wherever possible. Nominate a day each week that you will spend in meetings. It will be a tiring day but it will mean that the rest of your week if freed up for focus.
4. Turn off email and social media notifications
It can take up to 40 minutes to get back into the flow of your deep work following an interruption. Turn off all notifications – nothing terrible will happen whilst you are offline.
This technique is based on working for a 25 minutes chunks of time and then taking a 5-minute break. Repeat this four times and then take a 15 to 20 minute break. Working like this means you will naturally be more focused because you will be under the pressure of a short block of time.
The act of meditation will help develop your focus muscle. Notice when your mind wanders and bring it back to where it should be.
If you need further advice, get in touch via My Website or LinkedIn.
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