They say the key to success is to simply show up every day and do what needs to be done.
But showing up is the easy part. How to focus and stay on-task is the real challenge.
Like an old lawn mower, it probably takes a few tries to get going. However, when you do, you enter a state of focus where you forget the world and are able to get lost in your work.
It’s in this state that we do our best, most efficient work without even thinking about it.
We call it being “in the zone”: a magical productive place you probably wish you could visit whenever you wanted to. So why can’t you?
Why is it so hard to focus?
You’ve probably heard of “writer’s block” wherein writers struggle to fill a blank page with words despite their best efforts.
But it’s not really specific to certain professions. Everyone from designers to entrepreneurs has encountered the proverbial block that's stood between them and getting something done.
The cause isn’t so much a lack of an idea or the will to start, but the inability to dedicate your attention to the task at hand in a noisy world.
There’s always so much to do and so little time attention.
One study found that when making meaningful decisions—which requires a fair bit of brainpower—the human brain processes information at about 60 bits per second. Dial-up internet moves information at 56 kilobits per second, just to give you a sense at just how much faster we’re able to receive information relative to our ability to actually process it.
This reality reveals an unfortunate truth:
Attention is a finite resource. Information isn’t.
Improving your concentration comes down to two things:
- How you allocate your attention
- How you block out excess information or “noise”.
But it’s easier said than done.
Even as I write this I’m nowhere near being in my zone. My attention gets pulled to other items on my week’s to-do list, my social media feeds, a Shopify store I’m building on the side, and my personal life.
As someone who can get sidetracked at times, I’ve done a lot digging into the topic of focus to figure out how to improve my concentration.
While even the best productivity apps can help bring clarity to how I spend my time, the most impactful perspective I’ve found has to do with a concept called “flow”.
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How to focus better by harnessing “flow”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied the relationship between attention and work, has written extensively about the topic of why some people look for happiness in building, creating, composing, and making things.
From pianists to figure skaters, he found that people across a wide range of disciplines all identify a state in which they’re able to forget themselves and focus singularly on the task at hand.
In fact, he goes on to attribute this state of zen-like focus to be what creative people are actually pursuing when they do the work they do: the chance to suspend the sense of their own existence.
This model suggests that we’re most easily able to enter a state of flow when we’re faced with a task that requires both a high level of perceived skill and offers us a challenge (the latter might explain why some of us procrastinate to seek out deadline-based thrills).
So now we know that what we’re really chasing isn’t focus so much as it is the state of flow.
The question, then, is how can we create conditions that make it easier to enter a state of flow?
5 strategies for better focus
Under the right conditions and in the right frame of mind, you can actually improve your ability to enter a state of flow. Here are some strategies to help you get there when you need it most.
1. “Chunking” your workload makes it easier to manage.
Like I said, we can only focus on a limited number of things at a time.
Part of mastering our ability to focus, then, is to change the way we perceive and tackle the mountain of tasks in front of us. This strategy is called "chunking".
Instead of being overwhelmed by a million little things, you can group them into more manageable “chunks of smaller tasks that contribute to a common goal. Instead of being intimidated by one big thing—like starting a business—you can break it down into smaller, more approachable components that are easier to tackle.
2. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
Until you read this sentence, you probably weren't actively thinking about your breathing.
Your breaths were likely shallow and weren't filling your lungs with as much oxygen as they are capable of handling.
Since oxygen is fundamentally tied to our ability to focus, deep breathing exercises can help you quiet your mind and boost your focus.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned leader in the field of improving health through mind and body, recommends the following exercise for improving your focus:
- Taking a deep breath (4 seconds).
- Hold it (7 seconds).
- Let it out (8 seconds).
Repeating this several times helps you intake much more oxygen through deeper breaths, giving you a boost in energy and focus. It's also a proven technique to help you de-stress.
3. Coffee and Beer can encourage creativity and focus.
There are two legal substances we often associate with productive work: Alcohol and caffeine.
They may conjure images of the author finding inspiration at the bottom of a glass of whiskey or an entrepreneur burning the midnight oil with a hot cup of coffee next to his or her laptop.
While coffee is often associated with productivity, beer usually means the opposite since it actually reduces your focus. But as a result, it lowers inhibitions caused by unnecessary mental processing. This means it can be helpful when the problem on your plate is creative in nature.
The recommended amount is two drinks, or when your blood alcohol level reaches 0.07%. The optimal amount of caffeine, on the other hand, is consumed in small, frequent amounts and can help you get things done by essentially convincing your body it has more energy.
It goes without saying though that too much of either will have a negative effect on your ability to concentrate, and it's probably not a good idea to depend too much on coffee or beer just to get your work done.
4. Listen to the same song on repeat.
This may or may not work for you, but it works for me and several established entrepreneurs like Ryan Holiday and Matt Mullenweg swear by it.
If you like working to music, consider picking one song (preferably without lyrics) and play it on repeat. Eventually the song becomes background noise that helps you block out the external world. Based on my own experience, it can even seem to condition you to get into your zone whenever you play the track.
5. Journaling can help you block out noise and stay on track.
Journaling activates the left hemisphere of your brain, leading to benefits that include:
- Improved memory.
- Better comprehension of concepts.
- Improved physical health.
But by writing about your progress, you actively block out all the other "noise" while you focus on what you've done and what you plan to do to reach your goals.
It also helps you commit and follow through on your goals on a long-term basis.
But discipline comes first
Discipline is doing what you don't want to do when you least want to do it.
No life hack will ever replace old fashioned discipline (trust me, I've looked).
Both your body and your mind need to show up ready to work or your attention will wander no matter what you do. This is something I find especially important to keep in mind when working on side projects that require intrinsic motivation (because no one's paying you).
However, there are a number of strategies I've tried that have helped me cultivate a better work ethic:
- Cut down on multitasking: Splintering your focus gives you less attention to work with for each task. We’re just not made for multitasking—just try listening to two conversations at the same time.
- "Eat the frog first": Do the hardest task when you have the most energy, which for many people is earlier in the day.
- Get better sleep: Invest in your sleeping hours to reap a sharper mind during your waking hours.
- Fight procrastination: Even if you can never fully squash your tendency to procrastinate, never give up the fight. Every battle you win means a less stressful to-do list.
Master your attention, master your success
There’s an undeniable relationship between focus and success.
You need to commit to your goals in order to be successful, but you need to focus in order to commit.
For many of us, that doesn’t come easy. But it all starts with appreciating how limited a resource our attention is, and that chasing after our goals means being smarter about how we invest it every day.