Cultivating Focus

What is the key to focus?

Focus is in short supply these days. I think this is especially true with my generation. My generation was the first exposed to the world of possibilities; the Internet and all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Unfortunately, this also came with all the world’s distractions. And distractions are designed to command your microfocus – tiny bites of focus that are insignificant individually but colossal grouped together. It is no surprise that the world’s highest-grossing mobile games take 2 minutes, Instagram videos are 1 minute, and Snapchat stories are 10 seconds. String a few games together or hit autoplay on your friends’ IG stories and 10 minutes have gone by. Meanwhile you completely forgot what you were doing. What was I studying? What was I reading? What was I working on? It may feel like a harmless break, but in reality, it is exactly that but much more serious – a break. You’ve broken the thread of mental focus that could’ve led you down the path to your answer but now you must find it again. This will take more time and probably lead to a worse result since you’ve lost some of those mental connections that were just beginning to flicker in your mind before they were extinguished by distraction.

I saw the beginnings of it in myself before I began to correct it. Solving problems at work often requires solving many small things first that eventually piece together to form the whole. An answer to one of these small things offers a checkpoint to reward oneself. For me that reward was checking my phone. It became a reflex. I had the brain to muscle link: complete something small, small ping of dopamine, reach out to grab my phone, unlock my phone with my thumb print, scroll to the second page, and click on the bottom left icon to bring up IG. I could probably do it with my eyes closed. Scroll down a few posts and get back to work. Only a minute or two right. But wait, what was I doing again? It would take a minute to reorient myself back on task. I wasn’t lost but undoubtedly one of the threads mapping my initial thoughts to my goal would be gone. Perhaps I would regain it in a few minutes or perhaps not. In most cases, either the quality or the completion time suffers. This is not good when you have an operational job that demands answers as soon as possible. I needed to make a change. I felt like I was addicted to becoming distracted.

For me the solution for work was two-fold, a physical change and a mental change.

Sometimes the simplest fix is the easiest. Instead of leaving my phone on my desk where the slightest glance would kneejerk me into picking it up, by putting it in my drawer, it was out of sight, out of mind. When I want to look at my phone, I have to make the extra step of opening the drawer. This gives me a moment to consider if I really need to look at my phone and remember my goal to cut down on distraction. It worked. I would estimate this simple solution cut down distraction by 50%.

The second, more impactful, and much more difficult to cultivate solution came from a mindset change. I recognized that I was micro-rewarding myself for micro-successes. I had to convince myself that I didn’t need these micro-rewards and realize the true prize was worth waiting for. I had to actively acknowledge that the frequent small pings of satisfaction I got were really counterproductive. When I recognized the larger goal of a well-executed total project was worth so much more than the sum of these little pings, it made it easier to postpone temporary gain for long term gain. It reminded me of that Stanford marshmallow experiment.

I had experimented with apps like Pomodoro in university. They “force” you to block out 20 minutes of focus time followed by 5 minutes of break. It worked for a bit but in my opinion seemed artificial. I began to bide my time waiting for the 20 minutes to be up. The much better solution is to change your motivation to solving the issue at hand and getting the answer. Focusing becomes natural because you’re driving at your goal vs listening to a self-imposed rule. It feels good to accomplish something rather than disobey yourself. One is positive reinforcement and the other is negative.

In the spirit of self-development, I will strive to make my changes be as unassisted as possible. I will lean on my willpower rather than an app to regulate me. I am trying to shake dependency on anything external to my own mind – at least when it comes to self-improvement. There is plenty I will happily lean on others for (that first ‘good morning’ in the elevator, letting me pet their dog, a home-cooked meal). So in that spirit, here are three commitments I am making to cultivate focus:

  1. Keep my phone in my desk throughout the work day. Only take it out max once per hour for 5 minutes.
  2. Only take breaks after completing a significant milestone. (Significant milestone = finishing a major section of a engineering document, completing a technical email, answering a complicated question, planning out and allocating tasks to move to the next stage of a project)
    But make sure to reward yourself for such significant milestones by taking a walk and resetting your mind. Don’t be kooked up in your cubicle all day!
  3. Actively motivate yourself to reach that significant milestone. All else is fluff until that milestone is reached. When you sense yourself wanting to take a break after a subtask – stop, remember this commitment, and remember your ultimate goal of improving your focus. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In a more general application, focus requires a goal. Without a goal, focus is meaningless. Just as important, one must define their goal and be aware of it. You may be interested in a topic and want to read up on it, but be aware of your goal. It adds meaning to your focus and motivates to continue. It works the other way that if you realize the subjects of your focus have no goal then the motivation to continue should fade. At a certain point, one cannot have goals of pure fun that satisfy no other goals. That sounds like a ticket to an unsatisfactory life. The key becomes finding goals that are both productive and fun (or at least you find a way to make them fun). Cooking could be considered a chore but I choose to think about it as a way to create and share good food with friends. Exercise could be painful and tedious but I think about as a way to a healthy life, energy throughout the day, and a necessary tool to be competitive. Learning Chinese could be difficult and monotonous but I try hard to remember the benefits of being able to understand and share ideas with one billion people.

I read somewhere that focus is like a muscle. It needs to be trained over and over. In time it will get stronger. My method will be to train my focus by reorienting my motivations and mindset. My intermediate step will be to make it physically harder to become distracted. My goal is to be focusing on the things that will help me in life. Thinking about them deeply and ultimately contributing something back to the world.