How can we improve our focus, concentration and presence?
How to remove distractions and better deal with them?
We live in a busy and distracted world of social media and hyper-connectedness.
Switching between tasks, being interrupted, getting distracted, having new tasks or information coming and losing focus seem to be the norm.
We think we can multi-task and handle it all at once.
The truth is we are not made for this. We spread ourselves too thin and don’t really accomplish anything.
I think focus remains the single most important factor in personal productivity.
But what can we do about it? How can we improve our focus?
The Two Levels Of Focus
After diving into that topic for several years myself, I realized that there are two ways to improve your focus.
Those two ways are like two levels that build on each other.
The first deals more with the external world, while the second deals with your inner world.
To start off, ask yourself:
“What is the main reason why we lose focus?”
Well, it’s distractions.
This is what we are going to get started with.
Level One — "Remove distractions to make focusing easier"
What has been the biggest source of distractions for you?
Most likely it is something that is related to technology.
Our phones, laptops, TV and especially social media, notifications, e-mails, news and so forth.
These things are battling for our attention because the advertisement industry knows:“Where attention goes, money flows.”
Very often our internet and technology usage consists of mindless media intake, newsfeed scrolling and jumping from one notification to the other while totally forgetting what we wanted to do in the first place.
This is how you lose your focus and get distracted from working on your goals.
Reducing these distractions is one of the most important parts of “environmental design”.
It is the idea of designing your immediate surroundings in such a way that it is easier to stick to your desired habits and work on your goals instead.
The essence of it is that you cannot trust your willpower to resist the temptation to give in to internet/media/technology consumption and thus neglect working on your goals.
Therefore, you intelligently design your environment in such a way, that you simply are not able to consume and be distracted by any form of media.
This means the following:
1. No TV in your sleeping/working environment
Actually, you don’t even need a TV. Sell it if you can. If not remove it from your immediate surroundings.
2. Keep your phone and laptop away from your bed
Your bed is meant for relaxation, keep technology out of it. If you use your phone for your alarm, even better, if you need to stand up and walk three meters to shut off the alarm.
3. Design the technology you use as intelligently as possible:
- Close all apps that could possibly produce notifications and distractions, especially all mail apps.
- Declutter your desktop, only keep what’s really essential.
- Use extensions/tools to make your browser less distractive: News feed eradicator, Block Site, Disabling of notifications.
- Render social media harmless, e.g. using tools that remove YouTube feeds and recommended videos
- Disable sounds and notifications: Teach your mind that there won’t be any notifications even if you instinctively reach out to check your phone since everything is disabled.
- Delete unnecessary apps or put them where it takes time to reach them
- Make your phone less attractive to open up, an option would be to disable colors or have very few and boring apps on the home screen
- The ultimate hack for productivity in the morning: Activate flight mode before you go to sleep and put your phone in distance from your bed. As soon as you wake up, you can’t instinctively reach for your phone and should you later still check it, there won’t be anything to check since you don’t have any internet connection.
- An alternative is to deactivate your internet connection or use app blocking features like the Downtime Feature for iOS.
- Use earplugs to block out distractions from your working environment
- Use headphones with white noise or binaural beats for improved focus or listen to songs on repeat
In summary, remove as many sources of internet and media as possible and make the ones you have to use for your work (e.g. laptop) as harmless and favorable for focus as possible.
This is what true focus stands for.
- While eating that frog (finishing your Most Important Task of the day)
- In a deep work environment.
Once you master this level you are so much closer to improved focus and concentration.
Level Two — "Embrace distractions to practice your presence"
So the most hassle-free and easiest way to achieve focus is to create an “environment of inevitability” by designing it intelligently and removing distractions.
But what if you need to get something done and cannot fully remove all distractions?
What about the annoying sound of a construction site you can even hear through your earplugs and white noise?
What about all the focus-breakers that lie outside your control?
The ultimate level of freedom can only be achieved by being able to focus even when distractions are around.
So the second level is to embrace distractions, practice your ability to remain present and focused and let distractions become powerless.
The first time I got introduced to that concept was when reading “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin.
Waitzkin, who is well-known as a chess-prodigy and martial arts champion, likes to prepare himself for distractions and disruptions so he can remain calm in spite of them.
One thing he would do while writing is his book is that he deliberately opened the window, confronting himself with noise coming from the street.
What did he get from that?
While it was difficult in the beginning, after some time he got better at remaining present and focused in the face of external distractions.
This helped him to prepare for and cope with the chaos and the unforeseeable in his life which he had no control over.
It did not only help him to remain focused during work but also while playing chess when his opponents tried to get him off his game through unfair behavior such as kicking his leg or disturbing his concentration through loud conversations.
Eckhart Tolle has a similar idea when talking about his big theme of “Being more present and living in the Now”.
He recommends starting small.
This could mean to not block out the barking of a dog or the screaming of some children you hear in the distance.
It is the training of non-resistance and letting the noise go through you.
When embracing this you realize that present moment awareness and non-resistance to whatever is, is the key to sustained focus.
Resisting a situation, even distractions, is always some form of identification with that situation and the emotion it provokes in you.
Of course, some distractions are simply too strong and should be dealt with as seen in Level One.
But very often we can start to practice our presence by disidentifying from the resistance we feel towards a distraction.
Our attention is like a dog that simply likes to roam around. But we are the owner which can control and direct our attention.
Only by realizing that we are the owner, not the dog, can we truly be present and focused.
This is what mindfulness practice is about.
Portals Into Presence
As a closing thought, I want to present some alternative ways to become more present throughout your day. This will help you to do what you need to do in spite of distractions.
1. Cold Showers
While taking a cold shower it’s easy to lose focus and be controlled by your primal reaction patterns such as heavy breathing, gasping, shaking and uncontrolled shivering.
Instead of doing that, commit to staying present.
- Open your eyes widely and tell yourself “Wake up!”.
- Then be fully present with the cold. Anticipate which parts of your body the cold water will hit next. Be with it.
- Don’t resist it. Fully tune into the sensations it gives you.
You will be surprised by how much easier it will be for you to be with the cold.
2. Get out of your head
This means to remove your attention from your thoughts and break your mind’s tendency to wander.
When you recognize you are lost in thought, for example, while working at your laptop, do the following:
- Look at your screen for a moment and then focus on your surroundings for a bit.
- Go back to the screen, then to the surroundings. Tune in and out from the screen to your surroundings, go back and forth and repeat that several times.
- You are basically shifting your attention outwards, away from your thoughts, which will give you an immediate boost of focus.
On a similar note, you can start to develop what Eckhart Tolle calls “Inner Body Awareness” by shifting your attention from your head into your body:
- Imagining your attention wandering down from your head towards different parts of your body — your hands, your belly, your legs — you can start to feel the aliveness in them.
- Feel your body expanding while you breath
- Watch your hands. Really watch them and feel the aliveness in them. This gets you out of your head immediately.
By feeling the aliveness in your body, you stop thinking, because you cannot feel a sensation and think about it at the same time.
This snapping out of your thoughts and focusing on your sensations in your body removes the blurry curtain you have in front of you.
You will gain immense clarity and focus.
What to make of this?
We all have busy lives where we have to live up to the demands of the world. So it will not always be easy to be fully present and focused.
Yet, you can start with Level One to make it easier to remain focused.
Also, realize that present moment awareness and mindfulness are skills to learn.
Therefore, live a life that is, in general, more geared towards focus than towards spreading yourself too thin.
It’s a whole mindset shift from living a shallow, unfocused life with many priorities, to a deeper life, while only focusing on what is truly essential.
How to get started?
Try to implement some moments of mindfulness throughout your day. Try to do body scans and get in touch with the feelings in your body, feel the alivness in them.
You could schedule that in your calendar or make it part of your routine, e.g. in the morning, during lunch and before going to bed.
Another thing that helped me is to use reminders. These could be sticky notes which you place all around in your work environment and living area, asking you “Are you present” or “Do you feel your inner body?”.
You could even change the wallpaper of your phone to remind you.
Having this regular mindfulness practice throughout your day will make being focused and present to the moment soon become a habit and a skill you learn.
PS: What has helped you to be more focused?