Let’s look at how to focus and be ruthlessly productive in your work, study, or side project. We look at the main obstacles to maintaining focus as you work, then cover the top six habits you can install to reach incredible levels of productivity.
In this article, we focus on how to focus better moment-by-moment, when we’re undertaking a task. But really our productivity is a function of hundreds of variables that go way beyond what we discuss here. Check out my 60+ Productivity Habits for a comprehensive look at this subject.
If you’re having trouble focusing while you work or study, the first step is to remove any obstacles to focus that stand in your way.
How to Focus and Be Productive: Remove Obstacles
Obstacle 1: Social Media
If you’re a Gen Z or Millennial and find it tricky to focus and be productive, it’s very likely social media is the main culprit.
Do you reach for your phone as soon as you have a spare moment? Do you feel lost and anxious without it? Are you spending hours scrolling through social media feeds and instant messages?
If this is you, you’re addicted to your smartphone. You’re spending endless hours watching others live their lives instead of living your own. And you’re wasting precious time and energy that you could be investing elsewhere. You need to get a handle on this habit, quick.
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.Herbert Simon (in 1971!)
On a basic level, when it comes to being productive, you have to set aside your phone to work on your projects. You can’t be working and keeping up with your friends at the same time. Well, you can, but you need a smart method for it – and we’ll look at that.
But it goes beyond this. This addiction to quick, stimulating content is a disaster when it comes to getting things done because it affects your entire mindset. Sorry to break it to you, but working on projects is often slow paced, repetitive and monotonous.
But by transforming how you obtain pleasure (see the Habits below), you’ll find working on your own visions and projects to be fulfilling for its own sake, despite its drudgery. And working on your projects gives you an outlet far away from social media, filling you with inspiration and purpose, so simply committing to them is a huge step in the right direction.
My experience: Quitting Social. I all but quit social media back in 2017. Realising I spent way too much time admiring the lives of pseudofriends on social media, I swiftly deleted Snapchat and Twitter and reduced my use of Facebook and Instagram. Nowadays I use the latter two from time to time for business, and I have Whatsapp so I can keep in touch with people, but that’s all. And I don’t miss it one bit.
Obstacle 2 to Focus and Being Productive: Multitasking
You might wonder why I’ve included multitasking as a main obstacle to productivity. Doesn’t multitasking mean I’m working 2x, 3x, 4x more efficiently?
If this is your attitude, you must realise that multitasking is a myth. Though it sounds pretty to effortlessly shift our attention among various tasks, the truth is that our perception doesn’t work that way. Instead, attempting to multitask leaves us giving partial, broken attention to several items. Here’s why.
Compelling research at Stanford has shown that the brain does not focus on many tasks at once, but rather switches rapidly from one task to another. And when our attention switches back to the main task, its strength is diminished, requiring several minutes to return to normal.
What’s more, the same research shows that heavy multitaskers enter into distraction more easily in their ordinary lives. Training themselves to mix noise (unnecessary tasks and stimulation) with signal (crucial tasks), they fail to prioritise important tasks and become prone to distraction. When these heavy multitaskers try to focus on one crucial task, many more areas in their brain activate than necessary.
So multitasking means diminished attention in the moment – both in quality and length – and causes lasting damage to our working skills as a whole. In short, when we’re responding to messages, watching Netflix or browsing social media as we work, we’re seriously jeopardising what really matters: our project, task or exam.
Obstacle 3: Aversion to Boredom
As we saw in Obstacle 1, the aversion to boredom is an obstacle to focusing and getting things done. Forget what you see in orgasmic, climactic ads. To learn a language, write a book, start a business, study a degree, or undertake any other long-term project, most of the journey will be vanilla-flavoured. You’ll encounter hard times with self-doubt, procrastination and fatigue. If all you can bear is fast fun, you’ll never produce anything of note.
What’s worse, our allergy to the mundane leads us to adopting stronger and stronger vices to bypass it. And our boredom-combatting strategies follow the law of diminshing returns: they only produce more boredom and the need for a more potent solution. So over time, we become so used to stimulation that everything else seems depressingly mundane in comparison, and we’re caught in a vicious cycle.
What’s worse, these anti-boredom measures are usually junky and addictive. Social media, gaming, junk food and TV are all addictive substances that produce momentary satisfaction but slowly wither away our body and mind, leaving us lazy, unhealthy and overstimulated.
Essentially, boredom is caused by habituation. The more we’re exposed to objects, images and people, the less attention we pay to them. Eventually we tune them out altogether, and our life becomes dull and plain. How often do you notice the pleasure of drinking water? Probably very little – you have become habituated to the experience. The antidote is to boredom see the magic in the mundane.
Obstacle 4 to Focus and Being Productive: Other People
It’s fun studying or working with friends, and it can be tempting when we feel unmotivated. Sure, it has genuine upsides. You have company, support, and accountability.
But I’ve found that unless your companions are as committed as you are, the results are usually poor. You essentially end up multitasking, switching between work and play every five minutes. Our friends start telling us about a million things that are completely unrelated to the task, and before we know they’ve hijacked our attention.
If you do work with friends, make sure they have high standards and are more interested in getting things done than socialising.
Now we’ve covered the main obstacles to focusing and being productive, let’s turn to the six essential habits we can adopt to that end.
How to Focus and Be Productive: 6 Essential Habits
Habit 1 for Focus and Being Productive: Build Attention Muscle Through Meditation
As we saw above, poor attention is a huge obstacle to our ability to focus and be productive. But there’s a way to train it: through meditation. As Richie Davidson and Daniel Goleman, world leaders in contemplative neuroscience, claim: “Most every kind of meditation entails training attention.”
Before we go deeper, let’s quickly say that attention is the ability to retain moment-to-moment focus on what you deem necessary.
There’s compelling evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that shows that meditation (depending on the technique you practice) trains several types of attention, including selective attention (focus on one thing and ignore others), vigilance (maintain attention over time) and allocation (noticing small or rapid shifts in our experience). The first two are particularly relevant for work and study. Meditation also shortens the attentional blink, lessens mind wandering, and can undo the pernicious effects of multitasking.
What’s more, we can use meditation break the boredom cycle. After spending lots of time training our attention, we learn to see the beauty in the mundane. We pay attention to the present and take satisfaction from simple things, rather than immediately filing them under “Boring” or “Insignificant”.
Adopt a daily meditation practice, especially attention-intensive forms of it, and watch how you strengthen your attention muscle. And to learn how to meditate, see my Learn How to Meditate series.
Check out my YouTube video Why Meditate? The Power of Long-Term Meditation.
Habit 2: Restrict Tech Use
It’s simple. Don’t look at your phone or social when you’re trying to get things done. Turn off your devices and leave them in another room.
On a similar track, start decreasing your frivolous use of screens and smartphones in daily life. You’ll transform your relationship to boredom, regain lost time, and free up mental resources.
Besides, having lost the habit of being constantly connected, you’ll find it much easier to cut out these distractions when working on important projects.
Habit 3 for Focus and Being Productive: Diet and Lifestyle
To complete important projects, you’ll need to keep your energy high for months and years. To that end, it’s crucial you have a handle on your diet and lifestyle habits. You don’t need to go overboard to get ahead of most people in this regard. And the price you pay to adopt healthy habits is more than offset by the vitality you feel as a result.
Keeping yourself at a healthy weight means you can invest in your hard work all the energy you might otherwise spend getting around. And the benefits of regular exercise are so well understood that I don’t need to repeat them here. Get your eight hours of sleep – it’s seriously important for your mental and physical health – and drink plenty of water.
My experience: I do everything I can to be healthy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t eat junk food. I’m vegan and have a nutritious diet consisting of fruit, veg, legumes, nuts, and grains. I run 10k three times a week. I get plenty of sleep and drink water almost constantly. I’m certain I couldn’t maintain my output levels otherwise.
Habit 4: Take Regular Breaks
I now swear by regular breaks from work, study and reading. We venerate the idea of working for hours on end, but let’s be honest, after about an hour of flat-out work, we usually start feeling overwhelmed and uninspired. I’ve found that incorporating regular breaks into your routines is a brilliant way to keep your energy levels high.
Here’s how I do it: I set a timer of 30-45 minutes before undertaking a task. Then I dedicate all that time to that one task, stopping the timer if I’m interrupted. At the end, I check it off my list. Then I get up and move away from where I’m working for a few minutes, before repeating again. This simple habit has transformed my work and study.
And this even allows you to keep up with people while you work, if you have to. Keep your phone away from your desk and use it only during these periods. This works as a nice counterbalance to this intense form of work.
Habit 5 for Focus and Being Productive: Create Plans
It’s way easier to follow through on your visions when you have a roadmap. This applies to work, study and all other pursuits. What do you want to achieve? What’s your deadline? What steps do you need to take? If you have this clear from the start, you’ll save precious time later on. And you give your mind much less wiggle room to debate and doubt along the way.
The key with plans is to actually carry them out. It’s easy to come up with a fancy schedule, but not so easy to stick to it. Don’t get lazy, don’t procrastinate, and don’t give yourself excuses. Have the persistence to stick to your plan and patiently wait for the results to come.
Habit 6: Structure Your Time
On a similar track, schedule your time such that your days and weeks run like clockwork. This even works for artsy and creative folks who tend to scorn structure. You don’t have to turn into an inflexible robot, but do install regularity.
This makes it much easier for your work to become a habit, meaning you’ll stick with it and start building momentum without realising it. Giving yourself too much wiggle-room is a recipe for failure. Once you’ve built the habit, you can relax into the regularity and find a certain freedom in it.
To practice regularly, even when you seem to be getting nowhere, might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life. You settle into it as if into your favorite easy chair, unaware of time and the turbulence of the world.George Leonard
My experience: studying Chinese. I study Chinese for exactly 5.5 hours a week, doing the same activities for the same amount of time. Sure, I don’t have set study periods, but I know I have to do my 5.5 hours, and it keeps me on track. I used to feel these time targets to be suffocating, but now I relax into them and let them carry me along, knowing I’ll soon have the reward of greater skill.
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