A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone. (Henry David Thoreau)
No one can accomplish anything worthwhile without focusing their mind. The ability to consciously direct your attention toward exactly what you choose – at will – is one of the most important abilities for anyone who wants to be successful in their professional and personal life. The flip side of this ability – to ignore and release from your mind all those things that are irrelevant to you – is equally important. A person who can’t consciously direct the focus of their own mind is no better than a slave. They are a slave to any shiny, flashing, beeping thing that approaches close enough to catch their attention – an angry political message, an advertisement for something they know they aren’t going to buy, a time-wasting distraction of any kind.
Challenging mental work – the kind of work that creates beautiful art, valuable writing, innovative new technologies, or any other kind of meaningful creative output – requires periods of unbroken focus and concentration. Because of this, when you are able to increase your attention span and your ability to focus, you give yourself a powerful skill that will pay back dividends over your entire life.
As time goes on, modern life grows more and more packed with distractions. Telephones, music players, video game systems, computers, and other gadgets give people a richer and more distracting experience every year – perhaps even every month – at a lower and lower price. Because of this, people who don’t make a conscious decision to cultivate their ability to focus, are doomed to have their minds pushed around by external distractions. Taking charge of your own mind, deciding which inputs are worthy and which inputs are not, is one important way that you can press back against the tide of distraction that constantly grows bigger and louder in the world outside you.
The following are some specific ways to increase your ability to focus your attention on the targets of your choice, and to turn your attention away from unwanted distractions.
Meditation. One of the best ways to train your mind, increase your attention span, and augment your ability to focus, is to learn to meditate. I admit it, this is a subject that I harp on over and over in my writing. The reason why I do this is because meditation is almost certainly the cheapest and simplest way to enhance the quality of your life, in many different dimensions at once.
It’s simple, but not easy – many people start meditating but few continue, because it’s definitely not a quick fix solution. You will need to do your meditation practice for at least a few weeks or even a few months before you notice any difference. The question is – are you willing to take a small risk, and to demonstrate a little bit of curiosity about the experience and the teachings of enlightened masters of the past? Are you willing to invest the time and energy in testing this out for yourself?
You don’t need faith, you just need to approach this problem with the mindset of a scientist. Could you imagine investing just two percent of your time in meditation, over the long term, in order to massively enhance your personal experience of the other ninety eight percent? Most people probably invest much more than two percent of their time in junk – watching pointless television, viewing irrelevant web pages, or absorbing disposable “news”. Why not invest two percent of your time in something positive and transformational instead?
Work on paper. It may seem low-tech, and laughably old school, but don’t disregard it. Putting ideas down on paper, at least part of the time, engages your mind and your sense of touch in a way that working on a computer can’t. Regardless of your particular creative product, writing and drawing by hand – on paper – is a great way to focus your mind on one task without losing your attention somewhere else. By avoiding the ever-present distractions of your computer – internet access, switching applications, or remembering that you “need” to do something else – you can empower your mind to focus creatively on a single task for as long as it takes to get it done. When you scribble, sketch and mindmap on paper, you can always translate what you have created to a computer later on – if and when that becomes necessary.
Push the inner critic into the background. Criticism and analysis is an important part of creative work, but not right away. When you get started, let go of any attachment to producing something “good” and just start doing “something”. When you trust your innate creativity and ability, “good” will emerge naturally. And you can always edit and improve once you have something to work on. After all, it’s usually easier to edit and alter a rough draft than it is to start from a blank page.
Start working for “just a few minutes”. When you start working, promise yourself that you’ll get a certain amount of work done – say, at least fifteen or twenty minutes – before starting to evaluate what you’re doing. There’s a kind of “on ramp” effect that applies in all forms of creative work – your brain needs to warm up and get rolling before you start becoming most effective. Don’t expect that your mind will go from “zero to sixty” right away. Being discouraged too early – and retreating to take a break – is counterproductive. You’ll end up being forced to take the time to ramp back up after your break anyway, so why not invest that time on the front end?
Turn off the internet, put the smartphone away, and turn the ringer off. When you want to focus on your most important creative work, turn off your internet connection, put your phone away, and turn the ringer off. Interruptions can be a serious problem, since it takes at least fifteen minutes to get back to intense and focused creative work after an interruption (the “on ramp” effect mentioned previously). Therefore, a couple of well-placed interruptions can blow out the productivity of a whole hour.
Of course, a lot of creative work depends on input from others and collaboration among teams. And this is good – high-performing teams can accomplish far more than the individuals involved would be able to do on their own. Still, this kind of performance often depends on people being able to detach and focus on high-impact tasks, and then to bring their work together with short, productive, and high-impact meetings. Wherever possible, communicate with others at your convenience, not theirs. Batching communications like phone calls and emails into blocks is a highly effective way to protect your creative time from the interruptions that can derail your effectiveness and focus.
“Singletask”, don’t multitask. Research shows that the human brain does better with one, and only one, task in front of it. While you may feel like you’re getting a lot done with IM and email windows open, writing a document, browsing the web, and listening to music, you’re almost certainly not performing up to your potential. In reality, you’re probably underperforming on five things rather than actually getting one thing done effectively.
Being able to concentrate your mind as needed is a great and valuable skill that will pay off in many different areas of your life. It can speed up your ability to learn and to get work done, increasing your efficiency and productivity.
Also, the ability to direct your mind like a laser beam toward whatever target you choose consciously has the positive side effect of making you far less likely to dwell on unproductive negative thoughts and worries. The mind can only focus on one thing at a time, after all. Instead of being trapped in unresourceful thought patterns and habits, you become more able to withdraw your attention from all the things that don’t matter to you.
The ability to control your attention and focus at will is such an important skill for living and working successfully in a distracting world, that it’s worth investing substantial time, effort, and practice in order to to develop it.
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