Let’s start today’s article with a quick breathing activity.
First, take 5 smooth, deep, uniform breaths.
Now, take 5 quick, shallow, uneven breaths.
Notice the difference in how each method of breathing made you feel? It should be pretty obvious that the first felt significantly better.
Now, let’s take that same idea, but replace those two methods of breathing with two methods of focusing.
Just as with smooth, deep, and uniform breaths, smooth, deep, and uniform focus brings you nothing but good: serenity, confidence, and productivity. Let’s call the effects of this method focused-brain.
On the other hand, just as with the quick, shallow, and uneven breaths, quick, shallow, and uneven focus brings you nothing but bad: stress, depression, and panic. Let’s call the effects of this method scattered-brain.
Unfortunately, all the distractions of modern life seem to make scatterbrained syndrome much more likely than focused brain syndrome.
Between the constant pings, beeps, and bloops of notifications and distractions, it might seem impossible to escape long enough to actually get any focused work done!
Worse yet, anyone who’s ever been in the “zone” or “flow state” will know that this is by FAR where the best work happens. But the reality is that it takes the average person about 14 minutes to get to the zone and gain the momentum they need to do their best work, yet on average we are distracted every 4-6 minutes .
What usually happen is that as soon as we get closer and closer to our zone….ping! a new email to respond to….ooh! a daydream of you on the beach pops into your head…ring! a phone call from a co-worker, or a text message….and on...and on.
In other words, finding the focus needed to do your best work might be more complicated and scarce than you realize.
So, what’s there to do about it?
Well, it’s time to “train” your focus muscle.
And oh yes, it most certainly behaves like a muscle! You see, just like regular muscles, your focus can also get stronger and better through the proper “training.”
So, let’s cover some of the best focus muscle “training” techniques.
Clockwork Focus Training
I have another quick exercise for you to try.
First, find an analog clock with a second hand. (Alternatively, you can use your phone timer.)
Next, watch that second hand (or flickering numbers) for a FULL 1 minute. Keep your gaze on the time and focus on it entirely. Try your best not to let your mind think about anything beyond the ticking clock in front of you.
How’d you do? It’s a lot harder than it sounds, isn’t it?
Well, if it makes you feel any better….the first time I tried this myself, I hit my first wave of distraction after a measly 6 seconds.
But there is hope! After a lot of practice, I can now focus on those ticking seconds for several minutes (though those minutes might still be a little boring).
Try this focus training technique 2X per day and before long you’ll definitely notice an improvement in your ability to focus not only on this activity, but on other activities as well.
Interval Focus Training
By now, we’ve probably all heard of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.
This super-effective workout technique is broken up into two parts: bursts of intense 100% all-out physical effort alternating with periods of short rest.
You can also use this exact same breakdown when training your focus muscles: periods of intense, 100% fully engaged and focused work effort alternating with periods of short rest and full work disengagement.
Now, you might be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like the famed Pomodoro technique ….but that’s because it is!
This is what the classic Pomodoro technique looks like for a 2-hour period:
1) a 25-minute period of absolute, 100% focus on the task in front of you (this means you have to turn off ALL other notifications and distractions)
2) a 5-minute rest period during which you can do whatever you need to recharge (which ideally involves stepping away from your computer)
Repeat this sequence 4X. After you hit your fourth 25-minute period, take a full 10- to 15-minute break.
And voila! You’ve just had 2-hours of high-quality, productive, and focused work.
Now, keep in mind that when you first start this technique, you might find it pretty challenging to stay focused for those full 25 minutes. Or, you might find yourself spending the entire period staring at a blank page without the ideas or motivation you really need to get going.
So, what should you do if you run into this problem? Stay right there! DON’T let yourself pick up your cell phone or tell yourself you’ll answer “just one email” while you’re waiting for the ideas to come.
Remember that this is “training.” And who expects work results from training?
Even if you have to stare at a blank page for 25 minutes, don’t move. It’s just 25 minutes. These 25 minutes won’t make a difference in your overall productivity for the day, but they WILL make a difference in the strength of your focus muscle.
Just like a regular muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets!
On that note, in both HIIT workouts and focus interval training, your breaks are just as important as your actual work periods. They are essential to helping you stay in the flow state without burning out, so make sure you actually take them when that timer goes off.
Upgrading the Interval Focus Training Method
Though I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro technique, I ran into two major issues when I used it:
Issue #1) 25 minutes seemed like a daunting amount of time to have to focus on a task that I hated and didn’t want to do
Issue #2) I wasn’t ready to break my workflow and stop on a task I love after only 25 minutes
To solve these issues, I started grouping all of my tasks into 3 categories and changing up the timer accordingly:
1) Tasks I hated → 10 minutes of focus with 5 minutes of rest
2) Tasks that were just “OK” → the usual Pomodoro time of 25 minutes of focus with 5 minutes of rest
3) Tasks I loved and enjoyed → 50 minutes of focus with 10 minutes of rest
By modifying my intervals according to my “joy” of doing them, I noticed a direct relationship between my ability to focus, come up with good ideas, and stay in my zone until the timer went off.
Now, if you still feel a bit overwhelmed, feel free to start small! Remember, when I started training my focus muscle, I could only do the clock focus training for 6 seconds before being distracted. 6 seconds! But after lots of training, I’m now able to focus 100% for a full 50-minute Pomodoro session.
Begin with your intervals as short as you need to, practice the clockwork focus technique, and keep growing and experimenting until you find what works for you.
Here are a few final resources you can use to get started today: