It’s a shame that so many of us went through school thinking that some people were better at school than others. That some people had better focus than others. Or even that some people were smarter than other people.
But the truth is, you’re not “stuck” with the brain you’re given when you’re born. Our brains are always growing and evolving. And our minds work a lot like muscles. They can be melded, and adjusted, and exercised, in order to build them into the shape and level of strength that we want.
So many of us walk through life letting our minds be blown and shaped by the wind. Whatever experiences and thoughts and happenings occur in our lives give form to our minds in ways we aren’t conscious of. Something happens, or we allow a thought to pass through unexamined, and things stick.
The same things can happen to our attention spans. In some ways, every time our eyes drop to that phone in our hands, the strength of our attention has another little sliver chipped off of it. The screens are powerful things, of course, and we need the phones to thrive in modern society, of course. But they’re not helping matters in terms of us being able to read textbooks for long periods of time.
But all is not lost. But if we choose to use intentionality when we think about our focus and attention, and try to build them up as skills, we can unlock so much power in ourselves.
Anyone can have the ability to focus. Anyone can improve the level, and the power, of their focus. And anyone can use that focus on the most important things in their life.
Try this for starters
Most people would probably be quick to say they don’t focus well, or can’t hold their focus for long periods of time. For many, many of us, especially with all the distractions and attention destroyers we contend with on a regular basis, that very likely is true.
But that situation can be improved.
A friend of mine once devised a structure for systematically improving his focus, that he used to survive his aggressively academically rigorous college and grad school experiences.
Before he even started trying to study, he would check his baseline: how long he could reasonably focus without getting distracted or reaching for his phone. So starting fresh, he would crack open a book and study as hard as he could, intently, until he lost focus. Whatever that time was, whether it was 20 minutes or an hour, was his new minimum.
His first time, he made it 11 minutes. (When I tried it myself, I think I scored six minutes or something legitimately embarrassing.)
Then, he set about to improve that score.
But before he did a second mini “session,” he took a break. This was an important detail for him, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me when he first described it. “But you only worked 11 minutes! It’s not like you’re already tired, right?” But that wasn’t what it was about for him. It was about maintaining for a long periods of time, and not burning out right at the outset.
So: when you lose focus, record your time and the place you left off in your work, and take a break.
Next, rather simplistically, he set goals for himself. Did 11 minutes the first time? Try for 15. If he failed to reach 15, he would try 12. Or, even, just 11 minutes and 1 second. It’s like when you’re trying to improve your pull-ups: 5 is better than 3; 2 is better than 1; halfway is better than zero.
And in a four hour block of studying, with five minute breaks already included, that’s a lot of at-bats to try hard to improve your score.
You can get geeky with it and chart your progress with Excel spreadsheets and charts and graphs. Or you can just remember the last number in your head: “34 minutes. Last time I made it 34 minutes without getting distracted.”
And, if you need some help tracking your focus sprints, you can use the Assistant on your RescueTime app. You can set focus timers of any length of time, blocking out fun websites and other distractions, and then keep track of your progress on your app’s dashboard. (You can sign up for RescueTime and the Focus Assistant here!)
My friend eventually made it an hour and fifteen minutes without breaking. Now, with fifteen minute breaks, he can string a few of those sessions together and knock out seriously impressive amounts of work.
And now, I consider it his superpower. He can be assigned a big pile of work at his job and know that if he needs to, he can sit down and crank through it in two hours, or four hours, or whatever he needs. Add in a couple structured breaks at appropriate times, and he has a plan of attack that he can trust himself to execute.
Compare that to how I operated much of college and my life in general – see a pile of work, be terrified of it, put it off, then force myself to dedicate a full twelve hours to the process of staring at it, trying, giving up, getting distracted, procrastinating, and trying again until it was sloppily done, piecemeal. So much more work and, honestly, pain, for the same problem, while producing a lesser solution.
Reap the benefits
Once you have this focus, you can deploy it in different aspects of your life.
Of course, if you’re still in any station of your life where you’re in school or studying, it will likely immediately pay dividends in your work.
But true focus might be one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal as humans, and its benefits don’t belong solely to working or studying.
You may even start to enjoy movies and TV more. Of course at first, you’ll hopefully enjoy not feeling the urge to look down at your phone all the time and split your attention instantly in half. But with uninterrupted focus, you can also notice more. You can dive deeper into things. Spot details in the background of a scene. Understand the subtext of a particular line of dialogue.
It might sound far-fetched or silly, but you might even start to enjoy food more! Textures and temperatures and tastes abound in different ways when you’re not staring at a screen. Have you ever closed your eyes while eating or drinking something? Have you ever just sat there reveling in the goodness of what you’re experiencing in that moment?
There’s more to experience and love in the world when you’re not distracted. Simple as that.
And, the more time you spend with your brain focused on one singular thing, and less darting between different ideas and screens and concerns, the better your brain will feel.
There will be a calm that arises in you, and a peace, as you take in the world in different ways. This might sound highfalutin, but it really can be true if you do it in the right way. I’ve seen it happen, and felt it myself.
Focus is calm is peace
The pursuit of focus is similar to the goals in a session of meditation. Meditation seeks to build the muscle of being able to direct your attention to whatever you choose, for as long as you choose to. Once that skill is developed, there’s a different energy to the way you walk through life. You’re not as worried with events or thoughts pulling your day off course, because you know you’re in control.
Hopefully, the same thing will fall over you as you sit down to work or study. You’re not afraid of your email or your cell phone buzzing and ruining your flow. You know where you want your focus to stay.
The beauty is that feeling of gentle ease, and confidence, that comes from your confidence and security in your own ability.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard in meditation called “resting the mind.” This doesn’t necessarily mean allowing the mind to rest or “sleep,” although it might feel like that. It’s about placing the focus of the mind on one simple and peaceful thing, like the movement of your breath. “Rest the mind on your breath.”
That phrase always struck me, because whenever I’ve been stressed or unfocused or distracted, I’ve always felt the impulse to “turn off,” or “rest” my mind. But our brain never stops working and thinking – even when we’re asleep. It’s a horrible-feeling paradox that can leave us hoping for a reprieve that we don’t have access to. But directing your mind to focus on one thing, whether it be as simple as our breathing or all-encompassing as a book, is actually as close to “resting” or rejuvenating our mind as we can get.
There’s a link between focus and meditation. There’s a power in feeling a truer control of your mind and being able to direct it somewhere, with purpose, unflinchingly. And once your focus is trained somewhere, it’s powerful. The “sonar” of your eyes and nose and ears and mouth and fingers pick up so much more detail.
Comedian Chris Hardwick, in his book The Nerdist Way, calls it “laser brain.” The idea is that your brain has an inherent power that you can direct anywhere, if you just consciously choose to. You can point it anywhere you choose, and with any degree of power you like. Really! It’s up to you! And that idea might feel a little foreign to you if you haven’t looked at the power of your attention in that way before. But the most compelling thing about Hardwick’s idea is that it’s true. That’s how your mind works. It’s a million watt powerful laser that you can use to achieve your dreams.
When we get lazy and undisciplined about what we allow to take our attention, we can drift off involuntarily. That’s the experience we’re all familiar with. But with your laser brain, you design your own world. You’re not at the mercy of what your brain has decided it wants to think about today. You’re the one that decides what your brain think. Something making you sad? Focus on this book instead. Really focus on it. Do you tell yourself that if you really set your mind to it you could knock this personal project out to the best of your ability in six hours? Try it. You might stumble maintaining focus, but once you work out that muscle a little more, you’ll be on your way.
Point your laser brain at whatever you want to. Harness the power of your focus, and yourself. And focus on you.