Gina Edwards

April 27, 2017

Confession: I am downright lousy at focusing.

No, I do not have a diagnosed attention deficit disorder (yet?).

No, I am not a bad listener (quite the opposite, actually).

No, I am not a nightmarish goldfish-human crossbreed (gulp… I hope).

None of these stereotypes apply to me, yet while I worked today, I often had several browser tabs open at once, compulsively ate approximately half a kilogram of grapes, checked my phone dozens of times, examined and fidgeted with my hands, bounced my leg up and down incessantly… you get the picture.

Once upon a time I took a personality test, where my result for work method was “grasshopper,” or in other words, hopping from task to task for short bursts of time.

As you can probably guess from that description, it’s not the most focused way to work.

I want to be able to dive in more, for longer, sustained periods of time on one thing. When I actually am able to make it happen, it’s a beautiful thing. Afterwards, I’m thrilled to have left my modern-day annoyances — erm, notifications — in the backdrop for a while and fully immersed myself in what I am doing.

But here’s the rub: that is really hard to do.

For all of us living in the information age, focusing on one thing can feel like too much commitment. I mean, think of all the information we’re missing out on by only looking at this one thing!

It’s the curse of FOMO. We can’t fully focus because we’re so damn convinced we’re missing something somewhere else. It plagues us.

And while it’s certainly trying for any of us in the technology-soaked, attention-deficit culture of the digital age, it’s perhaps even more challenging for those with nontraditional jobs: think digital nomads (or home-ads), online entrepreneurs, independent contractors, or start-up junkies.

While the old work structure clearly delineated where work stopped and life began, many of us now live in a time where everything kind of runs together.

Which, in some ways, is good. We’re not so enslaved to single corporations anymore. We might work for many people as freelancers, or seek to personally serve every customer we encounter as a start-up business owner.

But working in these ways can leave us kind of all over the place. The demands of modern-day life overwhelm our brain’s capacity to juggle all of them at once.

As we write an email to a cranky colleague, not only are we wondering how they’ll overanalyze our word choices (and possibly start some sordid office gossip), the rest of our mind is also stirred by a constant ebb and flow of responsibilities:

  • This computer is so frustratingly slow… when should I get a new one?
  • I could really use a snack…
  • Is it my day to pick up the kids from school?
  • I wonder if the traffic on the way home will be worse than usual today.
  • What are we going to do about dinner tonight?

All the while, our phone intermittently buzzes, little red numbers appear on our apps, notifications flash at the top of our screen, and Slack’s familiar message swish invites us to answer, check, and click. See what’s going on.

You know you want to.

If you didn’t read that above sentence as though it were a little devil whispering on your shoulder, please do that now.

Though we could certainly point fingers at the evil culture of smart phone zombies and claim that pings are the problem, we would fall short of addressing a larger, and perhaps more disturbing aspect of this cult of distraction — ourselves.

According to ADD researchers, evolutionarily speaking, we’ve never been cut out to get into the flow state. Early cavemen who were so entranced by their own drawings that they forgot to analyze their surroundings would just as soon be lion meat as the first great artist, or so I imagine.

In other words, our brains allow for awareness of other goings-on apart from our task at hand not because we’re meant to be easily distracted, but so we can protect ourselves.

Fast-forward thousands of years into the future, and unless our stapler comes to life or our co-worker with bad balance is on coffee-fetching duty, we don’t have to fear for our lives very often these days.

That’s the good side of not focusing.

The bad side is that we haven’t figured out how the hell to fine-tune our focusing abilities so that we can do our jobs better and more efficiently.

Researchers examining this topic have come across some general truths, and developed some strategies we can use to gain better control of our ability to focus (or conversely, our tendency to get distracted).

For those of us here in nontraditional jobs, which set us up for failure when it comes to focus, this might be a good time to pay attention.

See what I did there?

Strategy 1 — Set Yourself Up For Success: Designing an Environment for Focus

Historically speaking, the workplace was not a negotiable concept. Wherever the company was located, that’s where you went to every morning. You had a dress code, arrival/departure times, and a cubicle, office, or other workspace. If you had loud co-workers, harsh lighting, a miserable commute, or a cramped workspace, you just kinda had to deal with it.

Now, things are changing.

Many of us working in nontraditional spaces have much more flexibility in terms of our work environment than our professional forebears did. Even if you don’t work from home, you might go back and forth from a co-working space, library, or café, to your home, apartment, or whatever hostel or hotel you’re staying at that week.

Chances are, as more of a free-bird employee, you are one who prefers control and autonomy over security and constancy. While this tendency might be great for your psyche, it could make focusing a much more difficult pursuit.

However, it is not impossible to adjust your environment to focus best, as the idea is not to adjust the place itself, necessarily, but the qualities therein.

To adjust your environment well, you need to know how you work best and create a space — even temporarily — that best reflects your focus needs. Some of these things may be more universally accepted as being “good for focusing,” but you know yourself better than even a group of esteemed scientist strangers can.

Start with the Noise Level Preference

You could have the most well-designed, ergonomic, optimized workspace for focused work, but everything will go to shit if the noise level is off.

As Scientific American reports, quieter environments tend to encourage focus more than noisy ones do. Stands to reason, right? More noise means more things that can possibly draw your attention away from the task at hand.

That said, some people absolutely need earbuds bursting with smooth jazz or electronic house music in order to get into the work groove.

Maybe you like a bit of both.

Regardless of your noise preference, one fact remains true: it is much easier to turn up the volume on your environment than it is to turn it down.

Take it from me — I currently live in Santiago, Chile, a place where street dogs abound, people drive with their horns, and blasting loud reggaeton tunes is a pastime for anytime. Basically, it’s really hard for me to find quiet.

When I do, I bask in it. But, I maintain the option of throwing on my headphones, playing Netflix in the background, or turning on the ambient sound app on my iPad.

It’s much easier than trying to reason with my neighbor’s yippy dog.

So, when choosing a space for focus, whether at home or in public, make sure you’ve got some level of control of the volume, preferably upward. Try to scope out a place to work that matches your preferred noise level, and bring earbuds just in case.

Then, Consider the Space Itself

Again, when you can possibly work anywhere, the freedom can be at once invigorating and crippling.

You might consider co-working spaces, libraries, bars, cafés, your house … anywhere with wi-fi works, right?

Maybe… if it also has a few other requirements.

Typically, the rule for working spaces is pretty similar to our rule for noise. High levels of people, activity, smells, movement, and any other visual stimuli will serve to distract you, not help you get in the zone. This element can be pretty hard to avoid if you’re working at a collaborative start-up or in the middle of a co-working space.

But this may be yet another “it depends” characteristic. For example, take introverts and extroverts at work. While introverts can naturally lean into hours (or sometimes days) of time spent alone without external stimulation, extroverts tend to need interaction with others in order to be their most productive and happy selves.

So, while a busy co-working office or backroom of a Starbucks surrounded by friends and co-workers may make the “people people” of the world more energetic and focused, the introverts only find a sea of distraction — preferring the familiar embrace of a home office that allows ultimate privacy.

Chances are you already know what kind of work environment best suits you, but if you don’t, do some experiments. For a week, try spending the first stretch of morning work in different places. At the end of the morning, jot down a quick log or rate your productivity between 1 (poor), 2 (average), and 3 (great).

Do the same thing in the afternoons. Which place helped you attain better focus, and therefore helped you be more productive?

Finally, Wherever You Are — Get Organized

Similar to the thoughtful selection of work environment itself, the organization of both your workspace and your tasks can directly impact your ability to focus on what you’ve got to do.

We often separate ourselves into two camps: the pathologically organized neat-freak minimalists, and the cluttered, scattered-piles-of-must-keep-treasure artistic geniuses. We’re all on this spectrum somewhere.

And sometimes, a little mess and clutter can be helpful.

For example, if you are a creative who relies on many pictures, items, and other memorabilia to spark your inspiration into gear, you might feel justified in holding onto your delightfully messy workspace.

But when it comes to focus and productivity, neatness and organization is a clear winner.

The fewer items around you, apart from your computer (or notebook, or whatever it is you use for work), the fewer things to distract you as you work.

Wherever you are working, ask yourself what you absolutely need to have on your desk or workspace, and only allow those. Take a few moments each time you sit down to work, and get your space ready.

If you are particularly nomadic with your laptop, consider locations least likely to spark your brain into laundry list mode — keep away from anything that will remind you of any chores you should be doing.

Even a small amount of straightening can help you feel calmer, clearer, and more ready to work.

Strategy 2 — Planning Your Time & Tech Accordingly

We’ve talked before about how planning out your time is crucial to developing a strong workflow as a nontraditional employee.

Our use of attention-grabbing tech gadgets makes this particular element all the more crucial to strong focus habits.

While you might think that downing extra coffee or a Red Bull IV drip (can you imagine?) might whip you into focus mode, in actuality, an overdose of caffeine makes it more difficult to focus, instead sending you into a jittery tailspin.

It’s a much more useful practice to instead create a schedule that best matches your personal strengths and helps keep you calm and clear. This activity could be as simple as writing in a paper agenda, setting up Google Calendar, or as complex as syncing Asana with ToDo, Slack and your iPhone.

I’ll touch back to my recent experience with this process. When I first began working as a full-time contractor, I had to learn to juggle my different types of work — from solitary work like writing and editing, to managerial work emailing, Slacking, Skyping, and the like.

I tend to have my most creative energy in the morning, so I try to keep those hours fairly sacred and blocked off, so that I can throw myself into the creative process for several hours at a time.

By early afternoon, my coffee kick has worn off, and post-lunchtime happy belly makes me a much better candidate for human interaction. So afternoons are more dedicated to shorter and more interactive tasks.

Your energy clock might be completely different, and that’s for you to know. But if you have the flexibility to do so, don’t force yourself to go against your natural inclinations if you can help it.

I mean, have you ever sat down to try to write something when you’re deadass tired? It’s much better to do something else or get some sleep before you try to tackle the work at hand, otherwise you’ll just create a lot of crap and your time spent won’t have been worth it.

Apart from planning your time well, having a setup for managing the many distractions brought to us by our useful gadgetry may be just as key.

Unless you’re like Woody Allen, and have somehow made it to 2017 without ever having sent a email, you’re probably somewhere on the spectrum of tech dependency when it comes to your work.

You may use several different programs across devices, that all have different bings, pings, and notifications that are vying for your attention.

As with the rest of the elements we’ve been discussing, the more of these things you try to use concurrently, the less productive you will actually be. Yes, I know that switching between multiple tabs and windows can make it feel like you’re getting a lot done, but all you’re actually doing is splitting your focus into smaller and smaller pieces, like an attention horcrux.

To the degree that you can, try to set deliberate times for using particular technologies or tools, and if necessary, communicate your boundaries to your team. You may have to use trial and error to find the right mix that works for both you and those you work with, but give it a shot to see if you notice any differences.

For example, if, like me, you like to chunk your creative working time into several-hour blocks, don’t have your inbox, Slack, and Facebook open in the background. Chances are, nothing coming in through those channels is life-threateningly urgent.

Unless, you know, you’re some kind of medical professional, which means you should not be taking productivity advice from yours truly.

I know it’s hard. Especially when sometimes those notifications can be fun or exciting to open. They might bring good news or interesting updates that you’ve been dying to hear about.

Trust me, when I’m waiting on big news, I hit refresh like nobody’s business. But even I know that sometimes you’ve gotta let the inbox go for a little while.

A few suggestions to help you get control over the hold your devices have on you:

Email

It’s easy to let email become an endless to-do list that prevents you from getting anything else done. Set specific times of day that you will check your email. I vote for checking it in the morning, at midday, and in the evening, but I know that’s not possible for everyone.

Before you log in, determine how much time you will spend answering emails. Develop a system for dealing with the most urgent emails immediately, and tabling the others for another time, if it looks like you’re gonna go over your allotment. Gmail even has separate inboxes now, depending on the sender and purpose of the email. Use them!

Slack

Slack is great for communication at work, but it can be its own distraction, too, as more than email it lends itself to back-and-forth chatting and dialogue with many people. Use the “away” and “snooze” functions when you don’t want your work to get interrupted by incessant pings — that’s what they’re there for.

Or, you know, log out.

Social Media

Unless using it is an integral part of the work that you do, reserve social media for breaks and other relaxing times when you just wanna scroll through some internet stuffs. If you use social media in your work, treat it like you would email, and set up a priority system for answering the notifications there, and leave the remainder for another time.

Phone

Time doesn’t stop just because you are working, but the daily deluge of texts and phone calls have a habit of disrupting all the flow you’ve created. Consider using the “Do Not Disturb” function, where you can prioritize certain people’s calls or texts over those from others, ensuring that the only people who can interrupt you are the ones you want to.

By being thoughtful about making a schedule and the tech aspects of your life, you might actually prevent many distraction issues before they even start.

Strategy 3 — Bring Focus to All Parts of Your Life

Obviously, we’ve spent most of our time here discussing focus as it relates to work, especially for those of us with atypical employment.

But focus is not a light switch — though it would be awesome if it were.

It is actually a practice, meaning that it actually works best when it’s not in isolation, only used or applied when necessary, but integrated holistically into everyday life.

When you boil it down, focusing is not some mystical concept. It is really just paying attention to what you are doing when you are doing it. In other words, it’s a form of mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness has recently become super cool and promises lots of great things, including rewiring your brain, as Harvard Business Review reports. If you’ve ever seen those adult coloring books, that’s where mindfulness and capitalism meet. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Practicing mindfulness is not a sit-on-the-floor-cross-legged, breathe in, breathe out activity — that’s meditation. Which, actually, might also be good for your attention, as shown by a study at the University of Oregon.

Start with developing a mindfulness practice, though, and perhaps see where it leads you.

The main idea behind it is that we allow our thinking mind and being mind to come together. Instead of always trying to multitask — which doesn’t actually work, despite many productivity gurus telling you it is The Way —  try to fully embrace the moment that you are in by appreciating all of its elements.

Imagine that you are seeing the world around you with an almost childlike sense of wonder. Make a point to notice the details of the objects around you. Try to identify all of the different sounds and smells. See what happens when you take two minutes to close your eyes and scan from head to toe, observing how your body feels.

You might discover things you had never really paid attention to. Ultimately, by getting a better handle on what’s going on upstairs, you can cultivate overall better focusing skills not just at work, but anywhere.

There are plenty of people out there with way more expertise on mindfulness than me. I would suggest starting with this site to get an overview of mindfulness practices.

If you’re wanting to tap into other related areas to mindfulness, you might try to start meditating using Headspace, or a beginner’s yoga practice with Yoga With Adriene (both free to start, by the way).

But What Else Can I Do?

As an admittedly anxious person, with what appears to be a nervous hamster wheel spinning in my brain at all times, I can certainly understand the frustration of trying to fix your distraction issues by ‘just trying to focus more.’

If you are an individual who truly struggles to stay focused because of your busy mind, you may want to explore other strategies that help bring your whirring brain to more of a whisper than a roar.

Some of these ideas might seem startlingly simple, but they actually work wonders for those with especially busy or anxious minds. (One out of one writers of this article agree!)

Keep a Notepad Nearby

One of my own biggest focus faux pas is thinking that when a to-do list item pops into my head, I must do it immediately. Every now and then, an “Oh shit!” thought indeed comes along, and I need to go put out a fire.

But more often than not, it can wait.

For non-urgent items, I’ve simply started keeping a notepad at my workspace where I can jot down those things that need doing after I’ve completed my current task. By putting the item down on a piece of paper (or digitally, if you prefer), I know that I will not forget it, and can allow my mind to move back to what I was doing before.

Wear Headphones, Even if You’re Not Listening to Anything

This strategy might seem like I’m encouraging eavesdropping, but I promise I’m not.

Headphones, whether used for their intended purpose or not, are the perfect nonverbal signal to say, “I’m focusing.” If you work in an environment where people are likely to frequently interrupt you, like a buzzing start-up office, headphones can help send the message to others to leave you be.

If you don’t like listening to music, but need to drown out sound, Spotify has a whole playlist of white noise you could check out.

Get Active

Although we humans tend to fully separate out mental activity from physical activity, the two are actually quite linked. Instead of completely tamping down our natural restless urges to be in motion, figure out ways to incorporate physical activity into your day in order to stimulate mental activity, and hence focus.

An article in the May 2013 issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch affirms that regular exercise releases key brain chemicals used for memory, concentration, and focus.

From working out at lunch, to investing in a standing desk or bosu ball, to getting a fidget gadget or play-doh to occupy your hands during long meetings or stretches of time at your desk, doing diligence to your body’s physical needs will help clear up your mental space, too.

Regardless of how you go about it, thinking more holistically about integrating focus in your life can have positive outcomes not only for your productivity, but for all areas of your life as well.

Get Focused: Your Game Plan

In the age of wanting to do more better / faster / cheaper / fill in your adjective of choice, we may certainly feel the pressure to hunker down and hustle for optimum productivity.

However, many people’s productivity strategies are actually counterproductive, as they just try do more by spending more hours in front of their desk.

But the magic recipe for focus is not derived from lengthy amounts of forced attention –– we’re not biologically constructed to be 100 percent focused. It instead improves through a series of deliberate tweaks (or in some cases, overhauls) of various aspects of our lives, largely based around our personal preferences.

A good plan of action involves first taking stock of the environment where you work, and minimizing noise, cutting clutter, and getting organized.

Then, tackle your relationship with time and tech: craft a schedule around your most and least energetic times with appropriate tasks, and set clear boundaries with your devices.

Finally, go within. Recognize that a lack of external focus may be a result of internal instability or worry, which can be helped with mindfulness practice, or even yoga and meditation. When all else fails, employ fail-safe strategies like list-making, headphones, and physical activity to help spur better concentration.

In the end, we humans are complex beings with a lot of stuff going on upstairs. Even though we would love to have complete control over our brain functions, the truth is, we’ll always be a little at the mercy of biology when it comes to focusing well.

But with a little planning and thought ahead of time, we may at least be able to get a little more done.

Photo credit: BrianAJackson


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