• Sean Keenan

Regaining your focus

I’ve discussed the various ways smartphones affect things such as our concentration or anxiety levels. I’ve also discussed a few strategies to help get your deep work setup going. Still, despite how much you know a smartphone distracts you and how perfect your set-up seems, you’re still distracted. Your mind keeps racing and you can’t into your flow state that you really need for this project. As you can tell, even if you have everything set up how you need it, that doesn’t guarantee your work will get done. Our minds are plastic and they’ve been molded to be pretty much naturally distracted now, meaning you’ll have to go a little above and beyond to get into your flow.

Being stuck in the moment

Much of what we’ve learned in general is thanks to the past mistakes of others. This is why things like history classes are taught so much in schools, even if they can be boring. Nowadays though, as Clive Thompson writes in his article “Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment”, social media has taken this concept and flipped it on its head.

This is what’s known as “reverse chronological” design, and it’s the organizing principle for nearly every social media giant. Log into Instagram, Facebook, a discussion board on Reddit, and just about any blog, and boom—it’s all reverse chron. They’re constantly refreshing the feed, pushing the newest, latest updates to you. History recedes in a flash. What happened last minute is immediately pushed away, as is last hour, and the last day. It makes it awfully hard to examine the past, even the quite recent past. If I wanted to see what my feed looked like, say, last week? I’d be sitting there scrolling backward until my forefinger fell off. Twitter doesn’t want me doing that.

As Thompson goes on to say in the article, this makes our society less of a big, continuous, day-to-day world and more of a bunch of individual one-day worlds. We see what’s happening, have are reactions of either shock, horror, or joy, and then move on to the next day, forgetting most of what yesterday’s news was. Now this doesn’t account for all stories, things like murder trials and certain political events take quite a few days, but it still is how much of our modern news is absorbed.

Now if the reverse-chron design is often a detriment, why is it used so much? Well, it’s because the companies that make these apps know how addictive it is. It goes back to the slot-machine comparison, everyday you’re going to see a few different stories, some you like and some you hate, and then next day you get to start again and see if your luck changes. Maybe now that policy change you wanted will finally happen or maybe your favorite sports team gets a big star after missing out on the previous one.

This also shows how we still can’t get focused even after we have everything set up how we need it. It’s almost as if we’re being reprogrammed now to be always be distracted, itching to find that new piece of info.

The benefits of boredom

Now this issue of distraction craving may seem difficult to overcome, but there is a way to do it. That way is to get bored. It may sound a little silly, but as Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, Rule #2, “Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously ween your mind from a dependence on distraction”. Our minds now are constantly racing, trying to find new information, constantly multitasking and distracting. Our minds are too full basically. With boredom though, it’s almost like the opposite of a full mind. When we’re bored, it’s because our minds are empty enough that we can’t think of anything to do.

Many often see boredom as a bad thing, but in reality, boredom lets your mind take a break. In nearly any activity it’s impossible to go 100% at all times. Athletes aren’t constantly lifting weights all day and training; they’re trying to find a balance between practicing their skills and taking a break, so their body doesn’t collapse. We have to do similar things with our brain if we want to regain that focus. So, embrace your episodes of boredom because while they may not be very interesting now, they’ll be a great benefit when you need to focus on something in the future.

Work your way up

Now just because you understand why you’re unfocused and have a couple tips to combat it, doesn’t mean it will automatically fix itself. You need to have a plan, a step-by-step process of some kind that will ideally end with you being more focused than you ever have been. As Kelly Vo wrote in her article “How to Regain Focus and Motivation”, you have to start small

It’s way too easy to over-complicate things, and then start to overthink everything. But all this does is create more stress and pressure on yourself, which can ruin your motivation. The truth of the matter is that chronic stress and anxiety can actually shrink your brain, according to a study in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry. This means that the more stress you have, the less likely you’ll be able to focus and solve your problems. So, instead of looking at everything at once, try breaking down your problem into simple, small, and achievable goals—low-hanging fruit. This means doing the simplest and easiest work first, which will help you feel accomplished right away. Then, from there, put your energy toward the harder-to-reach problems. Each step you accomplish will help you feel better about the entire situation. This, in turn, creates motivation because you see yourself moving forward and accomplishing your goals.”

The worst feeling is looking at a big project, seeing all the steps that go into it, and having anxiety and stress race through your mind till you give up. I’ve had it happen to me a multitude of times. By trying Vo’s strategy and starting small though, you prevent that stress. Yeah, the project still isn’t done, but it’s closer to being done and you also accomplished something.

Plus, slowly but surely, you’ll build your way up to that big final step and before you know it, that big project you were stressing all week is done before you know it.

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© 2020 by Sean Keenan.