How to improve your focus and concentration

Ever since reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I have been convinced that deep focus, attention and concentration is needed to do the most important work there is (what Cal calls Deep Work) and that the measure of the deep work you do determines the value that you have created.

It makes a lot of sense — we don’t get paid to answer e-mails or attend meetings — we are knowledge workers (well, at least I am) and we are paid for our thoughts. How do we come up with insightful things for our clients? We have to think critically. Can we think critically if we are distracted all the time or if we are answering e-mails on the side every 5 minutes? Probably not.

There’s a problem here — if you are doing work that is only superficial (i.e., e-mails, attending / scheduling meetings, making phone calls), you probably are not getting paid very much (you must do some thinking though). The more deep work that you can do, I believe, the more valuable you become. When Cal writes papers and his books, he locks himself in his office, does not check e-mail, answer questions from students or do anything else other than think deeply about the problem or task at hand.

I probably will not have convinced you in the few minutes that I have had your attention but do give Cal’s book a read if you want to be convinced that deep work is incredibly important in this day and age. Once I was convinced though, I had problems creating deep work. It may be because of smart phones or because of e-mails but I am easily distracted — I’ll check my phone every few minutes to see if someone texted, I’ll check different message boards like Reddit to see what new things have been posted and I’ll just open up my phone to make sure nothing has changed. I recognize it as a bad habit, and not just because it’s a general waste of time but more so because it is sapping my energy and attention and causing me to be incredibly distracted in the work that I do. Believe me, if you are getting distracted every 5 minutes because of an e-mail or ping from your smartphone, you are probably not getting very important work done (or if you are, it is taking you so much longer because you have to re-shift your focus and get back on track every single time you are distracted).

How do you develop superhuman powers of focus and concentration? I don’t have it, but here’s what I’m doing to improve my concentration:

The pomodoro technique is a timer that you have on your phone that sets itself for about 25 minutes. You do distraction-free work for 25 minutes, concentrating only on the work that you need to get done and not checking your phone, e-mail or voice mails in that time. You aren’t going on social media, you aren’t checking the news, you aren’t going on Instagram to check out your friend’s vegan foodie posts, you are concentrating and getting as much stuff done as you can in those 25 minutes. Once those 25 minutes are up, you take a break for 5 minutes, doing anything you want. Yes, you can check out your friend’s plant photos. Yes, you can check to see what the latest celebrity gossip is. Then after those 5 minutes are up, you are back at it for another 25 minutes of deep, hard work. Another 5 minutes of rest. And then another 25 minutes. After three work periods, take a longer 25 minute break. When you are first starting out, this may be incredibly tough — you may have meetings that take you away from your desk or you just won’t have the energy or discipline to stay concentrated — that’s okay! This is not an innate ability that you are born with, this is a muscle that you have to grow and develop.

Again, it is so easy to be distracted by notifications on your phone. Heck, I’ve even felt vibrations on my phone when in reality, there haven’t been. I’ll do this at night when I’m sleeping but I have also tried to start doing this while I’m doing important work as well. While you may at first start checking your phone, you will soon realize that putting it on airplane mode means that there are no new notifications coming up and you will start checking it less and less often.

I can’t dictate what you should be doing in those 25 minutes but I think there are certain work activities or problems that lend itself better to the deep work. Sure, you could be doing heavy e-mail responding in those 25 minutes but you can also do that while being half asleep in the afternoon. Use the 25 minutes to work on your hardest thinking problems. These are problems that you cannot listen to music at the same time. Problems where you think about them as you walk to the bathroom or to the water fountain. Chances are, the most difficult problems are the ones that your organization values you for.

While I have failed many times to implement this at work, I know that many others (Tim Ferriss) have done this successfully. Batching e-mail goes like this: wait for a specific period of time during the day (say 12 PM — 1 PM) to answer all of the e-mails that have come in, but don’t respond to e-mails at any other time than those specified times (usually you will have one in the morning and one in the afternoon if you work a corporate job). By batching e-mails, you are not shifting your focus to a sudden e-mail that comes in and on the other side, people may e-mail you less and less if they know that they won’t get an immediate response right away (or e-mail you during your response times which then makes it more efficient for you).

Like I said previously, concentration is a muscle that you develop. When you go to work out or practice a new skill, sometimes you are in a zone of discomfort — it’s a period of time where you are stretching yourself in developing a new skill and you are failing a lot. It’s not pleasant. You do not feel like you are making a lot of progress. Force yourself to concentrate for a little bit more each and every day. Of course, you should be doing interesting work too but sometimes you do not have that luxury. The more pomodoro blocks you can do, the more you will feel that you have gotten done at work (even partial blocks are better than no blocks).

Do you agree that deep work is important? More valuable than superficial work? How are you developing your concentration and focus?

Author of Essential Habits. Inspiring others to live better and happier lives through better habits, work and career advice, and mindset changes. www.wangyip.ca