Focus is the new IQ.
The term (as far as I can determine) was coined by Cal Newport, professor at Georgetown University in the USA and author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
In his books, Cal examines what makes people really, really good at what they do, and argues (in his second book) that “follow your passion” is really bad advice and why developing skills leads to passion – not the other way around.
One of the core concepts in both of Cal’s books is the idea that you need to develop the ability to focus for extended periods of time on difficult things. This is how you develop a skill, get better and better at it, until you become, in his words, so good they can’t ignore you.
I’ve certainly found that the ability to focus is absolutely key to doing almost everything I do – whether it is in work or in my personal life. Writing three to four articles every week doesn’t just happen; it’s a skill that I’m still developing, and practicing every day (or almost every day) is critical to keep honing that skill.
My ability to practice every day is totally dependent on my ability to focus.
When I lose my focus (which I still do, more often than I would like) my flow of work gets interrupted, and I can literally see and feel how long it takes me to gather up my train of thought and get back into what I was doing.
And it’s the same for all of us, irrespective of what we do. If we can focus, without distraction, on a single task for an extended period of time, we make huge jumps forward in getting it done. Conversely, every time there is an interruption, we slow down and even without thinking about it much we lose the thread, have to back track, get back on track and start working again.
Distraction is the focus killer.
You already know that focus is key to getting something done. And you also know that distractions are the single biggest reason we lose focus.
The good news is that there are three types of distractions. Once you know what they are, it becomes easier to deal with them.
The three types of distractions
There are three types of distractions that make us lose our focus. They are:
- self-imposed distractions is how we organise our interactions with the outside world;
- environmental distractions is how we organise our work environment; and
- external distractions come from outside.
Let’s have a look at each – and how we can deal with them.
Dealing with self-imposed distractions
Self-imposed distractions, as the name implies, are distractions that we create, or allow to exist in our world. The biggest culprit in this category are notifications from all the connected devices we have around us.
By far the worst self-imposed distractions come from email and social media notifications.
We set our devices up (or accept the defaults) that allow the apps to send us notifications every time there is a new email or we’re mentioned in a social media channel. And you only have to watch people who are addicted to these notifications; their eyes will shift, their speech will hesitate and many of them will take a quick glance to see what’s going on. That little interruption is more important than the conversation you’re having with them.
Back in the 90’s I worked for a systems integrator in the broadcast TV technology space. The projects we were running were high pressure and high stakes, spanning vendors from across the world and literally racing the clock to get TV uplinks on the air by the time a satellite would be ready to broadcast the signals.
Every now and then we would have to pull all of the senior project people together for a meeting, but almost no one wanted to let go of their phones; too much was happening to miss out on a potential emergency. Our meetings were constantly interrupted and not particularly productive.
The solution: a hang-up closet shoe organiser; effectively an apron with a lot of pockets. Each person walking into the meeting would hand their phone to the assistant at the door; they would label the phone and place it in one of the pockets. If the phone rang, they would take a message and the owner could call back in the next break.
Back then, it was the phone. Today it is our phones and computers, but now with literally hundreds of apps that will interrupt you if you allow them. And each of them will kill your focus, if only for a few seconds, which then takes tens of minutes to overcome.
What to do about it
Turn off all notifications except from your calendar; you don’t want to be late for meetings. But everything else can wait, at least for an hour.
Start now: every time you get a notification, look at the app sending you the notification and find a way to turn it off. Initially, you may find this difficult to do – the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) will raise its head and you will hesitate. But you will get over it in a few days – and you will have reduced the number of interruptions you get and improved your ability to focus.
Dealing with environmental distractions
The environment we work in plays a big role in our ability to focus; and therefore to be productive. As with self-imposed distractions, the number of visual and audible distractions in your environment will determine how focused you can stay, especially when you’ve been heads down on something for an hour or more.
I’m in the process of setting up my home office. It’s separate from the house in a walled-off and insulated bay of the garage, and where I’m sitting right now I have a nice view of the garden.
There’s a bird feeder in the garden, and outside of the sparrows paying regular visits, there are squirrels, magpies and rabbits – and they break my focus. I find my eyes wandering to the feeder or jumping up when there’s movement on the lawn; in short, the wildlife is proving to be a distraction.
One option I have is to move my working area where I have a blank wall in front of me. I’ve worked like this before, and I think I was more productive – but I’m going to give this position a try and track just how distracted I actually get.
The point is that our surroundings can be the source of many distractions. Some people are able to work with an untidy desk; to me it is an indication that I am not focused on one thing at a time and I need to get my life in order before I can get back up to decent productivity levels.
What to do about it
Visual distractions – like an untidy desk or the interesting wildlife outside (squirrels will chase the far bigger magpies away from the seeds on the ground) – can be dealt with relatively easily. Clean up your desk, create a sense of calm and organised productivity. Remove visual distractions from outside by moving your desk.
Audible distractions can be a little more difficult to deal with – we can’t always control the activities around us. You may find a pair of headphones useful – I certainly do. Playing music softly in the background, or adding white noise can help as well.
Dealing with external distractions
External distractions can be the most difficult to deal with. They include things like the phone or people walking up to your desk or even family members checking in on something. Not all of us can – or are willing to – ignore the phone when it rings, and we can’t just ignore someone’s request for help whether we’re in an office, a co-working space or working from home.
Cal Newport is a prolific author, not only of his books but also of academic papers. He describes that he will sometimes lock himself in his office during specific times of day for weeks or months on end to produce a paper or work on a book; he can be very hard to get hold of during these times.
In my transition to my home office, we’ve not found interruptions to be an issue. I put a bright red Post-It note up in the window when I’m on a phone or video call to show that I’m in a meeting; that works to maintain a professional working environment.
If you’re building and running a small business, you have to deal with external distractions as a matter of course. You are in charge, you have to take care of business and you can’t let a sales opportunity pass by or an emergency cause harm to your business.
What to do about it
But you can control when you let external distractions into your day.
My devices are all set to Do Not Disturb between 5:00 pm and 8:00 am – that is when I choose to let the outside world interrupt me. I work longer hours including getting up at 5:30 am every weekday – but those times are personal or reserved for deep work.
The key here is to understand that you are not a slave to the demands of the outside world; you have to get work done in your business to have a business in the first place, and you can choose when you allow the outside world to interrupt that work. Outside of those times, you don’t need to respond immediately or even within minutes; mostly later the same day or the next morning works just fine.
So there you have it. There are three types of distractions and a way to deal with each of them:
- Self-imposed distractions are how we set up our connections to the outside world (phones, tablets and computers) and allow them to interrupt us. Turn off all notifications except for your calendar.
- Environmental distractions are visual or audible distractions in our working environment. Reduce clutter on your desk, move your desk if you can to reduce outside distractions, and use headphones to cut out noise.
- External distractions is the outside world demanding our attention in person. Choose when you will allow those distractions or interruptions and make yourself unavailable outside of those times.
What you can do now
If you need to improve your focus and your productivity – and you realise that distractions are getting in the way, there is a way out. But don’t try to do all of it at the same time:
- Start with reducing or eliminating self-imposed distractions. These are the easiest and quickest to get rid of.
- Then focus on your environment. Reduce visual and audible distractions as much as you can and tidy up your desk.
- Finally, start creating barriers for when you will allow the outside world in. This is the most difficult one to achieve, but by the time you get here you will already have made substantial improvements and it will be easier to create the barriers.
Set yourself a timeline to make it easy; in the first week get rid of self-imposed distractions and the second week focus on your environment. Then take as long as you need to deal with external distractions; it’s going to take that world time to learn your new availability.
And remember – if you keep telling yourself you’re not good at something, you eventually will be bad at it. That’s a limiting mindset. Instead, learn that you can improve at anything – and it only needs to start with a small step. That’s a growth mindset.