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Maintain Focus in a Distracting World

Notes from the Expert(s husband) - Part 2

Over the last couple of weeks, many people have told us that maintaining focus is an increasingly difficult challenge. This is especially true now that they are having to work from home and worry about the effect the coronavirus shutdown will have on their lives and livelihoods.

For anyone who believes their work is important to anyone for any reason, this can be an extremely frustrating situation. If you are one of these people, and if you agree that you can only do your best work when you have the opportunity to maintain focus, then you can clearly see the importance of cultivating that seemingly simple ability.

The problem is that it’s not so simple.

Female red shouldered hawk watching

The Four Quadrants of Attention Management

First, as Maura pointed out in her article on the four quadrants of attention management, the ability to maintain focus is just one aspect of effective attention management. As an example, it’s important to know that, in addition to cultivating the ability to maintain focus for extended periods of time, we also have to give our minds the opportunity to wander every once in awhile. Personally, I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve come up with when I’ve gone out for a run and chosen to let my mind wander aimlessly instead of focusing on finding a solution a problem.

Still, this post is about that one aspect of attention management, cultivating the ability to maintain focus for extended periods of time, so I’m getting off topic. Is that ironic?

Missing the Boat

For me, throughout my life I’ve proven to have a tremendous ability to take certain things for granted. I distinctly remember thinking more than once, “yeah, I can take that test without studying and do just fine.” You can guess how that worked out.

Thinking that I can always sustain focus when I need to is another thing I’ve tended to take for granted too many times in the past. If I’m honest, I’ve too often let myself get distracted pretty easily. And, I know that has detrimentally affected my work and diminished the value of my results.

As I mentioned in my last post though, I am lucky in that I’m married to the expert. And as a result, I’ve learned a lot of things that have helped me change my self sabotaging ways.

Red shouldered hawk looking down from its perch

Two Types of Distraction

One thing I’ve learned from Maura is a simple fact: there are two kinds of distraction, internal and external.

Internal distractions are in our heads. They are those instances when we involuntarily start ruminating on something that happened in our past, or imagining something we’d like to happen in the future.

External distractions come from our environment. The ringing phone, our pinging email inbox, and interruptions from other people are aspects of our environments that tend to grab our attention with too much ease.

To be effective at maintaining our focus, we have to become effective managers of both internal and external distractions.

Building Your Focus Muscle

A second thing I’ve learned is that using a timer is a great way to strengthen our ability to get control of internal distractions. In doing this, we think of our focus as a muscle that we need to develop with exercise. Think of it like an interval workout. Consider a runner who trains their body to sustain a high level of effort by running at a fast pace for 60 seconds, taking a break for 15 seconds then running at a fast pace for 60 seconds again, repeating the process again and again a certain number of times.

In your case, you would set a timer for five or ten minutes, work without allowing any distraction for that five to ten minute period, then take a two minute break. And then you repeat the process. The timer is important because it provides structure and a measurement that will help you see just how easy, or difficult, it is for you to maintain focus on the given task.

Over time and with consistent practice, you should find that the five to ten minute period can grow and grow until eventually, you are able to maintain focus without internal distractions for an extended period of time.

Red Shouldered Hawk on a bare branch

Getting Help with External Distractions

Finally, I’ve learned that in general, most people are dealing with the same, or similar external distractions. As a result I’ve found myself talking with others about the distractions they have to manage and asking how they do it.

Some of the solutions are pretty simple, from closing the door to posting a sign that communicates a need to focus to blocking time on a shared calendar.

Others are pretty creative and inspiring. Like a parent who played a game with her young kids wherein they set up different forts in separate parts of the house where each would work on their own kingdoms, for a given period of time and with strict rules for communication. Then they got together for a bit of time to talk about the work they did before going back to their forts to work some more. Its pretty amazing what people come up with when they put their minds to it.

Certainly, you can come up with your own solutions. But let me encourage you to take just a bit of time to talk to others about the distractions they have to manage and asking how they do it. Even if you don't get any great ideas that fit your situation perfectly, you will probably be inspired by their creative ideas.

Thank you for reading! Please consider sharing if you think anyone you know can benefit.

If you would like to read part one from this series, Three Things we can Do, click here.

Red shouldered hawk hunting in a tree

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