Focus is a skill and needs practice too. While it is not possible for to focus throughout our work duration, we can all start small, build on the progress and gain the skill of deep focus.
Do the heavy lifting before you start:
This is something our mothers have always known. The vegetables are cut, the mix has already been marinated, the dough has been rested, masala is ground and handy. Everything is laid out in front of them , ready to use. They exactly know the cooking time required and do supplementary activities.
Most of the work we do too requires some kind of research and reference. A writer needs to have researched on the topic he is writing, a software developer needs to have the requirement docs ready for the piece of code he will be working on, a designer needs to have all her tools and text ready and concepts clarified.
Once much of this heavy lifting has been done during the preparatory time, the need for distraction while working does not exist.
Once we have eliminated the need to be distracted let us look at how we can practice focus when we are working.
Pomodoro Technique for better focus:
Pomodoro means a tomato in Italian. It is a simple timer clock that can be set to for a short period of time for upto 60 mins. The clock looked like a tomato and was invented by an Italian Francesco Cirillo in the 80’s, even before smart phone or social media existed to distract us.
Tips to practice Pomodoro Technique:
1) Decide ahead of time, what time you will block for the pomodoro activity , mine is 7:30 – 8:30 PM
2) Experts recommend a batch of 25 mins with a 5 mins break and then a repeat. But I prefer using an hour. Experiment and see what works best for you. Usually activities that require a flow like coding, painting, writing are better done for a higher time than lower in my experience.
3) Reward yourself on the successful completion of a pomodoro. Ensure your reward is in alignment with your goal. For Eg: Your reward for making it to the Gym, cannot be a chocolate doughnut. If I stick to my pomodoro time I watch Kungfu Panda series during Dinner. It gives me the feeling I earned my reward.
4) Before you start the pomodoro turn off all distractions like email and social media and do not allow yourself to get distracted.
5) You can also use a series of Pomodoro to get through your work day. Ensure your pomodoro time also aligns with the high energy times of your biological clock.
6) Have an end time if you are using a series of Pomodoro, say like 5 PM. I will stop working on mail/phone should do the job.
Pomodoro is a commitment device. It is short enough to overcome resistance to start work and frequent and/or long enough to get work done.
Keep with the flow:
Once a pomodoro schedule starts you off in the right direction, it is easy to keep with the flow. Most writers keep a small target like 500 words a day. But this is only enough to get off the resistance to start. This is more like the advice to get off the bed, tie the shoe lace and get to the gym. This is great advice to start, but if we keep breaking it off at this point, we will not be gaining traction. Imagine, if you follow this advice to the T, you might never end up working out but go to the gym everyday.
In my attempt to write 500 words every day, I have always felt the last 100 words to be the easiest to write and the first 200 the toughest. One can schedule longer or two or three back to back pomodoro sessions to utilize the energy of the flow. There is least friction, when you are in a flow.
So batch similar activities like writing (blogs, books, document), coding (for different modules), learning(course, books, blogs) together and use the benefit of flow to your advantage.
Theming your days/weeks:
Hari has written about theming the days or weeks in this earlier post. If you schedule your ‘Important but not urgent‘ work into theme for your days and weeks, you can get more done.
By doing similar things together we train our brain into noticing more details relevant to the activity. Remember when you were actively considering buying a certain car, you start seeing it more often in the road. I was initially hesitant to start a blog, as I was not sure I will have sufficient topics to write about on a regular basis. As an experiment, I started writing in my office blogging platform every week day for a month. Suddenly I saw blog ideas everywhere, which gave me the confidence to start this blog.
Use your Calendar
Use your calendar to set up both scheduled and unscheduled time for your work. This will allow you to the batching of similar work very well. Hari had discussed on the why a calendar works better than a to-do list here. But a to-do list is better than not knowing what you will be working on in the day. So plan your work before you start the day.
Reward yourself on completion
High achievers always feel tempted to move on to the next thing once a work is completed. But pause, to let that feeling of accomplishment sink in into your mind. Celebrate mini wins when you have completed your themes as planned and mega wins when you have completed a big project. We have already seen why it is important to celebrate in a previous post. Celebrating your wins is the simplest way to motivate your inner elephant to listen to the strict disciplines of the mahout.
Practice to get better
I got distracted and checked social media, drank coffee, visited the toilet etc multiple times when I wrote this post. Sticking to the above guidelines is difficult. But it is a worthwhile pursuit, where even an inch progress can make a difference in your output. Muscles are built by tearing them first. Go ahead and exercise your Focus Muscle.