Back in focus: The difficult art of resisting distraction in a multiscreen age
When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are asked to share the secrets of their success, they don't enthuse about life-changing books or esoteric philosophies.
They don't share stock tips, fund picks or complicated strategies for money mastery.
On the contrary, when asked to impart their wisdom, these trailblazing entrepreneurs put their success down to one thing and one thing only: Focus. Laser-focus.
This answer is probably a touch underwhelming for those expecting the inside edge from these captains of industry.
However, those who have tried, and failed, to sharpen their focus, will know that the ability is worth its weight in gold.
Successful entrepreneurs often talk about the need for laser-focus. Yet in a world punctuated by social media notifications, our concentration is more like a prism: deviated and dispersed.
In an era of instant gratification and endless interruptions, focus has become an endurance sport, and laser-focus has become a superpower.
It's hard to mono-task in a multi-screen environment. It's even harder to negotiate the culture of impatience, and the peculiar impetus to answer emails as soon as they land in our inboxes.
The way we consume information compounds the problem. Everything is in short bursts nowadays: we prefer listicles to long-form; we prefer 42-minute-long Netflix episodes to feature films. When using WhatsApp, we fire off a quick succession of sentence-long texts rather than one considered composition.
We are being driven to distraction by technology and the cult of busyness but, luckily, there are ways that we can regain focus and restore clarity. If you're one of the many people struggling to be fully present at work or at home, the following lifestyle changes might help...
The brain has to switch off to restore focus, which is why regular mental breaks are essential.
If you procrastinate, or find it hard to gain focus, the 'Pomodoro Technique' could have considerable benefits.
Rather than working until you get distracted, you work for 25 minutes, uninterrupted, after which you take a five-minute break. This 30-minute period is known as one 'Pomodoro'. After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break.
Use your breath as an anchor
There has been a significant rise in the use of smart drugs that increase alertness and boost focus, yet I would speculate that the vast majority of the people buying these drugs haven't tried first line of defence techniques and therapies.
Belly breathing - when you send the breath towards the lower abdomen - is instantly calming, which, in turn, sharpens focus.
It's also worth exploring some yogic breathing techniques, especially Ujjayi breath and alternate nose breathing.
Know your rhythm
Our mental focus is sharper at certain times of the day, writes Daniel H. Pink in his latest book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The author cites research which found that we all follow a 'peak-trough-rebound' pattern. The peak typically occurs in the morning; the trough in the early- to mid-afternoon and the rebound in the late afternoon or early evening. Night owls, who tend to peak later in the day, are the exceptions to this rule.
We can exploit this pattern by doing work that requires focus during the peak, and less taxing tasks during the trough. The rebound period, according to Pink, is the best time for creative brainstorming.
When we mindlessly switch from one task to the next, we don't give ourselves a moment to prepare for the task that we are about to take on.
This is why it's important to take a few minutes to prepare your environment and structure the work that you are about to begin.
If you get distracted, try the ABC Technique. A-Awareness: Recognise the potential distraction. B-Breathe deeply: consider the distraction and its importance. C-Choose if you are going to surrender to the distraction, or ignore it.
Eliminate the unnecessary
You'll notice that people with laser-focus don't multi-task. They mono-task. More to the point, they steer clear of the tasks that aren't absolutely necessary.
"People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on," said the late Steve Jobs. "But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully."
Don't give in
It's common for hyperactive types, especially those with self-diagnosed ADHD, to throw in the towel and declare that they simply don't have the ability to focus for long periods of time.
The trouble with this limiting belief is that it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, try thinking of focus as a muscle that becomes stronger the more you exercise it - even if you're only exercising it for a few minutes at a time...
Curb the digital deluge
Digital distraction is, without doubt, the greatest threat to focus. After all, it's hard to do what author Cal Newport calls "deep work" when you're responding to a WhatsApp message every few minutes.
If you need to focus, try leaving your smartphone in a drawer, or check out the many apps that temporarily restrict internet access on your devices.
Changing your smartphone screen to grayscale is another option: the lack of colour is said to make the device less appealing, and thus less addictive.
Finally, don't overlook the benefits of a digital detox. Disconnecting from all devices for a few hours on a Sunday will give you some much-needed clarity, and put you in good stead for the rest of the week.
Health & Living