Our time is finite. Our ability to focus is even scarcer.
Attention deprivation seems to be a common problem in our society today. Distractions now carry with us wherever we go because it's in our pocket: the smartphone. Social media notifications, unimportant email are competing to get our attention anywhere anytime.
Distractions hinder our ability to do great work or things that we care about. Whenever I heard someone complaining that they do not have enough time to write a book, create a hustle project I am positive that the person has some attention issue.
The common excuse for our inability to do important things is lack of time. It's an easy and convenient scapegoat. But even when we have time for ourselves, we would find it hard to focus. Many people think that they can instantly switch from a distracted state to focus state when they have time. But it is not as easy as it sounds.
To understand the issue of attention deprivation, we have to understand the concept of mental strength. Mental strength is our ability to consciously focus on something.
Activities like doing programming, analyzing accounting data or answering emails consume our mental strength. On the other hand, brushing teeth or walking in a familiar environment consumes no to little mental strength because we can do it unconsciously.
Mental strength can differ from person to person but it stays relatively the same for an individual. Our mental strength is highest after we experience a relaxing activity (like deep sleeping) and tends to go lower toward the end of day.
The danger of distraction is not at it consumes our time but also consumes our mental strength.
Watching Youtube or scrolling through Twitter feeds eats up our mental strength budget without our awareness. And we often spend more time on social media than we think. What should be an one minute break can turn into half an hour of slack time. Do you notice that all social media platforms always have recommendation? There is an obvious reason for that.
Repeated disruption creates a formed habit in our brain to seek stimuli every short duration of time. We check Facebook feed every few minutes, we grab our phone to reply to a message notification to satisfy our crave for stimuli. This makes us impossible to do a long work even though we have time to do.
How do we fix this
Attention deprivation is more like a habit than a phenomenon. Since it is a habit, we often do it unconsciously without questioning our behaviors.
Many people don't know that they have this problem. The first step to fixing attention deprivation is to acknowledge that you have a problem.
Self-awareness brings the problem from your unconscious mind to conscious mind which will push you to pause and question yourself before committing to distraction even though you still do it.
But even when I know I have this problem, how do I cut off my distractions?
There are a few strategies to reduce distraction gravity. One is to completely cut off your source of distraction. This means deactivating your Facebook account, disconnecting Internet when working, or in some extreme cases move to a place without Internet.
The problems with this approach are withdrawal syndrome and social isolation. Just like any other type of addiction, a sudden usage shutdown might send your brain to a mild chaotic state as it is seeking for the usual stimuli. This withdrawal is only temporary and your brain will adapt to accommodate it.
The bigger trouble with the cold turkey approach is social isolation. You might be labelled as eccentric if you do not do things like other people do. This might lower your self-esteem and alienate yourself from social network. At the end of the day, we are all herd animals.
The second approach is more subtle. You do not cut off your distractions but push them all into one single block.
Now, let's take a look at a daily work timeline of a distracted person.
The green bar is for important tasks, black ones for distracted factors and white ones are valid break.
You can see that the block of time for important tasks are chopped off and fragmented through the day. What if we move all the green blocks to the beginning and the black blocks till the end?
We not just have a better graph but have more things done in the block of green. The total time of all green blocks remain the same as in Fig 1 but more meaningful works are done with this model.
The first thing we avoid here is context switching. Changing tasks costs our mental energy. Our brain has to recall what is being left since last time and reassemble all the necessary information to put us in the flow again. If you multiply this several times a day, the total cost of context switching is significant.
Context switching might be ok for easy tasks but if you want to work on a challenge, it is hard to get anything done. Most great work or deep work are done in solitude.
It does not stop there...
The second optimization we do here is since we do important tasks at the beginning of the day when our mental strength is highest, we have an ability to do longer stretch of work. Our work timeline actually looks like this.
When your body is full of energy, it's easier to concentrate than when your energy is low. A higher energy level ties to higher productivity. Even if you don't like your work, a high mental strength will help you overcome its boredom. If your work is fragmented and done during low energy time, your output will significantly drop.
More importantly, doing work at the highest energy level gets you into a flow, a state that your brain feels very comfortable with your current behavior.
Procrastinators often have trouble starting a work but once they get into the flow they can be as productive as non-procrastinating people. High energy level does not always guarantee to avoid the distraction but makes it easier to get into the flow since the mental strength is highest.
Changing Your Habit
Everything written above is easier said than done. The shift in the model requires shift in human habits and changing habits is a daunting task.
The good news is changing your habits start with little steps. If you want to avoid distraction from your work environment, ask people to reschedule meetings so that you have more continuous block of work. Put on your headphone on even to signal other people that you are focusing even though you don't necessarily listen to music.
Uninstall social media apps on your phone. Only check them on browsers and at time when your mental or emotional strength is low. Because you are tired, you are less likely to spend much time on these activities and naturally reduce its time consumption.
Practice accepting boredom. Don't feel guilty if you are doing nothing. It's not a waste of time. Do you know that many successful people practicing meditation? You make your mind works less when in solitude so that it can work more when you need it the most.
The whole purpose of meditation or spending time in solitude is to tame our brain from craving for stimuli. Our mind works like a beast. Stimuli is food for the beast. The more you feed the beast, the hungrier and crazier it is.
"To calm your mind" is to ignore all the stimuli around you. You need to practice in free time so that next time a stimuli triggers, your mind has an ability to ignore it. It's also one of the best way to regenerate your neurons and recharge your energy.
Your mental strength is like muscle. It needs training and rest. No athlete can keep training for 24 hours. Don't let your mind trap in the loop of constant regretting about the past or worrying about the uncertain future.
If you are self-aware of your attention deprivation and follow these small steps, you will eventually get your attention back. In this knowledge economy, the ability to focus can generate big difference in the output and that could put you ahead of the competition.