If you plan your time, protect it, and monitor it, you will have a solid routine. That said, to optimize your time, you need the final piece of the puzzle: quality. It is not enough to just show up for every activity—you want to show up wholeheartedly. That comes from focus.
Focus means doing one thing at a time, uninterrupted, and being fully engaged. It is making every moment count. Being 100% present makes you more effective, allowing you to enter a state of flow and connection, which leads to you feeling more satisfied at the end.
Nurturing focus involves:
- removing distractions
- snoozing distractions
- practicing focused work
- avoiding multitasking
Make your physical and digital environment more focus-friendly by removing distractions. You may have strong willpower to resist temptations, but why waste cognitive energy in registering them just to then ignore them?
Eliminating distractions could mean cleaning up your desk, turning off phone notifications, going offline, or turning off the TV while talking to your partner. It could also mean bundling together all your small but necessary tasks into a 15 or 30-minute slot of time, once or twice a day.
The biggest enemy of focus is arguably the internet—or rather the mindless use of the internet. Our devices constantly pull us away from the present moment through messages, sounds, and the luring temptation of a quick dopamine rush just a quick tap away. Adjust notifications and other device settings to support you, not distract you.
Since some interruptions are inevitable, you also need to learn a second skill: “snoozing” the distraction. A regular meditation practice supports this, training your brain to keep your attention where you want it to be, and to return to that focus when your brain wanders.
The key element for this is awareness. When you are focused and a distraction comes up, you have the option to indulge in it or not. The problem is when we are unaware of these choices, and just mindlessly go for the shiny object.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Suppose you are doing important research for a project, be it personal or work-related. Then one of the following things happen:
- Your phone dings and flashes with the notification of a new email—will you take a “quick peek” or will you remain focused?
- You get a phone call from a family member—will you pick it up for a quick chat or will you remain focused?
- You see an ad on your favorite search engine promoting the new effortless-way-to-achieve-your-goal-for-only-one-dollar—will you click or will you remain focused?
- An interesting idea about an unrelated project pops up in your head—will you stop what you are doing and jump into that, or will you leave it for later and remain focused?
- You suddenly remember a delicious food item you have in the fridge—will you walk to the kitchen for a quick snack, or will you remain focused?
You always have the choice to remain focused and disciplined; but you are not always aware of it. And when you are not aware of it, you can’t choose it. Know that you have the power to snooze every distraction. You may not be able to do it every time—at least not yet—but having a clear intention to do so will help. A lot.
Practicing Focused Work
You can build your attention muscle by practicing focused work. For that, choose a single task, set a timer for twenty-five minutes, and focus on that task alone till the timer sounds. Then take a five-minute break. During the focused work, be inflexible with distractions, with one exception—a risk of actual danger. This is known as the Pomodoro technique.
While the timer is running, do nothing except the task you have decided to focus on. It doesn’t matter how small is the period of time you decided to start with—but only that you follow the exclusive focus rule with no exceptions. Be inflexible with all distractions and interruptions—this is the only way this is going to work.
The Pomodoro technique is a great start if you struggle a lot with distraction. But please don’t stop there. We are capable of much more than twenty-five minutes of undistracted work. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to follow the same principle for one or two hours. You’ll get there with practice.
To implement this principle, you can either commit to a specific task (e.g., “write a thousand words”), regardless of how long it takes, or you can commit to a time period (e.g., “write for an hour”), regardless of how much actually gets done. I personally follow the latter, as it’s more schedule-friendly. Practice this and then expand, building up to one or two hours, or just sticking to the task until it’s done.
Once you become proficient at focused work and snoozing distractions, you can try playing with fire—that is, welcoming interruptions selectively. Do this when your ability to re-focus is strong, and save it for interruptions that are worth it. As I was writing this section, I got interrupted by my wife who needed help with something. (Yes, the irony!) I attended to her and quickly went back to my train of thought. However, even with all my meditation training, I would not expect to do this successfully always. And there was still a cognitive cost to that switch.
Bottom line: stick to strict rules for your focused work periods of time as much as possible—especially in the beginning. It is neither possible nor balanced to attempt this for all your waking hours; but you will find it especially useful with work that requires a lot of cognitive power, or if you tend to be easily distracted.
Finally, being focused means doing one thing at a time, and not scattering your attention.
The idea of multitasking is to get several things done at once. It feels like we are being productive and doing more in less time—but that is a myth. In fact, avoiding multitasking makes you more efficient, saving the cognitive cost of task switching, and allowing you to have more headspace and working memory for work that is more meaningful and rewarding.
It’s tempting to glance quickly at notifications while in a meeting, to talk on the phone while eating, to check Twitter while watching a movie, and to keep our inbox open all day. But one study from the University of London showed that multitasking while performing cognitive tasks represented a drop of 10 points in IQ—the same as if you had skipped a full night of sleep. Ouch!
The only thing you get by multitasking is training your brain to be better at scattered, superficial work. It prevents you from going into a state of flow, which is where your best work can come. It prevents you from picking up all the non-verbal cues of the person you are talking to. It prevents you from focusing on your muscles while you are doing a leg-press at the gym—leaving your muscles less engaged more prone to injury.
Focused work, like meditation, requires exclusive attention to a single thing—and the willingness to let go of everything else, at least for the time being.
So don’t multitask—monotask! You’ll save energy, do better work, and feel more satisfied.