Everyone talks about laser focus: but how can one achieve it? And what does it even mean? In a world where the attention span of people on average is less than the one of a goldfish, we know that talking about laser focus means, we are talking about a new currency.
What currency do you ask? The currency of prolonged attention on one task, one subject, one topic, or even one conversation – in order to be able to deepen our understanding, our thought processes and also ask better questions.
There are a lot of benefits to be able to laser focus, yet not many people seem to either see the value in it or know how to get to it. Today I want to give you a first guide to get closer and start to practice laser focus.
What does it look like to truly be in laser focus?
To laser focus is to channel our attention on one central point of interest for a specific time frame. That time frame can be 90 minutes, it can be 5 weeks, or it can be 7 months. For many people, it is extremely difficult to focus on one single activity for an extended amount of time. For others, it is the key to unlocking the flow state. With that being said, there are a few cornerstones that will help you to stay more focused, whether it is for just one task, a fun activity, or a project that you would like to complete.
Distractions are dream-killers
And there you go. Just a minute ago you wanted to research somet… and then you saw a squirrel. This squirrel!
Did you know that the human attention span is lower than that of a goldfish? Yep. The goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds, 2 seconds longer than we humans do. Not kidding. To be able to stay laser focused for the time of our work we must put some effort in.
Silence your phone, social media, and any devices with noticeable notifications.
This may sound obvious, but many people underestimate the impact of notifications, especially when practising laser focus. Whether they are sounds, vibrations, pop-ups, or even just light. I started to silence all of my devices in 2011 when I took a job in a Digital Media Transformation Agency back in Berlin. Since social media channels were part of our daily work with clients, I often received hundreds of notifications, updates, and emails on top of my private ones. It took me a week to decide this would drive me insane.
I turned them all off. On all devices, whether for work or my personal ones. I enjoyed being able to take a break from being available if I needed to, so I kept all notifications turned off, and they have remained that way until this day. It also just helped so much to get into laser focus, when the biggest distraction is out of the way. I also don’t have any ringtones for my phone—no vibrations, nothing. If I don’t know ahead of time that you are going to call me, I won’t answer the phone anyway. This is pretty radical, and for other people, this may not work as well as it does for me. But reducing all audible and visible outputs of notifications will make a huge difference for your focus, as it will not interrupt your brain with a distraction each time one pops up.
Locking your phone away completely in random places.
This will help to take a lot of distractions off your plate, while you are working on your most important tasks. You may have heard the saying “out of sight, out of mind,” and it is very accurate. Although it takes longer for your desire for the distraction to be decreased, it can help to simply place your phone in random places that you usually would not put it and get to work. A study has shown that “if a person is aware of a substitute for something, the longer they have gone without, the weaker their desire for the non-consumed good becomes.” In other words, if you put the phone away and substitute the craving for using it with working on an important task, you will soon forget about the phone, at least for an extended amount of time.
I put my phone in a different spot every day so it won’t become a habit for my brain to know where it is and want to go look if there are any updates or messages.
Blocking all social media apps and browser access on your computer
This will further reduce any distractions. Since our brain is a smart little machine up there, it will try to find any other way to access all of the information that it would usually have access to on our phones. Shiny objects are soooooo… shiny! And our brain wants them all! So we gotta protect it from them if we want to get into laser focus.
There are many browser extensions and apps available, both for your computer and for your phone that can block you from browsing the internet or checking social media for the time you choose to work. To gamify this and get some virtual rewards, the app “forest” on your phone lets you plant lovely trees and build, well, forests.
Being hungry or thirsty is a great reason to be distracted.
I always have a big bottle of water on my desk, plus some healthy snacks like nuts or seeds or veggie sticks. Staying properly hydrated helps your brain perform at high levels, and although it certainly is very healthy to get up and stretch at least once every hour, having to fill up your water glass more often than that can become a distraction.
These are just 4 out of hundreds of scenarios that we could walk through in order to help you reduce distractions and increase your laser focus. Yet there are other methods that will certainly be more effective in the long run, like working within your preferred productivity type, within your chrono-energy type, and others.
Finally, I want to explain one last method that helped me build up the ability to focus on one single task for an extended period of time.
Learn how to refocus to laser focus
While it is great to prevent distractions from the get-go, it is just as important to know how to get back to focus as fast as possible after being distracted.
It can actually be helpful to take a step back, allow yourself to be distracted for a short while, and then step back into the task with fresher eyes. Think about a camera that focuses on one spot taking photos. When something in the background moves or changes, the focus may change too. We have to adjust the lens to get back to our focal point.
The same is valid for our work. When writing my book I had days where I would have nothing else but writing planned. I would write for stretches of 2.5 hours without a break for a total of 7 to 9 hours. To be able to stay focused and on-topic, I would periodically look up from the screen for a few minutes, look out into the trees, and then go back to writing.
Sometimes I would encounter different thoughts and the urge to research topics further, even if there was no need to do so. My brain would start thinking about what other information I could put in the book besides what I had already been writing about, and I would get distracted by these thoughts. At other times I would think for too long about what I wanted to eat for dinner when it was only 10 a.m. To be able to get back to writing quickly, I would use the same trick.
I would look up and get up to move my body. I’d interrupt both my writing and my thoughts, and look out into the trees. I’d simply point out whatever I see without further thinking about it. This works with anything that doesn’t trigger specific thoughts for you. You can look outside of the window, at a photo, or you can also get up and stretch. The point is to interrupt the train of thought that is keeping you distracted. As soon you have interrupted that pattern, say the task that you were working on, out loud, remind yourself what steps you have to take action on in order to fulfil the task. Refocus and get back to work.
Procrastinate for more focus
For some people, it is helpful to procrastinate in between tasks or during a long stretch of work. In this case, I recommend scheduling distraction times. I had clients who, in trying to avoid distractions completely, ended up creating so much FOMO around not checking their phones that they weren’t able to concentrate on their tasks at all.
Instead of waiting for the distraction to arise, plan it out. If you are one of the productivity types that work in shorter time frames, then schedule yourself some short sprints of distraction, for example, a 5-minute social media break after 2 work sessions, or a 5-minute blog post break after 4 sessions. Whatever feels right to you and helps you to stay more focused when you are actually working on your tasks.
The power of focus lies not in ginormous stretches of uninterrupted work (although achievable), nor in unlocking some secret area of the brain, but in a very realistic approach. “All” it takes is reducing distractions to the best of your abilities, preventing cravings for shiny objects, assessing your productivity type, and learning how to quickly and effectively refocus.