In the age of social media and modern technology, we’ve lost the ability to focus.
A lot of people like to say that they have ADHD, and while it’s no surprise that numbers are rising you don’t exactly need to be medically diagnosed to feel totally scattered all the time.
ADHD or not, you definitely ARE impaired. And it’s not your fault. Our lives are designed for distraction. The ability to focus deeply on one idea at a time is becoming rarer and rarer.
“We’re now living in an Idea Economy,” according to HP CEO Meg Whitman. Whereas manufactured goods were once the material that drove our economy, ideas are now the commodity. You can only succeed if you have the agility to respond to market opportunities and quickly turn ideas into reality.
The catch-22 is that success requires deep focus.
As we dive deeper into technology made to enable us and enhance our lives, we’re paradoxically seeing a huge increase in our inability to tune out inputs that distract us, sap our mental energy, drain our focus and decrease our intellectual output.
One of the biggest reasons our generation is having a hard time getting ahead is because we have overdeveloped our ability to “try things out” and underdeveloped our ability to complete a single task from beginning to end.
More tools to be productive and less clarity how best to get things done. Everything we consume has been brilliantly designed to make us keep coming back for more. There are teams of people that engineer our technologies and their only job is to figure out how to make you click, share, swipe, watch, consume, and ultimately convert.
And while we’re drawn deeper into our devices, we’ve opened up more points of access than we know how to manage. I just counted. There are 12 different ways to get in touch with me at any given moment. 12! Between multiple email addresses, social media accounts, apps, and my “normal” phone, I’ve essentially given the world total access to disrupt me at any moment.
We don’t stand a chance.
“A distraction is an alert that says, ‘Orient your attention here now; this could be dangerous,'” says David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. The brain’s reaction is automatic. Basically unstoppable.
To overcome distractions, you’ve got to be bulletproof. Superhuman.
Willpower isn’t enough. It’s futile to try to exercise self-control and then get mad at yourself when you can’t do it.
And yet, we constantly deceive ourselves. We promise that “this time will be different,” this time we’re going to buckle down, only to realize you’ve spent the past two hours on Facebook.
Listen up: overcoming distraction is NOT about willpower. You’ve got to be more crafty than that.
The “secret formula” to find more willpower and become more productive
Here’s the good news. If you can learn to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, you can surpass 99% of your peers and people in your field. Just by continuing to keep your attention trained on one thing. One wildly important task or goal.
Deep focus is the superpower of the 21st century. If you can harness it, you’ll possess a power that most no longer have.
Focus is a trained skill. To train a skill you need to create a set of powerful habits to keep it strong. You need to train yourself to learn how to focus. Because just like focus, distraction is also a muscle. The more you flex it, the easier it is to use.
Here are 3 quick ways to immediately start training focus into your daily life:
1. No cell phone for the first 20 minutes of your morning
Rather than start your day getting sucked into the black hole of the internet, meaningless gossip, and/or important work — take 20 minutes for yourself. Wake up, allow your own thoughts to influence your entry into the day. Personally, I recommend meditation (Headspace is a great place to start) but it can be as simple as making time for yourself in the shower, or over a cup of coffee.
Cultivate your intentions without the distraction or allure of the screen, behind which lies someone else’s agenda. Technology eliminates alternatives to itself. As soon as you’re sucked in, it’s hard to get out.
2. No Tech Sundays
Or Saturdays. Whatever works for you.
Give yourself one day per week entirely free of distractions.
What you choose to do is entirely up to you. The point is to re-invigorate the muscles that don’t require instant gratification.
What you choose to focus on and choose to ignore is a defining quality of your life. Who you are and what you feel IS what you focus on. If you’re constantly engaged in a techno-sphere of influence, how can you possibly see things from another perspective? Without time “off,” how can you distinguish your ideas from the world’s?
Last month I went to Greece to write the first draft of my book and disengaged from the internet for three days. Though the amount of work I produced was impressive (40,000 words), I was absolutely blown away by the quality of my ideas.
As Cal Newport, author of Deep Work says, “knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.” Without the internet, I could focus deeply and make far-reaching connections that constant distractions make impossible.
3. No internet either before or after work
Just because we exist in a wifi / 4G universe doesn’t mean we always have to be on the internet.
Take me for example. The first draft of my book is due on May 1st. Every morning, before I head to the office, I carve out a few hours to write. When I write I turn off the internet.
I’ve tried the alternative and it’s just too damn tempting. “I’ll just check my email” turns into a series of clicks that lead down a rabbit hole of distraction that I had no intention of consuming. For whatever reason, our minds crave novelty.
Just because you’re not writing a book doesn’t mean you can’t take something away from my experience. Doing deep work requires intense concentration and the simple habit of clicking “Turn Wifi Off” can serve as a symbolic gesture that jumpstarts a powerful ritual.
It’s motivating to think that your ability to focus is only as strong as your commitment to train it. If you want to stand out in the 21st century and dominate your field, you need to learn how to cultivate deep focus.