The Beginner's Guide on How to Improve Your Focus and Concentration.
In today’s digital world filled with non-stop emails, information overload, mobile phone messages and social media notifications, it’s never been harder in human history to stay focused on our goals.
Each day, we wake up determined to stay focused and finish the most important tasks on our ‘To Do List.’ But then, what happens?
As soon as we’re awake, a million and one things begin to pull our attention in different directions. And despite our best attempts to stay on track, we can’t help but be easily distracted—almost like a squirrel—and get buried in the minutia.
To solve this problem, we attempt to multitask between checking emails, scrolling on social media feeds, clicking on links online, attending meetings, saying yes to people’s urgent requests, and responding to phone texts. But, what is the result of this lack of focus?
At the end of the day, we feel exhausted, stressed, disappointed and defeated, because the entire day was wasted dealing with every little distraction, and we never got round to finishing our most important tasks.
And worst of all, we feel like we’re falling behind on our goals and life is slipping away.
If you can relate to any of these problems, I’ve got good news for you: focus is a skill that can be developed and mastered, just like art.
And today, I’m going to show you the best strategies based on several years of research into proven, cutting-edge science and the habits of high-achievers, that will help you to stay focused and eliminate distractions.
Let’s get started.
I. Why Can’t I Stay Focused?
There are two types of forces that drive your focus: external and internal.
External forces exist outside of yourself i.e. the items and people in your surroundings.
Internal forces exist within yourself i.e. your emotions and beliefs.
These two forces feed off one another to determine your ability to stay focused and avoid distractions.
The more positive your external and internal forces, the better your focus and concentration. And vice versa.
As a quick reference, here’s a simple formula that illustrates how focus works:
Internal Force + External Force = Focus
For example, let’s say that you’re trying to stay focused and finish a writing project.
If there’s a mobile phone on your work desk (negative external force) and you’re stressed (negative internal force), you’ll struggle to focus and concentrate on your writing.
On the flip side, if there’s a visible timer on your desk (positive external force) and you’re in a relaxed state (positive internal force), you’ll find it much easier to focus and concentrate on your writing.
Both forces can also counteract one another.
For example, if your work environment is free from electronic devices (positive external force), but you’re anxious about issues at home i.e. finances and family problems, you could still struggle to stay focused and avoid distractions.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that internal forces contribute at least 80% of your total ability to focus, and the external forces only about 20%.
It’s a radical deviation from mainstream expert advice that preach about external forces, and pay much less homage to the internal forces that really drive your focus.
Long story short, the reason why you can’t stay focused is because the combination of your external environment and internal state of mind is negative.
Luckily, in this brief guide you’ll learn some of the best strategies I’ve discovered from several years of self-experimentation and research into the science of better focus.
But before we get started, I’d like to quickly address an epidemic bad habit that destroys our focus and productivity.
It’s called multitasking.
How Multitasking Affects Your Brain
We’d like to think that we can effectively juggle more than one task at a time—talk on the phone and scroll through social media feeds, whilst typing an important email—but, our brains would say otherwise.
According to neuroscientists, the human brain isn’t designed for multitasking, and it kills mental performance, creativity and decision-making.
For example, a study conducted in the University of California, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on a task after an interruption. 1
And that’s just one interruption! If you do the math and count the number of times you’re interrupted due to multitasking, that’s several hours wasted each day.
According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world’s leading experts on human attention, “when we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless, but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts.” 2
Miller argues that multitasking, “ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought….As humans, we have a very limited capacity for simultaneous thought, we can only hold a little bit of information in the mind at any single moment.”
In addition, a study conducted by the University of London, discovered that multitasking could make you dumber.
During the study, participants who multitasked experienced a drop in IQ points down to the average level of an 8-year old child. 3
Next time you’re about to multitask, whilst completing an important task, consider that there may be little difference between your quality of work and that of an 8-year-old child.
Now, let’s take a step back to see how multitasking affects our focus through the framework of internal and external forces discussed previously.
Research has shown that multitasking increases our brain’s production of cortisol, a hormone that creates stress. And stress is one of the internal forces that reduce our focus and concentration. 4.
So here’s the link: multitasking creates stress, and stress reduces our ability to focus.
Now that we’ve discussed why it’s so hard to stay focused and how focus works, let’s explore some of the best strategies to improve your focus and concentration.
II. How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused and Avoid Distractions
There are two ways to improve your focus and concentration: through external and internal improvements.
Remember, external forces are outside of yourself i.e. physical items surrounding you, and internal forces are within yourself i.e. your emotions.
External improvements involve making changes to your surroundings that create positive external forces, whilst internal improvements involve making changes to your internal state that create positive internal forces.
The more positive your external and internal forces, the better your focus.
Let’s begin with strategies for external improvements.
1. Design your environment for better focus
One of the easiest ways to improve your focus is to remove distractions from your surroundings.
For example, whilst working on an important task, you could keep your phone in a separate room and use apps to block access to websites.
You can also add visual cues to your environment for better focus and concentration.
As an example, I use a Sand Timer to help me stay focused whenever I write. And so far, it’s helped me stick to the habit of writing two articles each week.
For some strange reason, watching time fly by in a physical form through the sand timer, makes it harder for me to get distracted and waste valuable time.
2. Use a proactive ‘no’
One of the most important life skills is the ability to gracefully say no to friends, family, colleagues and people in general.
Each time we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to something else. And vice versa.
Saying no is crucial to creating the time and energy required to focus on what really matters most to us.
But despite how important we know it is to say no, why do we still struggle to turn down unnecessary commitments?
The answer lies in the difference between a reactive ‘no’ and a proactive ‘no.’
A reactive ‘no’ is an unplanned response to decline unexpected offers, whereas, a proactive ‘no’ is a pre-planned response to decline expected offers.
9 times out of 10, a reactive ‘no’ fails because it’s much easier to get swayed from your commitments, when an unexpected urgent request comes into play.
For example, let’s say you plan to finish reading an important document today, but you later receive a phone call from a colleague, John, asking you to attend an important work event. You’re more likely to lose focus and abandon the reading plan, if you use a reactive rather than a proactive ‘no.’
Conversely, a proactive ‘no’ would help you to stay focused and avoid getting distracted by other people’s requests.
One of the best ways to create a proactive ‘no’ is through the use of a strategy called “implementation-intention.”
An implementation intention is simply an “IF-THEN” plan—IF [situation X happens], THEN [I will do Y in response].
For example, in our particular scenario, you could’ve pre-planned that, “IF John asks me to attend a work event, THEN I will let him know that I’m extremely busy and will attend the next one.”
As simple as it may appear, there have been hundreds of “implementation-intention” studies showing that preparing ahead of time on how you plan to implement a behaviour could double the odds of following through on it. 5
Brainstorm the common scenarios of people’s requests and create a proactive ‘no’ to counteract each one of them.
3. Warren Buffett’s 5/25 strategy
One of the biggest challenges with focus is deciding on the one thing to direct your time and energy towards.
Luckily, there’s a simple 3-step strategy, used by billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, that will help you to better focus and prioritise your time.
It’s called the 5/25 strategy and here’s how it works:
A few years ago, before an airplane takeoff, Warren Buffett walked up to the pilot of his private jet, Mike Flint and jokingly said to him, “The fact that you’re still working for me, tells me I’m not doing my job. You should be out, going after more of your goals and dreams.”
Buffett then walked Flint through a simple, quick process to gain clarity on his priorities and achieve his goals. 6
Here’s the exact 3-step process (you can follow along and write these down):
Step 1: Write down your top 25 goals.
The first thing Warren Buffett asked Flint to do was to list the most important career goals he wanted to achieve in his lifetime. These would total to 25 goals.
Step 2: Draw a circle around your top 5 goals.
Once Flint compiled his list of 25 career goals, Buffett asked him to draw a circle around his top 5 most important goals. Flint was hesitant because each goal was important to him, but nevertheless, he circled five goals.
Then, Buffett asked, “Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you.” Flint replied, “Yes.”
Step 3: Focus on your top 5 goals and say no to the rest.
After the brief discussion, Flint said to Buffett, “Warren, these are the most important things in my life right now. I’m going to get to work on them right away. I’ll start tomorrow. Actually, no I’ll start tonight.”
Buffett replied, “but what about these other 20 things on your list that you didn’t circle? What is your plan for completing those?” Flint replied swiftly, “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top 5. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”
After a brief moment of silence, Buffett looked straight into Flint’s eyes and said, “No. You’ve got it wrong Steve. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list’. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
Buffett’s 5/25 strategy is a humble reminder that not all goals are created equal, and quitting is crucial for optimal focus.
In addition to this, I’ve written about similar strategies that will help you to better prioritise your time and improve your focus, including the Ivy lee method, time blocking technique and eisenhower matrix.
4. Schedule around your energy, not your time
In general, it’s much easier to stay focused on a task when your energy levels are highest—typically, in the morning—than when it’s lowest—in the evenings.
But too often we fail to capitalize on this each day, by scheduling our tasks around time, instead of energy.
As a result, we tackle our most important tasks when our energy is lowest, and our least important tasks when our energy is highest, which leads to low quality work and unfinished tasks.
The best way to solve this problem is to flip this upside down.
For example, I schedule my important writing projects in the morning, and less creative tasks like responding to emails and phone calls, in the afternoon.
This enables me to focus and complete my most important tasks when I have the most energy, and avoid the distractions that pop up later during the day.
That’s a wrap on the external improvements for better focus.
It’s important to note, however, that although they’re useful and effective, external improvements aren’t enough.
Long term improvements in focus and concentration come from internal improvements.
Here are the best strategies for internal improvements that will help you to stay focused and avoid distractions over the long run.
1. Boost your energy levels
As a follow up to the previous point on scheduling around your energy levels, one of the best ways to improve your focus is to increase your energy levels through the fundamentals: exercise, nutrition and sleep.
Don’t worry, I won’t bore you to death regurgitating information you’ve probably read over and over again, but if you’d like a brief overview on the importance of these fundamentals and how to improve them, check out my articles on sleep, diet and exercise.
2. Take digital sabbaths
Whether it’s text messages, emails or social media apps on our mobile phones, or websites and videos on the web, digital distractions play a significant role in our inability to stay focused and get things done.
The challenge is, for most of us, our livelihood and lifestyle depend on digital devices.
One of the best ways to solve this dilemma, is to take regular digital sabbaths: in other words, time away from digital devices.
For example, at least one hour each day, I step away from work and digital devices, and go for a walk. And once every quarter, I take a trip to the woods to reconnect with nature.
Digital sabbaths give your brain an opportunity to take a break from the constant bombardment from digital devices, and re-energize to tackle your important tasks.
Simply block out a period of time each day, week or month, to abstain from all digital devices and recover.
3. Use the power of mental models
In layman’s terms, a mental model is an explanation of how something works. It’s a worldview or belief you hold in your mind to make sense of what happens in the world.
One of the best ways to use mental models for better focus under pressure, is to develop the habit of visualizing yourself handling distractions before they occur, and then simply repeating that story in your mind as the incident happens.
This was the exact strategy, Pilot, Richard de Crespigny, used to stay focused and safely land an airplane, during what is considered to be one of the worst mid air aircraft mechanical disasters in modern aviation.
When distractions emerge during your day, your subconscious mind will work to help you deal with distractions, just like you’d visualised ahead of time.
4. Use “Feng Shui”
Feng Shui is the chinese philosophy of removing clutter from your life for better well-being.
It’s an art form that alleviates anxiety and stress, by decluttering your environment.
For example, let’s say you have ten internet browser tabs open right now. Using Feng Shui, you could cut them down to five tabs, which would help to reduce your stress levels.
As another example, you could keep your work desk clean and put items back in place at the end of each workday, which will help to prevent stress buildup.
If you rewind to the start of this guide, you’ll notice that stress was highlighted as a negative internal force that kills your focus.
By decluttering your environment, and thereby alleviating your stress, Feng Shui creates positive internal forces that improve your focus and concentration.
5. Practice “Zanshin”
Zanshin is a word used in Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness.
The literal translation of Zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” It describes a state of awareness that is completely mindful of the mind and body.
Zanshin is an ancient strategy used by legendary Japanese archers, swordsmen and elite athletes.
Contrary to popular opinion, your ability to focus has much less to do with willpower, motivation, tools and strategies, and more so to do with your internal state. In particular, how mindful and relaxed you are.
The more relaxed the state of your mind and body, the greater your ability to stay focused, avoid distractions and follow through on your plans.
Through meditative practices and deep breathing exercises, especially during stressful moments, you can relax your mind and body for better focus and concentration.
Zanshin is a reminder of the biggest irony about focus: it’s at its best when we shift our focus away from the goal, and towards the process.
III. Where To Go From Here
We’ve covered a lot of strategies on how to improve your focus and concentration, and I hope you find one or two useful.
If you’d like the explore more ideas and further reading on the topic of focus, you can browse through the recommended books and articles listed below.
Best Books on Focus
Recommended books based on my reading list:
- Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams: Print | Audiobook
- The Power of Full Engagement: Print | Audiobook
- Blue Zones Solution: Print | Audiobook
- Zen in the art of archery: Print | Audiobook
- The paradox of choice: why more is less. Print | Audiobook
- Blink: Print | Audiobook
- The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick): Print | Audiobook
All Articles on Focus
A list of my best articles on eliminating distractions and improving focus
- The Real Reason Why You’re Always Tired and Low On Energy, Even Though You Get Enough Sleep Every Night.
- 5 Things to Do When You Get Bored Working Towards Your Goals, Backed by Science.
- 5 Science-Backed Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty and Hurting Someone’s Feelings.
- 10 Lessons From Benjamin Franklin’s Daily Schedule That Will Double Your Productivity.
- The Physics of Failure: Why We Fail In Life and Work (and What to Do About It)
- Buridan’s Ass: Why More Is Less (and What to Do About It)
- Zanshin: How to Master the Art of Focus and Concentration From a Legendary Japanese Archer
- Warren Buffett’s “3-step” 5/25 Strategy: How to Focus and Prioritize Your Time Like a Billionaire.
- The Top 5 Things That Will Significantly Improve Your Productivity Today.
- How to Stay Focused and Avoid Distractions Even If You’re Under Pressure