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how to focus

“Our focus matters immensely in everything we do: the better we can pay attention, the more excellent the results – again in everything from learning to leadership.” – Daniel Goleman

It’s not exactly ground breaking news, but our attention spans are not exactly thriving these days. We seem to spend the majority of our times multi-tasking and flitting from device to device, never stopping long enough to really devout our attention to any one thing.

The result? We may get a lot done, but the quality suffers, as does our own mental wellbeing. To truly excel, both at our professional and personal goals, we need to give ourselves the opportunity to put aside distractions and focus on the task in front of us.

In today’s post, we’re sharing tips on how to harness the power of focus to excel at work, and in life.

Find your motivation

Not surprisingly, it’s easier to focus on things we enjoy doing. We want to be doing them, and there’s no resistance to it, so it’s much easier to find the time and mental focus. So tip number one here is to find a job and past times that you enjoy, so you’ll have an easier time finding the time and will power to focus on them.

However, not all of us will have jobs and obligations that we love, and even when we do, we may not love all aspects of it. For these cases, it’s helpful to find ways to motivate yourself despite not loving the task. As we wrote about here, motivation is often driven by internal factors such as a desire to express our creativity or the satisfaction of knowing we put our all into our work. So even if you aren’t loving the job, you can create motivation for yourself in other ways, and this can help you to focus.

In his book, Focus, Daniel Goleman talks about the flow state that we enter when we are deeply focused on the task at hand. In this state, even seemingly uninteresting tasks can be enjoyable to accomplish, simply because it feels so good to be working within this flow state. The task itself becomes secondary to the feeling of contentment and flow we enjoy from being fully focused on a task- in a way, it’s similar to a meditation or mindfulness practice. As you practice and commit yourself to focusing, you may find that being in a state of deep focus is motivation enough to putting your attention on your work.

focus daniel goleman

Breathe

We spend a good portion of our day living in overdrive, rushing from meeting-to meeting, struggling to stay on top of our inbox and notifications, trying to manage a work like balance- it’s overwhelming and takes a serious toll on our ability to focus. Basically, this high-speed stress filled lifestyle keeps us in fight-or-flight mode, and it’s really difficult to focus in this state because on a physiological level, our body is being primed to go-go-go and to keep moving.

This state is good for getting us out of imminent danger, but it’s not conducive to sitting at a desk and focusing on the work in front of us. For this, we need to switch out of our fight-or-flight (i.e. sympathetic mode) and into a calmer head space (i.e. parasympathetic mode).

There are many ways to do this, but one of the easiest is to simply take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. When we are stressed and rushing around, our breathing becomes shallow, so a great way to calm and centre ourselves is to take a few slow and mindful breathes.

Next time you’re feeling too high strung or scattered to focus on your work, try this easy breathing exercise: inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold the air out for a count of 4. Repeat for a few rounds until you feel calmer and ready to focus on the task at hand.

Put away distractions

Did you know studies have shown that simply having our phone in sight can be a distraction? Distractions are everywhere these days- from our social media apps, to the nonstop barrage of emails and phone calls, and on and on- there is a never-ending stream of potentials distractions at our fingertips at all times.

Rather than rely solely on our willpower, you’ll have a much better chance of focusing if you can actively reduce or block potential attention-grabbers. This might mean using a site-blocker to keep you from scrolling through your favourite website and social media channels or putting your phone in another room while you’re working.

Focus requires downtime

Despite what our society’s more-is-better mindset may want us to think, we can’t stay focused 24/7- and that’s actually a good thing. Focus is like a muscle, and the more we use it, the stronger it will become but just like a muscle, it also needs rest. When we allow our mind to relax and wander, we give it a chance to chill out and refresh itself. It’s also when we’re daydreaming and not-focusing on anything in particular that insights, inspirations, and fresh ideas often come flooding in.

Allowing our mind to wander is very different from multitasking. Rather than trying to do many things at once, work on alternating between periods of focus on a particular task and periods of mental relaxation. One strategy that seems to work well for many people is to set a timer for a block of time (say 30 minutes) and focus completely on the task in front of you. Then when the time is up, take a mini break. That might mean making yourself a cup of coffee, having a quick chat with a co-worker, or taking a walk. Alternating between these periods of focus and relaxation allows you to stay fresh, alert, and on task.

Interested in learning more about the power of focus? We highly recommend Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

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