Be honest with me here. When you study or get work done, how good are you at focusing on that work? And by that I mean how susceptible are you to distractions that pop up or the temptation to multitask? This is a really important question to ask yourself because a lack of focus, a lack of the ability to concentrate is one of the best ways to waste a lot of the time you dedicate to studying. That’s because when you get pulled away from your main task into a distraction or some other task, you’re not just wasting the time that it takes to get that distraction done with. There’s also something called a cognitive switching penalty, and as Josh Kaufman points out in his book The Personal MBA, which I highly recommend, by the way, “In order to take action, your brain has to load the context of what you’re doing into working memory.
If you constantly switch the focus of your attention, you’re forcing your brain to spend time and effort thrashing, loading and reloading contexts over and over again. That’s why it’s possible to spend an entire day multitasking, getting nothing done, and feel exhausted at the end. You’ve burned all of your energy context switching instead of making progress.” This is why it’s so important to build the ability to focus. If you can do that, you’re going to eliminate a lot of these potential cognitive switching penalties you could have incurred from your day, and that means you’re going to be able to pack your work into a more concentrated, shorter amount of time, and get more done.
So in this video, I’m gonna give you five quick ways that you can start building the ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand. The first one is called pre-commitment. Pre-committing to a task is simply building some sort of device that binds you to finishing it before you actually get started, and to do this you can use what are used commitment devices. It’s why I use Beeminder to ensure that I create two things every week on my website. If you have some way of making sure there’s a consequence for not getting your work done, you’re gonna be more motivated to stay focused on that work. This can be as simple as writing down that you’re going to get X done in 30 minutes, and if you don’t finish within 30 minutes, you know that you’ve failed. You’ve externalized that goal by writing it down, and now that you’ve failed it, you’re gonna feel bad. You could even do something crazy like hiring a lady off Craigslist to slap you in the face like Maneesh Sethi did, or you could stay within the realm of sanity.
That’s cool too. You can also pre-commit to one task by eliminating your ability to do anything else during that time. This is often called the burnt ships technique and it’s in reference to an inaccurate but still compelling story about Hernán Cortés telling his men to burn their ships before they attack the Aztecs. The motivation for doing this would have been to keep his men focused on the task because they had no other option. They couldn’t go back. Now you probably don’t have an actual boat to burn of your own, and even if you did, it probably wouldn’t help you get your homework done, but you can take inspiration from this idea by removing the ability to do other things while you’re focused on a task. One way you can do this is by blocking distracting websites on your computer using an extension like StayFocusd or a program like FocalFilter. You could even entirely disconnect the internet if you didn’t need it. Tip number two is to have a distraction sheet next to you while you work. Now I talked to you about this before as an addition to the Pomodoro Technique, but whether or not you’re pre-committing using that technique or just studying in a different way, having a piece of paper next to you where you write down what’s distracting you helps you get back into your work because you know you’ve made a reminder of that distraction, you can get back to it later if it’s important, but you’re externalizing it.
You’re pulling it out of your brain and you’re allowing your brain to get back to the task at hand. Tip number three is to try out an app called Forest, which is available for both iPhones and Android devices. Forest is an app that tries to help make your smartphone less of a distraction, and it does this by letting you plant a seed and then if you don’t touch your phone for 30 minutes, it grows into a tree.
If you do touch your phone, it kills the tree and you failed that session. Now I can see it already, people in the comments saying that you could just turn off your phone or leave it in a different room, and that does work, but the thing that Forest does is it provides an instant reward the minute you finish a 30-minute session. Getting immediate tangible and quantifiable results for something is a great way to build good habits. If you’re just turning off your phone and putting it in the other room, you may not see those immediate tangible benefits, but if you get a nice cool tree on your phone if you don’t touch it for 30 minutes, then that’s a nice thing you can look at.
So, if turning your phone off works for you, that’s cool, but if it doesn’t, try the app out. Tip number four is to meditate once a day. I’ve been doing this for a few months now, and honestly, I just do it for three minutes in the morning, and I try to focus on my breath. Now, the idea behind this is your attention is like any other muscle in your body. As you train it, it gets stronger, and your ability to focus increases. I’ve found that just trying to focus on my breath for three minutes a day has increased by ability to stay focused on other tasks, like reading or writing. Now, an important thing to note with meditation is that your attention will wonder, and that’s okay. The act of noticing that your attention has wondered and that you’ve started daydreaming, and then bringing that attention back to your initial point of focus is what helps build that attention muscle. My fifth and final tip is to eliminate potential distractions while you’re studying. Now when I talked to you about pre-committing earlier, I talked about the burnt ships technique, and that’s focused on eliminating your ability to distract yourself, but there are also a lot of distractions that can happen to you, environmental distractions, people coming in and asking you to do things, and if you can eliminate the potential for these to happen, you’re going to have an easier time focusing, so pay attention to any potential source of distractions before you study.
This could be something that can pop a notification up, like your phone or something on your computer, or just being in a specific location where your friends are likely to find you. I actually have a whole section on eliminating distractions in my book on earning better grades, which is free. So if you wanna get more tips in this area, then you can click the card there, or the link in the description, and grab the book. So, those are my five tips this week for helping you build concentration and your ability to focus. Hopefully you found this helpful, and I wanna leave you with a quote from the Roman poet, Horace, who said, “Rule your mind, or it will rule you.” Now, if your internal ability to rule your mind and stay focused right now isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be, that’s okay.
Work on building it, but also take advantage of the external systems and tools we have to help you out. That could be using apps and extensions like Forest and StayFocusd, hiring some lady off Craigslist to slap you in the face, or just asking a friend to keep tabs on you while you’re studying. Anyway, I hope you found this post useful.