Trying to learn something? Get your focus on first.
8 min read
First, let's address the elephant in the room. The world that we live in has become increasingly distracted and our attention span reduced to that of a goldfish.
Not only is difficult to concentrate nowadays but there are people who are proud of their 'multitasking' as if it was some sort of badge of honor.
Finding someone who can focus on one thing at a time for a prolonged period while doing the thing well is quickly becoming similar to finding a unicorn roaming around.
This is important because regardless of the topic you're trying to learn, whether it is general computer science, web development, machine learning, data science, etc.
A difficult topic like any of those requires that you put your total concentration on the subject to understand it well enough.
Aside from multitasking being more a myth than anything else, every time we move from one task to another we diminish our mental capacity. This is something known as "context switching".
I first heard about this from Todd Herman in which he explains that it takes the brain from 10 up to 15 minutes to recalibrate and pick up on what is that we were left on in that specific task.
So anything like working on 2 or more projects on a day while checking email, chat messages, calls, or even trying to work with social media or entertainment tabs open in the browser(s)...
That's a sure way to fragment your concentration and make things take more time than they should.
Now, staying focused on a specific task for a moderate amount of time seems like a whole quest to embark on.
Regardless of it is working on a personal project, learning something new, or tackling tasks at work.
We have to to put in the time and effort to make substantial progress.
The thing is, putting just more and more time won't cut it. We only have a limited amount of time each day and it feels like every time we have less and less.
Since time is something we can't control then what's left is the amount of effort we can put in.
To borrow a concept from Cal Newport's book "Deep Work", the amount of next-level work we can do is determined by the formula:
$$ Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) $$
We can now see that what matters and is under our control is the intensity of the focus we give to the task at hand.
But in a world where there are a lot of things competing for our attention, how can we manage to put in the intense focus required to do high-quality work in less time?
We'll have to start from the beginning and take baby steps to get there.
Here are some things to start with:
- Audit your current environment.
- Remove distractions.
- Turn off the notifications for both smartphone and computer.
- Have good communication with others (to avoid getting interrupted for no reason)
- Bring all the necessary stuff within reach.
You can also do activities that help to prime the brain for focus.
For example, going out for a short walk, doing mobility exercises to get the blood flowing, getting a glass of water/tea/coffee, working in a closed room, etc.
These activities can help the brain know when to prepare for a focus session.
Since being fully focused on a task is something most of us don't know how to do well, we have to train that 'focus muscle'.
The goal now is to start rewiring the brain so that it can be able to spend more time focused.
Now, the question is how to do it?
Well, there is more than a way to skin a cat. But for starters, you can try one of these practical actions to help you out.
Chunk it down.
Take all the tasks that you need to do and reduce them to smaller units of work. Say for example, you have to do an update on the codebase and migrate some components to use a newer version of the framework.
First thing would be identifying all the parts of the code that would need to be changed. Once that's done, have a list of all the places where the changes are necessary. Now, you can go one by one and make the proper updates where are needed.
By separating a task into its smaller actionable parts, you can be more effective in getting them done.
Knowing what is that you need to be doing at any given moment. As opposed to having this big task in mind and going back and forth between what you've done and what's left.
Start small and progressively move up.
If you don't have much experience in this, start with short sessions and only increase them once you start getting more the hang of it.
For instance, if you're one of those "chronically distracted", start with 15-minute sessions. If you can have several of those sessions without distractions consistently move into 20-minute ones.
Take breaks from focus sessions.
This is equally important than the work time. If you're going for a prolonged period of uninterrupted focus, you gotta give the brain some time to recover. Especially, in the initial stages. If you started with 15-minute sessions, have something like 3-minute breaks.
These are periods of time when you move away from where you've been and do something different non-screen related. (Yes, no going from the pc to the smartphone screen)
Go to the bathroom, get some outside air, go down a floor and come back up, grab something to drink (like water or juice) something along those lines works well for short breaks.
Set a specific goal for that session.
Now, since you diligently broke down tasks into smaller chunks, you have something to pick up and get done in that session. You now know what is that you'll be working on and what has to be finished by the time that session ends.
This helps to not let focus sessions go to waste or be "half-used". Being that you get some work done initially and then something "comes up", breaks your concentration, and makes you waste time.
Use time-boxing for the tasks.
As you do this more often, you'll see that there are specific tasks that require more time than others and will have an idea of how much time they could take. Now the challenge is to set an amount of time for a specific task and try to get done by the time ends.
Make it so that you have a hard deadline on when the task has to get done. Once the time is up you move onto another thing, whether the previous one got finished or not.
You'll find out that having these restrictions makes you more productive and a better manager of your time.
If it helps, use noise-canceling headphones and background music.
This one has mixed reactions so do what works best for you.
Some need to have this type of headphones with background music to drown out the external noise.
Some prefer regular headphones and ambient music.
Some say they get distracted if they work with music.
Some are only able to concentrate if they hear the chatter and noise of their surroundings.
Like it's a real thing so much so that there are soundtracks of busy places that help some people concentrate... I know, weird right?
Be properly hydrated during the sessions.
This is a particular "hack" if you will. Regardless if you think you're fine and don't need it to work, you'll find that you will be much better with it.
It's now known that some of the times you feel "hungry" is your body telling that you're dehydrated.
Keep your beverage of choice close so you have easy access to it and be able to power through those focus sessions.
Getting a refill is a great thing to do when you get a break from that session (only when it ends of course. Don't use it as an excuse)
Set a specific amount of focus sessions for the day.
Like any kind of training, you can only do so much on a given day before you start seeing diminishing returns. Don't go overboard here and do a bunch of sessions in a row, especially if you're not used to it.
Aim for a lower and more manageable amount of sessions per day.
The max amount of time between sessions should be around 3 to 4 hours a day (shoutout to Cal Newport for that)
Once you have completed your specified amount of sessions, you can call it a day. That's not to say that are you finishing work by the time you complete the sessions (being that a traditional workday is 8 hours).
Most of the time would be spent in a non-focused type of work while you get used to that new, better work routine.
By doing these actions regularly over time, you'll start seeing the benefits and 'productivity gains' of your newly developed skill.
This, like any other skill, will get better and better the more it gets practiced consistently and deliberately.
You can get more advanced with it and be able to deploy the skill in many other different scenarios without that much preparation later on.
Developing this present-day superpower is something that is for all of us knowledge workers to achieve if we really want to.
Be it for learning a new language or framework, starting work in a different area in tech, or moving forward to a more senior level.
This is one of those things that are easier said than done but the rewards that'll come when we are able to do it consistently are very much worth it.
That's it for now. If you read all the way here, I appreciate you very much. Hope this has been useful and informative.
If you have any comments or questions, let's talk about it on Twitter and I'll see you in the next post.
Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash