Finding your way back to Focus

Its 11 pm as I sit down to type this in my office. Im tired and my eyes are stressed but I am blessed with the peace of my own company, free from the noise and the distractions from the day.

Most importantly, my mind’s biggest enemy (read my phone) is fast asleep on Do Not Disturb mode.

If you fall in the Gen Z or Millennial category, you’re well familiar with the ‘smartness’ of this distraction device, acting as one of the biggest obstacles to achieving productivity.

How many times have you reached out to your phone for something work related, say a google search or adding a note and ended up drifting into something else completely different, only to forget why you picked up your phone in the first place? I cant even recall the number of times its happened to me. Hopefully there are others out there and this isn’t just a sign of me ageing.

With the average teen spending more time immersed in the social world than in the ‘real world’ and where holding simultaneous conversations between apps comes of second nature, I often find myself thinking, is there a hack around building focus in today’s hyper digital age’?

Consider today’s kids who can operate a phone before they can even learn to tie their shoe laces. A few years into life and they’ve got access to unlimited information and a plethora of apps all competing for their attention.

Enough research has indicated the downside of this. Decision fatigue, reduced attention, cognitive decline amongst many others.

So while the internet has revolutionised our lives and in spite of the rapid change and advancement in the digital world, the basics of what it takes to truly focus hasn’t changed at all.

Wondering why? Well because we’re dealing with the human brain that fundamentally hasn’t changed in 40,000 years! It still needs:

  • to do one thing at a time to be at its productive best
  • at least 30 minutes of pure focus to access a flow state
  •  uninterrupted spaces, rest and rejuvenate for improved focus

This may explain why on the one hand we’re consuming apps that are literally encouraging limited attention and ‘instant’ information and then going back to mindfulness training to increase and sustain focus. Ironic isn’t it?

Sometimes I find my hands reaching out for my phone for no apparent reason, which may sound relatable. In fact lately Ive been pretty conscious of the distractions Im fed, like this one:

Notifications from the Gram! Do not fall for it, its a trap!
I mean, do you really need to know who added what to their profile or story?

Without us even realising it, these social apps have conditioned us to receive ‘informational rewards’ by promoting habitual checking behaviours.

This was also reinforced in The Social Dilemma (an absolute must watch!) along with many other such traps. Even while watching the documentary, my phone kept vibrating with notifications and I put myself up to a challenge to not check anything till I reached the end.
This intentional move of refraining from picking my phone when it was right on my bedside, was the hardest 60 minutes of my life! These problems are real, so I feel you.

But I don’t necessarily hate social media. I just hate the fact that my brain that’s designed to serve as my most powerful asset often acts at the mercy of an external intelligence much like a puppet head!

Either way, it is clear that it is us who need to make the adjustment manually to this digital world, there really is no other way around it.

So in terms of hacking your way to focus, this is what I have to share:

Turn off those damn notifications: Honestly, the number of times I’ve been distracted by my phone pinging with random group messages (mostly on mute)is not even funny. Regain your control over your phone by diving into your apps (Whatsapp, IG, Twitter, Tiktok etc) only when YOU feel the need to, not when someone else wants you to. (You may experience a strange thrill of sudden power!) Which brings me to my next point…

Avoid unnecessary groups: Massive time wasters! Unless you really derive joy from silly forwards and trivial content, you want to be avoiding groups as much as you can. I only join groups that are work related or offer me value in some way. Although even too many of those can get overwhelming at times.

Set a bedtime for your phone: Getting adequate and good quality sleep is crucial for health across all ages. But that cant be possible if your phone’s buzzing all the way through dawn! So put it away and set a bedtime for it where all calls and notifications are silenced for those precious hours of your beauty sleep.

Work with Tomatoes: If you’re well acquainted with the Pomodoro (Italian for tomatoes) technique, you’re probably a pro at focusing for certain periods at a stretch. This 25 minute time block strategy is pretty solid for directing your mind’s focus in the right direction and competing with yourself towards the task at hand.

Check in with yourself: When you catch yourself automatically fetching for your phone, (as I do every now and then), ask yourself ‘do I really need to check this right now’? You may just surprise yourself because more often than not, the answer is a plain No!

Finally and most importantly, every time you post something on social media, disassociate immediately! At least till a couple of hours. It’s the only way to control the dopamine driven addiction to check your responses every 30 seconds. Want to go further, set a time for later in the day where you’ll tune back in to catch up on the activity following your update.

One doesn’t always need to resort to extreme measures of a month’s detox away from the world and all communication.

As long as you maintain some discipline in your daily life, you’ve won half the battle and have safeguarded yourself against the attention hungry internet.

Care to share?

Feel free to comment with any thoughts or takeaways.