Stop Trying to Increase Your Focus, Do This Instead
We all want to pursue goals. Like spending more time with family, performing better at work, and learning a new language.
To achieve them, we try various things to maximize our focus. We watch motivational videos, experiment with productivity strategies, invest in courses and coaches, and so on.
But no matter how hard we try, we cannot sharpen our focus if we don’t cut back on one aspect that always gets in the way: distraction.
It’s like trying to improve your car’s performance. You can plant a bigger engine and gearbox. But it’ll still sputter and stall if you keep filling the tank with low-quality fuel.
Distractions are the equivalent of low-quality fuel in our lives. Author Scott H. Young calls this the ‘low-quality leisure trap.’ Instead of pursuing our goals, we binge on social media and Netflix until the day ends. This limits our ability to get into a state of flow, which is necessary if we want to make meaningful progress at anything.
What I’m getting at is that we’d be much more focused and productive if we simply reduced our distractions drastically.
Why do we get distracted often?
Is it because we lack the ability to focus? Not really. The real reason is that distractions are easier to succumb to.
In a research paper, a group of psychologists suggested that when we work on a task and an alternative easier task presents itself, the original one feels more effortful.
Reading feels effortful when Netflixing is an option. Conversations with family members feel effortful when texting friends is an option. Learning French feels effortful when Instagram is an option.
“Easier will feel better if it’s always available.” — Scott H. Young
But you can flip this aspect on its head. If you make it tough to get distracted, the alternative—focusing on meaningful work—becomes easier.
Your mind will rebel against anything that feels effortful, regardless of whether that anything is a difficult task, distraction, or an addiction. Here’s an interesting experiment that proves it.
Gambling is a major pastime in many countries, especially the lower-income ones. It also becomes an addiction as poorer households allocate a much higher proportion of their incomes to purchasing lottery tickets. Plus, it leads to further negative outcomes like increased crime, including domestic violence.
So a group of researchers set out to study the effect of experience on people’s tendency to gamble. They split the participants up into two groups. One group received traditional classroom-based lectures on the pitfalls of gambling. The other played a dice game.
Participants in the second group had to roll a six-sided die until they got a six. Next, they had to roll two dice until they got two sixes. When they did, participants got time to reflect and update their beliefs about their odds of winning. Finally, they were informed that the likelihood of winning the South African national lottery jackpot was similar to rolling nine dice with all nine showing up sixes.
The result was a huge difference in the lottery-purchasing behavior of participants based on how long it took them to obtain two sixes.
Those who needed more than the median number of rolls gambled 19 percent less in a lottery offered after the experiment. They were also 34 percent less likely to play the lottery after one year compared to the group that received a traditional intervention.
By contrast, participants who took less than the median number of rolls gambled 29 percent more in a lottery offered after the intervention. They were also 45 percent more likely to play the lottery after one year.
In other words, people who experienced that the odds of winning were dismally low succumbed less to the addiction again. Meanwhile, people who assumed it was easy to win continued giving into the addiction easily.
Distractions are often not as harmful as addictions. Yet, they get in the way of your achievements, goals, and happiness. To eliminate them, you can apply a version of the above experiment in your own life.
To reduce distractions, make them harder.
The more inconvenient distractions are, the less your mind will crave them.
For three years, I was addicted to Twitter and Instagram. Though most of what I saw felt boring, I kept scrolling the apps for hours. The result wasn’t just wasted time; I would also end up in a bad mood because I did nothing meaningful during the day.
So I took some steps, none of which were drastic.
I uninstalled Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram from my phone. I didn’t stop using the platforms or deactivate my accounts. Instead, each time I wanted to visit a platform, I opened the mobile web browser and logged into my profile. Over time, the effort this took drastically reduced my interest in browsing them.
On my laptop, I installed the Mindful Browsing chrome extension. It’s a great tool to gently nudge you away from mindless browsing. Here’s a good explainer on how it works:
The extension doesn’t actually block you from the websites you list, however, it gives you a gentle nudge to decide whether you really want to visit the page in question. A great bonus is that it lets you create a list of activities you’d rather spend time on, and whenever the need to check Facebook comes back, Mindful Browsing reminds you about your goals and the promises you made yourself. If you do need to visit the site, then in 10 minutes’ time it reminds you should get back to doing something useful.
Lately, I’m also trying the phone foyer technique that author Cal Newport suggests:
When you get home after work, you put your phone on a table in your foyer near your front door. Then — and this is the important part — you leave it there until you next leave the house.
“If you need to look something up, go to your foyer,” he writes. “If you need to send a text message, you go to the foyer. If you’re holding a back-and-forth conversation, then you need to stand there while you do it. If you’re expecting an important call, put on your ringer. If you feel the urge to check in on social media, it’s waiting for you in the foyer.”Hat tip to Coach Tony’s newsletter where I came across it.
This technique doesn’t force you to go cold turkey on using your phone and get anxious over missing important calls, texts, or emails. Instead, it gives you agency over your actions. If you want to access your phone, it’s right there. You just have to put in a little effort.
I’m positive that the results of this technique will compound over time and the effort will make me crave the phone less.
As my distractions reduced, an empty space got created, which I began filling slowly with meaningful work—tasks that I feel good about while doing them, and after doing them.
Often, a smart way to optimize your output is to remove barriers from the way. Focus is like that. instead of trying to concentrate harder and playing tug-of-war with your distractions, simply get the distracting elements out of the way.
In the long-term, you’ll crave instant gratification less. At the same time, your concentration will compound to yield amazing results.
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