Developing deep focus: resources, exercises and strategies to master this skill
We live in an increasingly fragmented world. Several tasks, priorities and relationships vie for our attention at the same time.
Experts know how to focus their energy singularly – think of a cricket batsman who walks into a tricky situation in the game with a stadium full of cheering fans or a tennis player serving to save the set and the match.
All this week, we will discuss the subject of deep focus and how it can lead to dramatic improvement in performance and lead to increased satisfaction at work and in life.
Day 1 – Core concepts
In this well-researched book, Cal Newport explores how experts can shut out the world and focus intensely on tasks at hand.
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to master complicated information quickly and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”
Listen to The Mental Game podcast with an interview of author Cal Newport.
Day 2 – Schedule Deep Focus sessions
Welcome back. Hope you are enjoying reading the book. I particularly like the beginning of Chapter 1 – Learn Hard Things, where the author quotes Antoin-Dalmace Sertillanges. I am repeating the quote below.
Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind, wholly absorbing idea.
So, how do we turn our mind into a lens? The obvious answer is to remove all tasks, thoughts, discussions and distractions that do not allow us to focus. Then again, it’s not simple as that. We can’t wish distractions away. Moreover, what I consider as a distraction can be someone’s genuine request for information or help. We also do not always have control over several tasks that compete for our attention.
An alternate strategy is to find islands of time within our day which we can mark out for deep thinking, learning, practice and work. These islands of time can be early in the morning, mid-afternoon, or late in the evening. Let’s call these islands of time – Deep Focus sessions. During these sessions, you narrowly focus on a single task, problem, idea, or on learning something new.
You can reserve the most challenging and demanding tasks for the Deep Focus sessions. It is also important to plan in advance and set out enough time for these Deep Focus sessions.
We not only need to identify these islands of time but also furiously guard them. It’s like when you are on a treadmill, you can’t be anywhere else, check your email, answer calls or manage an angry customer; you are just there.
Genevieve Conti in her fantastic article titled How to Avoid the 9 Things That Hurt Productivity Most, lists the nine worst productivity killers and what we can do to avoid them – http://bit.ly/1SQxOME
- Can you identify Deep Focus sessions for yourself?
- What hurts your productivity the most and what is your strategy to deal with it?
Day 3 – Your brain is a muscle
I hope you have started planning your Deep Focus sessions and are also reading the book. You may notice that in the beginning, 45 minutes is too long, and you can only focus for 10-15 minutes without distractions. That’s okay! Reward yourself for spending that distraction free 15 minutes. As you slowly practice you mind to stay on a task for longer, you will get better at it. The mind is like a muscle, the harder you make it work, the stronger it gets.
Start with 10-15 minute Deep Focus sessions and then increase it every day.
You can also give yourself short-term goals like:
- I will not get up till I finish this chapter.
- I will not open a website/respond to emails, messages till this document (or section) is complete.
- I will continue to work on the problem as long as my cup of green tea is not finished.
- I will continue to work as long as this song/music track does not finish.
Note that these strategies do not apply only to your Deep Focus sessions, they also apply to the other tasks you carry out through the day. Here is a wonderful concentration exercise that you can do sitting at your desk and while at work. Have fun flexing your brain!
Day 4 – Learning from others
Welcome back. Hope you had a relaxing time completing the concentration exercise. Today we will learn from others who have been writing about and practicing the art of deep focus. Follow the links below to explore.
As you read through the links become aware of the distractions that draw your attention away from the reading exercise. This is also a good time to practice stage 4 of the concentration exercise from Day 3.
Read and reflect on these articles and continue practicing our strategies from Day 2 and 3.
Day 5 – Your body’s best time
Each one of us has a particular time during the day when our cognitive powers peak. This is when we feel the most alert, and most in tune with ourselves. By carefully observing your mental processes, you can identify the period of the day when this peak happens for you. It can be a good strategy to synchronize these periods with your deep focus sessions.
Here are a few resources to explore this concept:
Hope you find these strategies, resources and practice exercises useful. Please participate in the discussion below to share your thoughts and experiences.
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