When was the last time you found yourself experiencing one of these eight characteristics while working on a project?
- Complete concentration on a task
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
- Intrinsically rewarding experience
- Effortless and ease
- Balanced between challenge and skills
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
- A feeling of control over the task
Let’s be honest: have you ever felt this way? Most people haven’t, probably because they’ve never been in a peak state of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his research on attention and peak productivity.
Your undivided attention doesn’t occur through wishful thinking. It must be earned, created, and consciously accomplished by structuring your environment to facilitate the sustained brainpower needed for proper focus and concentration.
Through his research in understanding the “flow state” of mind, Csikszentmihalyi realized that to accomplish a peak state of focus and concentration, one must be fully committed to the pursuit and positioned within a specific set of key parameters to create this heightened state of euphoria and bliss.
Sadly, very few of us learned about these simple techniques and learning objectives in school, primarily because schools don’t teach you how to learn. They merely teach you the content you need to know.
Like most things in life, learning isn’t uniformly accomplished across the human species in the same way. Some may learn better through audio while others prefer video. Some may choose to read where others may prioritize being hands-on. There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to learn information, but there may be “better” ways to facilitate learning by increasing our attention span and mental endurance.
To truly maximize your brain’s ability to focus on a task and provide undivided attention to a project, we need to create an optimal environment and schedule our day with the proper intentions for success.
1. Eliminate Distractions Once and for All
If this one were easy, then everyone would be doing it. Distractions are one of the easiest and more efficient ways to distract our focus and waste precious brainpower on tasks that yield little to no long-term benefits.
Simple activities like scrolling through social media, endlessly checking emails throughout the day, and scanning over at your phone to see your latest text messages can be a surefire way to prolong a project, especially since it takes around 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brain to return to the peak state of focus after an interruption.
So, why do we do this to ourselves? Because we love the thrill of dopamine.
Every time you get a new text, see a new email, or find out that you received a new like on your LinkedIn post, dopamine floods your brain and lights up an area of your brain called the Nucleus Accumbens.
The Nucleus Accumbens is an integral part of our reward system (along with the ventral tegmental area). It lights up like a Christmas tree whenever something exciting happens in our lives, regardless of whether we perceive or experience it. It’s also the circuitry responsible for the high felt while taking recreational drugs, with scientists noting that there very few differences in the reward pathways between all of these tasks.
So, if getting an email in your inbox could amount to the equivalent hit of dopamine as doing a line of cocaine, why should you stop doing it? Because it’s killing your productivity (and potentially brain cells).
Distractions are a surefire way to make your day more complicated, and it doesn’t just stop there. They also use up coveted brainpower and energy resources, causing the brain to switch from task to task, which is an inefficient use of neural activity. Switching from a task requires the brain to refocus, which also entails new circuits to be used, different pathways to fire, and more energy exerted to start up the new task at hand.
When Mihaly Csikszentmihaly was doing his research, he realized that the power of sustained focus and undivided attention was accomplished by repetition, frequency, and intensity. As the saying goes, the more you use it, the easier it gets.
Eliminating distractions must be the first step in the process because the brain thrives off simplicity and can function at a higher level when it doesn’t continuously change focus.
2. Set It and Forget It – Schedule Your Day
Take a moment and think about that one thing you will never get back. And no, it’s not money, fame, or your ex.
Time is the most precious resource we have because regardless of your physical, social, or financial status, it’s the only constant we have that we cannot trade for. Time is of the essence, and sadly, most of us waste it on activities that provide short-term gains at the expense of long-term rewards.
To master our ability to focus and practice honing our skills for undivided attention, we must become masters of time management. And the best way to manage your time is to plan it out.
We should be scheduling out time for physical exercise, social media, checking email daily. The list could go on forever and usually does, especially when this schedule isn’t utilized. Keeping yourself honest will always be the best policy, so don’t forget to prioritize booking out time for hanging out with loved ones. This policy can be a very effective way to manage your most precious assets while recharging the batteries after a long day at work.
Even with scheduling, time management can become erratic and get away from us, which is why setting aside specific times for projects can be the ultimate time management hack to take your game to the next level.
The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo, utilizes a simple formula for managing time by setting 25 minutes of designated space for performing one specific task at a time. This technique is simple yet highly effective and aligns with our current understanding of neuropsychology and how the brain processes information.
The old-school strategies of multitasking are outdated and unfounded in neuroscience as research continues to show that switching tasks is very time and energy-intense. It also depletes the brain’s energy reserves and slows down central processing within the prefrontal cortex—the brain region responsible for executive function, decision-making, and motivation.
As you continue to switch back and forth between tasks, the brain becomes fatigued and error-prone, which can further delay progress and increase your chances of having to redo your work. Some research even estimates that task switching via multitasking can increase our error rates by nearly 50%, causing our tasks to take twice as long to finish.
So, the next time your coworker starts to brag about their ability to multitask at their desk, enjoy the comforting feeling that you’re more likely to get the next promotion than they are.
3. Prime Your Brain for Success
The saying is true: “If you don’t use it, you truly do lose it.” It’s is a classic philosophy in neuroscience, specifically speaking about forming habits, optimizing physical and mental performance, and understanding how the central nervous system works in tandem with the body to execute activities.
Eliminating distractions and setting a daily schedule are essential steps for having undivided attention—and success. Still, these tactics can’t be utilized to their highest capacity if you approach your work feeling foggy, tired, in pain, or unable to motivate yourself to get ready to work.
The brain isn’t binary and far more complex than it may appear, but some tried and true principles will always remain foundational for success.
For starters, the brain thrives off of physical movement and exercise. The best way to energize the brain is through physical activity because exercise can vastly improve blood flow, oxygenation, and neural activity in the brain’s executive processing regions. Exercise can also significantly impact our mental and emotional health, providing significant advantages for our overall well-being and a sense of purpose.
Good brains also require good fuel to survive, which is why diet, nutrition, and giving your body a chance to heal can be advantageous for those who choose to utilize it. You wouldn’t choose to put regular unleaded gasoline into a high-performance race car, so why would you expect poor food choices to give you high-performance outcomes?
Your food choices provide fuel for your brain and body. More importantly, they also feed the gut bacteria that break your food into energy sources to produce neurotransmitters and optimize your immune function.
These little bugs have taken on a lot of press over the last few decades as gut bacteria and altered gut microbiome composition have been implicated in nearly every neurodegenerative condition ranging from Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and even cardiovascular disease. You need to feed your body the proper nutrients to fuel your brain for success.
And lastly, you need to sleep like your life depends on it—because it does. There’s a reason we sleep nearly a third of our lives away. Sleep helps us recharge our internal battery and facilitates the consolidation of memories, allowing us to update our brain’s software and maximize our memory stores for enhanced learning and exploration of ideas.
Sleep also accelerates our body’s healing processes, with new research uncovering vast increases in the brain’s movement of cerebrospinal fluid as a way to take out the trash accumulated in the brain throughout the day.
Stressors Exist Where Systems Don’t
Knowing this information is great, but the application is where the magic happens. You need to create structured systems to elevate your standards and create your optimal work environment. Sadly, no one else can do this for you.
By owning your results and controlling what you can control, you will see your productivity skyrocket. And with undivided attention, you will see greater success levels, higher chances of advancing roles, and improved fulfillment in your work.
Being productive can be tedious, but anyone who has found success in their career will agree that most of their success resulted from the long hours of work where no one was watching. And always remember to keep your focus on things you can control.
More Tips on How to Focus
Featured photo credit: bruce mars via unsplash.com