Focus is increasingly becoming a lost art. “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power,” says Yuval Noah Harari, the author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
In an information-rich world, most people think they lack knowledge, talent or skill, but what they actually lack is a focus. Knowledge is never in short supply, focus is.
Lack of direction (not lack of knowledge) is a huge obstacle to real progress. Most people misinterpret “focus gap” as “talent or knowledge gap”.
“What looks like a talent gap is often a focus gap. The “all-star” is often an average to the above-average performer who spends more time working on what is important and less time on distractions. The talent is staying focused” says James clear.
You can have all the knowledge in the world but if you can’t apply it when it matters most or ignore everything screaming at you but the task at hand, you won’t be able to get very far in life. Whatever you aim to change, improve, build or create requires disciple and knowing what to ignore.
Today, there is more accessible than ever before. A single Google search can help you dig deeper into a topic you care deeply about. Almost everyone can do that but not many people can focus on proactive actions to get what they want. You don’t need more knowledge, what you need for a much better life is the application of knowledge long enough to see results.
Focus helps the brain in two ways, says Dr. William R. Klemm, Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. “It makes rigorous, sustained thinking easier, and it helps solidify memories.
“Focus is the art of knowing what to ignore,” argues James Clear. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, argues that focus is the new I.Q.. He states that “focus is the new I.Q. in the knowledge economy, and that individuals who cultivate their ability to concentrate without distraction will thrive.”
In the knowledge economy, those who can quickly master hard things and skills and those who can produce or execute their ideas the fastest will always stay ahead of the competition. Both traits require focus.
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work,” writes Newport.
Focus is starting a task, maintaining your attention and effort until the task is complete — without being distracted in the process.
It’s also referred to as “flow”, a term popularized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. People also refer to focus as the feeling of “being in the zone” — your mind is so immersed that you lose the sense of space and time.
In our distracted world, the most focused person usually wins. Highly effective and efficient people aim to starve their distractions and feed their focus. How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done?
Losing momentum slows progress. Every day, you face the “villains” of life and work that can overtake your energy and initiatives. They forge roadblocks and make you detour down a path of shallow work.
When you allow occasional distractions to interrupt your work, you use more brainpower, get tired easily and lose focus. Every time you switch your focus to a new task or stop what you’re doing to take in the distracting element, you lose a portion of that energy. Be your smartest, most creative self by starving your distractions every day.
Wasted days may eventually lead to a wasted life
Where your attention goes, your time goes.
The better life and career you want can only be achieved if you spend your attention/time wisely. You can’t achieve what you want by reacting to random things every few minutes or by being reactive to the unlimited distractions you face daily.
When your attention span gets worse, it can take you longer to make progress in any endeavor. Healthy boundaries are necessary to get back on track. It pays to build a system to block out distractions.
The ability to concentrate is the only difference between people who make real progress and those who struggle to get things done. And the degree of focus determines success in life.
Focus is rare but critical in life. For many people, doing only one thing for an extended period of time is increasingly becoming boring. Their brains are getting used to the unlimited hits of instant gratifications from social media, notifications and the news.
You can’t achieve anything your goals by constantly distracting yourself and thinking about random things or by being reactive to the unlimited distractions in your immediate environment.
To enforce the focus you need to get things done, create constraints. You could practice the fully ‘on’ and fully ‘off’ method. When you’re ‘on,’ be fully on — block out distractions completely. Apps like Freedom, Serene, RescueTime and LeechBlock can help you concentrate better. And when you are ‘off,’ be fully off. Take a break to refresh. Don’t hang somewhere in between.
You can also improve your focus by structuring your day in chunks of focused work. Pick your most important task and set a limited time to do it in the right environment. It can be half an hour or twenty minutes or less. Then, work on incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re focused on a task.
The goal is to get yourself staying on task for between 25 and 90 minutes, depending on the type of work you’re doing and what your personal focus thresholds are.
In his book, “Your Brain at Work”, David Rock, said, “One final insight about prioritizing involves getting disciplined about what you don’t put on the stage. This means not thinking when you don’t have to, becoming disciplined about not paying attention to non-urgent tasks unless, or until, it’s truly essential that you do.”
To change your life, you probably don’t need more knowledge. You don’t need to read more books, you need to take action on what you already know. Consistent effort/action compounds over time. That’s how you make progress.
This article originally appeared in Medium.