In the last article, I spoke about my lack of focus. Many of you said that you could identify with my distractedness. And while the intent of that article was to describe a common issue in a funny way, there wasn’t much in the way of helpful tips. Sorry about that—I got distracted.
As I’ve said many times, I typically take a deeply shallow approach to things. So I don’t tend to go too heavily into the content. No one has ever said to me, “Your musings remind me of Plato.”
More often, I hear, “You remind me of my goofy brother,” which is endearing in an annoying kind of way.
So, for this article, I thought I’d share a specific way to create better focus. It comes from a book I recently read called, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I found the author’s insights fascinating.
The first thing we must understand is that we all have a number of habits even though we may not recognize them. Some of our habits are good for us and some are not so good. The key to a productive and focused existence is to recognize these habits and then to replace as many of the less-than-desirable routines with better ones.
Here’s an example of a habit I discovered about twenty years ago. At the time, I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing a great job at being an adult. I was experiencing normal everyday challenges but didn’t feel I was handling my stress effectively. So, I sought the help of a therapist to sort it all out. One thing I realized was that I had a regular routine that was not necessarily helpful in keeping me healthy and balanced. Basically, I would come home from work each day, eat a heavy dinner, drink a couple of beers, and then sit in front of the television mindlessly clicking away until I fell asleep at around 8:30 p.m.
When my therapist asked me why I did this, I said, “Well, after a long day of work, I’m tired. I just want to unwind.”
He said, “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to unwind when you’re dead.”
He always did have a direct way of saying things.
But, he was right. I had gotten into a habit of numbing my stress with food, beer, and television, rather than taking advantage of my valuable evening time to be more productive. And by “productive,” I don’t mean working. I just mean making better use of my time.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains that our habits are simply the repeated routines in our lives. He then describes how they are formed and why they are so hard to break. Since the field of psychology and neuroscience can be quite complex, I’ll give you a simplified perspective on this.
Essentially, habits start with a trigger or a cue in our environment that leads to a behavior and results in some sort of perceived benefit.
In my example above, the trigger occurred when I got home from work. I wanted to feel good after a long day of work so I sought out eating, drinking, and watching TV as a way to achieve the reward of feeling good. Each time I engaged in this routine, the so-called benefit reinforced the value of the routine so that I pursued the same behavior almost automatically the next evening. The perceived benefit was both an escape from the challenges of my day and the temporary buzz from the effects of alcohol. Essentially, I had created distractions to keep me from thinking about anything uncomfortable. Ironically, the discomforts I was avoiding were mostly due to scenarios I created in my mind rather than real issues.
Once any habit becomes part of our regular routine, then we start to look forward to the benefit. This craving leads to a more committed pursuit of the benefit. The key to breaking the cycle is to figure out the trigger-behavior-benefit process so that we can substitute different behaviors and healthier benefits.
In my situation, I started eating healthier food, quit drinking alcohol for a number of years, and stopped spending the evening in a chair looking for something to watch on television. I became more purposeful in my evening activities by reading, interacting with my family, and exercising. And the best part is that I found these behaviors were actually more restful than simply “resting” in the chair. So, ultimately, the benefit was better.
But how does this information help us become more focused?
One tip Duhigg offers that I’ve found particularly helpful, is to use a schedule to map out my day. By being specific with what I want to do each day, I create a structure that helps me avoid distractions and move toward more productive routines.
First, I created a daily schedule, broken down in half-hour blocks of time. Each night, I look at my overall to-do list and determine what I need to accomplish the next day. Then, I schedule these activities in the specific blocks of time. I found that if I assign a task to a specific time, I’m more likely to stick to my schedule. In fact, the blog I’m writing right now was scheduled to be written right now. And I’m actually doing it…right now. It’s like time travel.
Since work is not always fun, it can be tempting to avoid it by giving in to discomfort-numbing behaviors like watching YouTube videos or going to the refrigerator for a snack. But by being purposeful with our time, we don’t operate on autopilot. Instead, we are more aware and better able to focus on the work we need to accomplish.
So, your helpful focus tip is to be aware of the routines, or habits, you’ve developed. Be attentive to your behavior and look for the things that lead you to the not-so-good benefits. Then, try being more specific in how you spend your time by actually scheduling it.
We don’t need to be so structured that we stifle fun and creativity but if you have a tendency to be distracted, as I do, then this tip may help you keep your focus. And it you prefer to be unfocused, then it’s probably just about time for a funny cat video.