Focus: The Most Valuable Skill Of The 21st Century

If there’s one thing that many ambitious people struggle with, it’s staying focused on their work for longer periods of time without getting distracted.

Yet, it’s those who are able to focus deeply on their most important work — without getting distracted every few minutes — who actually get it done fast and of high quality. In fact, they are the ones who get ahead in work and life.

“The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” — Alexander Graham Bell

Personally, I dare to say that implementing a daily deep focus session has helped me to shave off at least 2 hours of my entire workday. Through my focus process, I’m able to complete my most valuable tasks both much faster and of much higher quality — simply because I can direct all of my mental resources towards the task, without getting distracted.

The Distraction Epidemic

As mentioned before, the ability to focus deeply for long periods of time is a big problem for many of us. In fact, here are some extremely worrying statistics about how problematic it actually is:

  • study led by Harvard showed that the average knowledge worker spends 47% of his or her day in a state of (semi)distraction. In other words, when you learn how to focus well, you can get the same exact task done twice as fast
  • RescueTime has researched that the average knowledge worker checks email 55 times per day (on average every 8.5 minutes in an 8-hour workday) and instant messaging apps about 77 times per day (on average every 6 minutes taking in an 8-hour workday)
  • If it weren’t enough, a study by Gloria Mark showed that, on average, each knowledge worker in the study spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted

All in all, these studies form the proof of that what we already intuitively know: most of us are terrible at focusing deeply for longer periods of time — and it’s hurting our productivity.

These numbers alone are already problematic, but if you compare it with another finding, you truly see how most people never reach their full focus potential.

It turns out that, whenever you get distracted or shift to another task, it takes on average 25 minutes (according to research) to gain back your full attention on the task at hand. This is because of something called ‘attention residue’, which implies that some of your attention is still ‘left behind’ at the previous task or distraction that you were dealing with.

However, considering the fact that most of us have already switched tasks (because of our addiction to multi-tasking) or gotten distracted by email, social media or instant messages by then, our attention is continuously split and never fully available for the important task at hand. This is exactly why people struggle with being productive and getting important work done on a daily basis.

Focus: The Most Valuable Skill Of The 21st Century

Yet, at the same time that our average attention span is declining, the ability to focus is required more than ever. In fact, it enables us to produce high-quality work at a fast pace — which is a highly valuable skill to master nowadays.

For example:

  • A programmer needs his or her focus to solve problems and efficiently write many lines of code
  • A CEO needs focus to make strategic decisions and to think deeply about the best course of action for the company
  • A writer needs focus to write high-quality thoughts onto paper and make consistent progress on a book
  • A student needs high levels of focus in order to study well for an upcoming challenging exam
  • A salesperson needs high levels of focus to listen thoughtfully to a prospect’s words in order to close a deal

And there are many, many more examples of why focus is so incredibly important.

For practically any type of knowledge work, we need the ability to sit still and focus deeply on one task for longer periods of time. Without this ability, we work much slower, make more costly mistakes and leave a lot of performance potential on the table.

That’s exactly why Microsofts CEO Satya Nadella said. “The true scarce commodity of the near future will be human attention.”

Human attention will be scarce simply because, on the one hand, the ability to focus is diminishing at a worrying rate, while on the other hand, it’s a highly in-demand skill as it’s essential for producing high-quality work.

And, according to the classic laws of supply and demand. Something that’s highly in demand but low in supply will increase in value. Those who have learned how to protect and improve their focus will stand out among the distracted crowd, as they will be able to do what others can’t.

Disproportionate compensation can be expected to those who master the ability to focus deeply.

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Remove All Possible Distractions Beforehand

Distractions are the number one enemy of focus. Especially distractions in the form of smartphones, social media, email and news websites, but also distractions such as inner chatter or interruption from colleagues.

The problem is that, more often than not, these kinds of distractions are a lot more enjoyable, stimulating and exciting than the task that we should be working on. At the same time, distractions are more easily accessible than ever before. Therefore, they are so appealing and hard to resist.

It’s human nature to look for the easiest way to be stimulated the most. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. We’ve been wired to seek how we can get the most pleasure with the least amount of energy spent, as it used to increase our odds of survival thousands of years ago.

That’s why instant gratifications like fast-food, porn, drugs, alcohol and social media are so incredibly hard to resist. They provide us with immense dopamine hits (which is a reward-hormone) that instantly make us feel good without really having to put in any effort.

And when we can feel good and rewarded through ways that require almost no effort or energy, why even bother doing the things that do cost a lot of time, effort and energy (aka, our work)?

Essentially, we’re being rewarded for behaviour that doesn’t lead to a fulfilling, impactful life. That’s kind of messed up, isn’t it?

Furthermore, things like checking email, refreshing news websites or business statistics, watching YouTube videos, checking messages, or scrolling through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook also releases a lot of dopamine in the brain. On a neurological level, the brain is incredibly stimulated and that’s why these things become so addicting.

In fact, most apps, websites and devices are actually designed to make you addicted so that you’ll feel a strong urge to check it repeatedly throughout the day. That’s why they steal away your valuable productivity time, energy, and attention (I recommend the book ‘Hooked’ by Nir Eyal to learn more about this).

Most of our work, however, doesn’t provide us with as much of these instant feel-good dopamine hits. Most of our work has a benefit (whether financially, career-wise, emotionally, spiritually or in our health or relationships) somewhere in the future.

In other words, our work offers us with delayed gratification — whether that means two hours or two months from now. Even though the rewards of our work are usually a lot more significant and impactful than any source of instant-gratification can ever provide, the problem remains that the reward is gained somewhere in the future, and not right now.

Our brain is rather rewarded and stimulated right now — especially when it doesn’t cost that much effort and energy — compared to the uncertainty of being rewarded somewhere in the future.

When instant gratification is only one swipe, click, or bite away, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Against Mike Tyson. In his prime.

The best way to win this fight is by not even stepping into the ring in the first place. That’s why you need to take care of distractions ahead of time before you start working on your most important tasks. You need to create a distraction-free environment that enables you to focus completely on your work, for long periods of time.

Now Do It

I recommend you resolve to work for at least 2 hours per day in a distraction-free environment that allows you to do deep, focused work.

So, put your smartphone in another room or put it on flight mode. Remove all bells, rings, and notifications so you can’t be disturbed. Close all tabs that aren’t necessary for your task at hand (yes, especially email, news, and social media tabs).

Put in your earplugs with some techno, classical or other repetitive type music so you won’t be distracted by outside noises and conversations. And maybe even go to a different workspace so that your colleagues won’t disrupt your flow.

Do anything you can to eliminate distractions before you start working. This way, you won’t have to fight the temptation (which is a battle you’ll eventually lose).

To Your Personal Growth,

Jari Roomer

Founder Personal Growth Lab

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27 Productivity Hacks For Superhuman Performance