It's that time of the year when we look back and review the year gone by. What did we do right? What went wrong? How can we get better? These reviews allow us to learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves.
I have been reviewing my past year too, and the number one issue that has emerged for me is focus (or rather the lack of it) and how it has cost me in terms of happiness, lost productivity and a general sense of anxiety. I suspect I am not alone in this. Lack of focus has possibly become one of the most widespread problems. That's why I wish to dedicate the last two blog posts of this year to the all important topic of focus.
Last week I wrote about how things that are external to us can make us lose our concentration and how to manage these factors. However, external causes are just one category. The other category -- and possibly more important -- is that of internal causes. In this article I will discuss important internal causes and how we can address them.
Try to understand why you cannot focus:
Very often we blame our will power for not being able to focus, but that sort of self blame won't help. Lack of focus has many causes and lack of will power (although important) is still just one of them. We need to look within and investigate the causes of this problem.
Sometimes, certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies can be the culprit. I won't get specifically into which deficiencies, because it's a medical subject which is best discussed with a competent doctor. But if you have been struggling with concentration since a long time then it might be a good idea to discuss it with a medical practitioner and check if there is a biological reason.
Sometimes lack of sleep or exercise can also cause us to space out. If you sleep deprived or don't exercise then you should certainly change your routine to get enough of both. It may not entirely fix your problem but it is very likely that proper sleep and exercise will make a positive difference.
Sometimes, boredom can make it difficult to pay attention. I am sure you've had subjects in school which you just couldn't tolerate. Remember how difficult it was to focus on them? I used to hate literature when I was in school and found it impossible to focus on it. But something changed in high school and I started enjoying it and interestingly my ability to focus also changed. If you find it hard to focus on something because you find it boring then the antidote is to come up with inventive ways to make that work or topic more interesting. For some people just seeing the value of what you are doing helps, but if it doesn't, then do whatever it takes: gamify the process, discuss it with buddies or colleagues, entertain yourself with narratives and mnemonics, draw doodles (of the topic) as you go along, but try and make the process fun and it will help you at least to some extent. Here's a very nice article by Scott Young on how to study boring subjects and this is a great article by James Clear about staying focused. There's also a Stack Exchange thread on how to focus on long boring tasks.
Sometimes the culprit is our own lack of mastery with what we are doing. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that we enter the state of flow when we are engaged in a task that is challenging enough to put us out of our comfort zone, but at the same time not so challenging that we continuously flounder while doing it. If you are stuck with a task that is significantly above your skill or knowledge level then it might be a good idea to discuss it with your manager so that you can take a step back to learn the fundamentals which will allow you to perform the task better.
If you are neither bored nor overwhelmed, nor is the problem medical, then the problem might be emotional. Do you have a hard time managing emotions? Is it easy for circumstances to rock your boat leaving you in a turmoil? If that's the case then managing your emotions will help you a great deal.
If you are an ideas person then you might be hit with a flood of interesting, creative ideas. Dealing with the work at hand is extremely difficult when you get a cool idea every 5 minutes and is a very likely cause for losing focus. The best way of dealing with a deluge of ideas is to keep a notebook handy. Every time you get an idea, make a note, and get back to the work you were doing. Making a note of the idea will get it off your mental space without the fear of losing it and will allow you to concentrate on what you are already working on.
On a final note about identifying causes, it will help to understand your own energy cycles. We all have times of the day when our energy is high and times when our energy is low. It's far easier to focus in the latter. Maintaining focus is often a matter of working with the ebb and flow of our energy cycles. Here's a nice HBR article on why managing energy is more important than managing time.
I will - I won't - I want
Imagine a delicious cookie in front of you. I bet you'd have to struggle to not eat it. But if someone offered you $100 for not eating it, suddenly the struggle is non-existent. We often think of self control in terms of doing things we need to do or not doing things we ought not to do. However there is a third side to this struggle. If there is a compelling reason for doing (or not doing) something, then the struggle becomes far more easier. Can you come up with an "I want" reason to help you focus?
Don't make sweeping changes:
Habits are best cultivated in small bits. If you try to make sweeping changes then you will soon burn out and come back to square one. After identifying the cause, take things one small step at a time and you will certainly build great focus over a few months.
Focus is a lot like a muscle. It becomes stronger with training but if you overdo it then it can have some serious negative repercussions. The best way to not overdo focus is to work in cycles of intense focus and rest. A great methodology and tool for doing this is the Pomodoro Technique [link].
Focus is that one thing which has the power to take your work to a different level and differentiate you from other developers. I am going to spend a significant part of next year building this muscle. I hope you do too.
Remember the cookie example I discussed a while before. It's from Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal's book: The Willpower Instinct. It's based on her super popular course at Stanford: The Science of Willpower. I strongly recommend the book to form a base for your new year's resolutions if you are serious about cultivating self control and will power.
The entire team at programmr.com wishes you happy and safe holidays and a focused 2016.