4 Simple Tips to Reclaim Your Mental Focus and Concentration

Mental focus is at a premium in an age of distraction.

Here’s how you value your time and bring your focus and concentration in line with your goals.

Mental Focus and Concentration

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

— Alexander Graham Bell, inventor

All that we are is the result of what we have thought.

— The Buddha

If time is a commodity to be mined, then mental focus and concentration are the drills and the dynamite. The clock keeps ticking, with or without your input. Mental focus and concentration are the mechanisms for extracting value from your time.

Time Is the Only Nonrenewable Resource

Lost time is never found again.

— Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the United States of America

You have a limited amount of time on the planet. When you enter the world, no one tells you how many minutes you’ll get. But you can rest assured that you won’t get an unlimited amount.

Yet, most of us go through our everyday lives like this fundamental truth will not matter until many years from now when we are on our death beds. We live life like we are functionally immortal when nothing could be further from the truth. We engage in reckless activities or worse yet, do nothing of value with our time. This is what Steve Jobs warned against in his classic Stanford commencement speech.

In the classic personal finance book Your Money or Your Life, the authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue that time is the only nonrenewable resource. We can’t get any more of it when we run out. When a moment is gone, it is gone forever.

What we choose to trade our time for says a lot about who we are.

Are you willing to trade thirty years of your life to pay for a house you might not want to live in a few years from now? Would you trade your most valuable resource for forty years of unfulfilling, meaningless work (even if the perks and benefits are great, as commentators who rail against passion would have you do)?

The nonrenewable nature of time stands in direct contrast to money, energy, and stuff, which can all be renewed and expended again in the future.

How we spend our time and therefore what we train our mental focus on should be the defining questions of our lives. Time is precious and fleeting. Opportunities come and go quicker than anyone realizes or anticipates.

An agile lifestyle allows you to respond to what is important and change your priorities quickly and effectively. Agility uses changing circumstances as a strength, not a weakness. Agile living is a means to change yourself while still standing for something.

The challenge is, there’s no one “Good Life” for everyone. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have been working on this problem forever and no one’s come up with a solution that fits every person for all time.

We’re stuck coming up with our own answers for what gives life meaning.

We all have a limited amount of time to discover what truly fulfills us as human beings.

The clock is ticking.

Conserve Your Mental Focus and Attention to Accomplish Great Things

We live in an age of unending distractions. Facebook, Twitter, email, IM, text messaging and anywhere, anytime work all threaten to pull mental focus.

It is difficult to do great things when something is always trying to steal your attention.

The problem is that the nature of work has not changed in one important respect: it requires mental focus, concentration, and a ton of effort.

All of the technology in the world cannot overcome this very important, built-in restriction to doing great work. The people who do not put in the mental sweat equity and effort will not succeed.

Adobe Photoshop did not turn every doodler into an artist overnight. Youtube did not make every video personality into a celebrity. Soundcloud did not turn every amateur singer into a recording artist. Tools alone are no replacement for hard work.

The contradiction of the modern age is that our work and personal lives are bleeding into one another at an ever-increasing rate. There is no way to put the genie back into the bottle on this one. The work anywhere, anytime society is here to stay. Yet at the same time, it can be extremely difficult to unplug, guard against distractions, and do the hard work of focusing.

The tradeoff is that we may ultimately live more holistic lives. We will not have to put on different faces and personas for work or home or social life.

In this new world, the people who succeed will know how to conserve their mental focus and deploy their attention at the right times. That is a tall order but as agilists we will learn to adapt, iterate, and thrive.

Doing the Tough Things First

We have been taught to measure success by the little things. “Attention to detail” is one of the most common job requirements. Responding to email in seconds, being on call at all hours of the night, and being chained to your desk for ten hours a day is fast becoming the rule, not the exception.

There are a few jobs where paying attention to details really does matter. A lawyer should choose her words carefully when it comes to the language in a contract. A civil engineer better get those angles right for that bridge or otherwise it might collapse.

But if you’re not in one of these professions, the details may be getting in the way of becoming truly effective.

4 Methods to Reclaim Your Mental Focus and Concentration

What really happens to us is that we get trapped in doing all the little things. The little things like responding to email can distract us from the big, difficult, emotionally-draining things. The big things that could change our lives.

In the face of that pressure, checking Twitter is so much easier.

There are some things you can do to combat this inversion of priorities.

1. Create a “Stop Doing” list.

Focus on harnessing and conserving your attention by making a list of activities you will stop doing. This advice comes from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the creator of the hedgehog concept. Jim says what an entrepreneur decides to stop doing is as important as what’s on her to-do list.

He recounts the following exercise suggested to him by Rochelle Myers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the “stop doing” list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions — a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.

Collins calls this The 20-10 Assignment and it’s a life-changing way to look at how you spend your most valuable commodity.

2. Limit your work-in-progress.

Jim Benson, Agile practitioner and founder of Personal Kanban, argues that you should put limits on how much work-in-progress or WIP you have: “If we focus on a small set of tasks, we concentrate in both senses of the word. We both focus our attention and we concentrate our options.”

Multi-tasking is a myth. What you are really doing when you think you are multi-tasking is switching between activities rapidly. This rapid switching exacts a toll on your ability to mentally focus and concentrate. Too much task-switching leads to cognitive overload.

What you need to do, and what Benson advocates, is radically simplifying your workload. J.D. Meier, author of Getting Results the Agile Way, recommends using The Rule of 3 to focus on 3 outcomes with the biggest impacts each day, each week, each month, and each year.

Having 10 projects going at once might feel like productivity, but in actuality its destroying your focus and concentration.

3. Take time out for reflection.

Are you focusing on the wrong things?

Having priorities assumes you know what your values are. Too many people are living on autopilot, what David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech, This is Water, refers to as natural default settings.

If you aren’t thinking about and consciously making choices, your natural default settings will take over. You’ll wake up in 20 years in the middle of a midlife crisis and not know how you got there. Or how to get out.

We can defeat the natural default settings by training our personal feedback loops. Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing to figure out what is actually important to you. Remember that your life is literally at stake. If what you’re doing isn’t worth your time, then opt out.

4. Give yourself permission to fail.

Exercise your action bias by seeking challenges where you can fail fast, fail cheap, and move on from your failure with lessons learned. There is no better way to supercharge your development than to seek opportunities for failure. You can get stuck in a rut optimizing a bad situation–or you can change the game entirely.

You have a finite amount of time. Do not fill up your life with the unimportant. Mental focus isn’t about what you let into your mind, it’s about what you leave out.

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