Focus, distractions and firewalls.



Secretary as firewall




Last week,there was an exchange of comments on Google + about the strategy of creating posts about a single topic for a month. I commented that I find it easier to focus on and research a single topic for a series of posts than to continually think of new topics to write about twice a week.

In the process of creating three posts on “focus” already this month, I have done a lot of reading on the topic. I have also noticed more articles and posts by others on the subject which means one of three things:

  • Focus is a popular topic.
  • Many readers of blogs and articles have difficulty in focusing.
  • What you focus on expands.

In reality, it is because of all three. Focus is a popular topic, the inability to focus is a widespread problem and because I am focusing on the topic, I will notice more references to it.

The last being the activity controlled by that part of our brain known as the Reticular Formation which allows us to unconsciously filter out irrelevant stimuli and focus on the relevant. The most common example of this is when you buy a new car or even decide on a particular make and model. Suddenly, you will notice that same vehicle everywhere. Whereas before you made your choice, it was just one of hundreds of vehicles unnoticed in the background.

We can use this function of the Reticular Formation to help us focus by remembering that point about “What you focus on expands”. I am experiencing it this month. Because I am continually thinking about focus, I am noticing many more other references to it than if I was concentrating on perseverance for example.

As with most skills, the ability to focus improves with practice.

Most articles on focus, also mention distractions, scheduling, work habits, productivity, peak productive hours and flow. It seems that the main enemy of focus is distractions. Here is a link to a good article on “Barking up the Wrong Tree” about highly productive Cal Newport and how much he accomplishes each day through focus and scheduling.

An article on explains in detail how distractions destroy our focus and notes that loud noises and flashing lights are two of the most distracting stimuli. It also quotes a study that found it takes 25 minutes to return to full concentration on a project after you have been distracted.

It is impossible to be fully focused all the time. One estimate on is that we can only be fully focused for 6 hours a week. Other studies found that between 2 to 4 hours after waking are our peak productivity hours which we should use for focusing on important projects but which most people fritter way on emails, meetings and phone calls.

If I think back to my days in the pre-email, pre Internet  corporate world, most managers had secretaries. A good secretary was an effective firewall for blocking distractions. Mine screened most of my phone calls, scheduled meetings, organised air tickets and hotel bookings. When I eventually got the first IBM PC in the company, I only used it for spreadsheets. I still dictated most of my correspondence and reports, writing the more complicated parts by hand for her to type.

I got a lot of focused thinking and creative work done then because of fewer distractions and a large staff to whom I could delegate most routine tasks.

As entrepreneurs and solo operators, most of us don’t have the luxury of secretaries and a large support staff. We do have the power of discernment, to choose what we let attract our attention and take up our time, especially our most productive time. Even without secretaries or assistants, we can erect firewalls to prevent distractions and help us focus.

If we cast our minds back even further to the 17th and 18th centuries when many of the great voyages of exploration were being undertaken, empires being built and industrial dynasties being created. Huge accomplishments without any of the modern tools or communication systems we have today. Fewer distractions too.

The article about Cal Newport quotes one of his secrets as schedules being more important than to-do lists. Since adopting that idea, I have found it much easier to use my early part of the day only for writing and thinking work. I am finding that I do get more constructive work done. I do still get the distracting stuff done as well, but later when it is scheduled.

Two tips for today:

  • Schedule time for your most important projects.
  • Set up an imaginary firewall to keep distractions from overwhelming you.

Let us know how you do by leaving a comment.

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  5 comments for “Focus, distractions and firewalls.

  1. Roberta
    October 15, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I kinda disagree with Cal Newport. U still use my “To Do” list…..however, in my mind I know which items have to be done first and how log it will take. I also have this aggravating habit of blocking out distractions one, becasue I live alone. No one to bother me. Two, I just tell folks I have things to do. Too bad if they think I am rude.

    • October 17, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      As I have noted before, Roberta, you are much more organised than most of us. It’s not the knowing which items have to be done first for many people, that’s fairly easy. It’s the doing of them that’s the problem.

  2. Linda Larson Schlitz
    October 17, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Peter you always speak to my struggles and we are definitely going to need to chat more about this focus thing. It’s hard enough just being in the “new age” but being having an “attention deficit” makes it even more difficult but I have found a real help in recent weeks. Dr. Daniel Amen claims to cure ADHD and I have to admit that there is a miraculous difference in my concentration when I follow the nutritional plan in his book and his wife’s “Omni Plan” Diet. amazing! Nevertheless…a larger problem is that I can’t even figure out what to focus on. I love your idea of blogging about one topic a month.. Thanks so much for promoting me on twitter! You are a real blessing!

    • October 17, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      That’s interesting about how diet affects concentration Linda. Glad you like the idea of one topic a month.

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