Focus is a Super Power

I’m going to show you that you have it, and how to develop it

To my new subscribers who joined via Colin Macdonald’s mailing list, welcome! If you’re a UK developer interested in open opportunities, his list is a terrific resource.

You’re here because you’d like to improve your focus, so I’m going to keep this brief, without the usual stories, or long preamble about how focus is dead thanks to an age where our attention is harvested for fun and profit by crafty psychologists working for enormously profitable social network companies. You know that already, and in fact, might even be working for one of these companies. I won’t judge.

Sales has always been about competing for attention. I’m not a fan of the term “weaponised”. Our psychology might well be getting “hacked” more than it used to, but nobody is forcing us to buy smartphones and stay glued to them. If our psychology is getting hacked more than ever before, our understanding of how that happens is also increasing. Like the fight against a virus, the virus just keeps evolving. As the social media companies get smarter, we get smarter, and if our attention is scattered, it's because we actually like it that way, until it becomes a problem.

Why then, is focus a super power? It wasn't always this way, but we are living in the land of the blind, and focus makes us the one-eyed sovereign.

It’s not possible to answer difficult questions without focus. The scope of our life is to some extent bound by the magnitude of the questions we ask and set out to answer. To arrive at solutions requires focus. To arrive at breakthroughs requires a larger degree of focus. To finish complex project work requires focus. Writing code requires focus. Writing an essay requires focus and writing a thesis, enormous focus.

Focus becomes easier to achieve with rituals and can be more easily triggered by having a dedicated place for it to happen. We are, as we have realised, shaped by our environment, and by modifying our environment, we modify our psychology. Obviously, you don't want to encourage distractions, but it's worth practicing a skill in the face of distraction as an exercise in strengthening your concentration.

There’s something wrong about the stories we tell ourselves about distraction though, and deep down, I think we all know it. Do you know people who can work in a busy office without recourse to any of the above and still get their work done on time? Perhaps you don’t know them personally, but pre-pandemic, many news journalists in busy offices could work with madness around them and still deliver their work on time. Yes, Roald Dahl had his writing hut, where he could shut everything out, but many writers work in coffee shops without headphones and hammer out books. W. Somerset Maugham famously quipped "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp", which is to say that he was going to start pounding the words out and the muse would eventually appear, because that’s what professional writers do.

You summon focus by concentration, which at first glance appears to be quite the tautology, but the state of focus is arrived at by the act of concentration. I appreciate I am stretching credulity here, so imagine practicing singing while somebody else is playing music in a different key. It would be difficult, but with practice and concentration, you could do this.

It's not the elimination of distraction that allows you to focus, it's the marshalling of concentration in the face of distraction. There is always something we can get distracted by if we want to. Right now, as I type this, my lower back has an ache, my hands are cold and I'm a little thirsty. I noticed these things because I widened my attention to my body rather than the world of this text. I could easily let these "distractions" prevent me from finishing this post, but I'm going to postpone the scratching of these metaphorical itches until this job is done.

If you've ever tried a blinking contest, that's an example of overcoming a distraction (the overwhelming urge to blink) in order to focus (quite literally) on your opponent's watering eyes.

Focus is a little bit like happiness. Our default state is happiness, but we paint over it with a million reasons not to be happy. Remove the layers of paint, and there you are, happy. With focus, you remove all the reasons not to be focussed, and then you are… wait, you’re still unfocussed, why is that? And what can you do about it?

I’m assuming you already know how to reduce the volume of distraction in your life and have your own techniques. If you’re short on ideas, you could listen to my appearance on episode 70 of the Focused podcast on Relay FM. Here’s an abbreviated list of ideas for reducing distractions, there are many more.

  • Disable all notifications on your phone

  • Only enable notifications for phone calls, and only during specific hours, except from your immediate family and other emergency contacts

  • While working, put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode and keep it our of your pockets and bags, and put it out of reach and out of sight

  • Remove “infinity pool” apps from your phone. (Listen to my podcast above for details on what these are)

  • Get enough sleep. Read “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker

  • Use noise cancelling headphones

  • If you want to listen to music, make it instrumental.

  • Ensure your back is to a wall, or at least that nobody can walk behind you or approach you without you noticing.

  • Block out time on your calendar for major tasks

This is not a post about reducing distractions, but for completeness, I’ve included the above partial list without offering full explanations. Are there any techniques that can enhance your focus? Yes, and here are some that have worked for me and many others too.

  1. Try intermittent fasting. Skip breakfast. Skip lunch too. Stay hydrated, have the odd coffee (black, or with cream, not with milk). Many of you will scoff at this and stop reading. That’s fine. I’m a Type 1 Diabetic. I used to not only skip breakfast and lunch, but also play table tennis for an hour or more before dinner. My productivity with this approach at PlayStation was extraordinary. Hunger keeps you sharp. This is not psychology, this is biology. If you want sharper focus, hunger clears your mind and after a while, your body adjusts. You experience even blood sugars, which in turn improve your mood. You don’t have to do this all the time, and if you have any health issues, I recommend you speak with your doctor first, but if you’re overweight, as I was when I started this approach, not only will intermittent fasting improve your focus, but you’ll lose fat and your blood lipid profile will likely improve.

  2. Listen to binaural audio to entrain your brain. I use It doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me. It takes a few minutes to kick in, but is a great tool for helping me reach a state of flow. If you want to listen to other music, make sure it has no lyrics, but if you must, listen to songs you know so well that you could be rudely awakened from deep sleep by someone blasting them on a stereo near your head only to find yourself singing along, bleary-eyed and semi-conscious

  3. Practice mindful meditation. I've written about this before, but I'll say it again. Many of the most successful people in the world have some kind of mindfulness practice. The operative word is practice. You know which skill you're practicing? Concentration. You know what state that helps you achieve? Yeah, bingo.

  4. Focus your eyes narrowly and intently on the work you're about to do, blinking as little as possible for a minute before you start. Neuroscience points to visual focus enhancing your mind's ability to focus on the subject you want to focus on. Intense visual focus into a narrow cone of attention releases acetylcholine, which also helps you retain what you're about to work on.

  5. Increase the stakes. You do this by imagining the benefit that the completion of the activity will bring, or the penalty if you don't. To increase the stakes, make the consequences real. The imagined or real consequences of failure or in your case, success, triggers the release of epinephrine, the stress hormone. Now, don't worry. This is good stress if you don't overdo it. It's what is motivating you to get the job done. The combination of epinephrine and acetylcholine is going go prime you for the best results.

  6. Have a single priority. Priority makes no sense as a plural anyway. You cannot, by definition, focus on two separate things. Stop looking at your todo list and better still, don't use one. Instead, put your current commitment into your calendar. If it's not in the diary, it won't get done.

  7. Stay well hydrated.

  8. Drink coffee. Not too much. Or tea, if you must.

  9. Get your work environment ergonomically sound, including temperature.

  10. To practice your concentration and your ability to stay focussed, try reading a long chapter in a book without taking a break. If you haven't done this in a while, this will be harder than you realise. Keep practicing.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must have that glass of water.

This newsletter, like the NHS, is free at the point of use, but it costs me time that I could spend elsewhere. If you like what you read, please subscribe, share and encourage others to do the same. Until next week, fare well.