Awhile back someone sent me this article published about a year ago titled The Incredible Power of Ignoring Everything. Toward the end of the article it starts to get to what I really wanted to know: how to increase focus while working.
There’s some usual advice: eliminate distractions. Then there is a link to an article on Cal Newport’s Study Hacks Blog called Richard Feynman Didn’t Win A Nobel By Responding Promptly To Emails. Richard Feynman (b. 1918 d. 1988) was a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist. I don’t think I have to tell you twice that doing physics at that level requires lots of brain-things happening inside your head. And that requires an enormous amount of focus. (And we’ll just ignore the anachronism in the article’s title since Feynman passed away before email was really a thing. Not the point.)
Anyway, the article refers to a quote from an interview of Feynman where he says he had created the myth that he was too “irresponsible” to be on committees. Of course anyone would want a Nobel Prize winner on their committee! I’m sure he had to turn people down every day. But he had to make his work his priority, and eliminate lower-priority activities. This is good advice, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to clear the timetable for everything but focused work.
It would be great to be able to pare life down to only the highest priority tasks, but the reality for most of us is that we still have to think about sending holiday cards and what’s going to be for supper every night all week, whether the reports have been submitted yet or what next month’s budget projection will be. When people are free from the administrative duties of life, they are free to let their minds focus on other things. But how realistic is that for the majority of us who need to keep the day to day tasks ticking over?
That article brought me to another article on the Study Hacks Blog: Yuval Harari Works Less Than You. This article refers to a book I haven’t read, but the point is that many highly successful people have a solid block of four hours when they get their most creative work done. Beyond that it’s mostly busy work or other work that doesn’t require deep thinking.
This is something that more of us can do. We can’t expect to eliminate all the administrative duties of life, but we have a pretty good chance of setting aside 4 solid hours for work each day. I’m not saying that’s going to happen automatically; in this age of open-plan offices and always-connected communications, blocking out four solid, uninterrupted hours is a feat.
But if you get creative, it can be done. Even working from home has its challenges when it comes to uninterrupted work, as this article describes. Hopefully you won’t have to work inside your car in your garage as the author did, but there are other measures you can take to get some uninterrupted, distraction-free time to do those brain-things that require focus.
Think about your typical work day. What distractions can you eliminate? Even better, how can you block out time (during a part of the day when you have the most mental energy) in a location that will allow you to focus on creative or deep-thinking work?