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[EA#2] Start Managing Your Focus


Are you watching closely?

Imagine a future where your every attempt to concentrate fails due to constant interruptions. Every minute you try to regain your train of thought is wasted due to a stream of notifications. The day goes by and you get nothing done. So at the end of the day, you once again push those goals, the concrete results that in the morning still excited you, for tomorrow.

Because of course tomorrow it’ll all be different!

But it won’t.

You just feel more stress tomorrow. And the same influx of distractions continue right from the morning. New emails. New opportunities. New things you have missed.

I don’t thin this scenario is not that far-fetched for many. In my life at least, it’s so easy to waste the entire day doing absolutely nothing worth doing and spend it in some kind of pseudo-work: sending irrelevant emails, discussing about work instead of doing it, or spend half of the day for my personal worst habit: building systems to work faster in some hypothetical future.

We do anything to distract ourselves from work.

We self-distract.

Interruptions to work that matter are not just a minor inconvenience. They

  1. eliminate your productivity,
  2. degrade your mental health and
  3. ultimately kill your dreams.

You can’t afford to keep them in your now when you’re busy building your future.

You must master the science and practice of focus.

Two Layers of Focus

Focus dictates two critically important aspects of your life.

The first one is your experience of everything. The second one is your ability to get things done.

The second one gets all the attention in the productivity discussions, but the first one is a way more exciting concept.

In one of the onboarding emails of the Edge Academia mailing list I discuss selective attention. Selective attention simply refers to the human capability of automatically reducing all the noise and focusing on specific targets. Selective attention is typically used to discuss senses such as hearing or seeing. We all know this: In a room full of discussion you’re still able to hear your own name. Or, you can spot a familiar face even in a crowded train station.

But I like to generalise the concept to academia at large. You find what you focus on. If you focus on being a victim, you will find reasons to be a victim. If you have already decided that academia sucks, you will find all the evidence you need to call it toxic. You will “see” the reasons why it’s all broken. You will find a million reasons to complain, just because that’s what you focused on to begin with.

And that is your right to do. Focus on what you want. But just realise it’s not the full story.

You just focused on the negative instead of the positive.

Someone else will focus on the positive, and as per the rules of how focus works, she’ll find the positive sides while you keep dwelling in the negatives.

Put in fancier terms, there exists a supply and demand for toxicity.

If you demand it, it’ll be supplied to you by your selective attention mechanisms.

A Future Prediction

Let’s turn our focus now on the second aspect: getting things done.

Things always get bad before they get better. Humans have to hit rock bottom to spring up again. And I think, I hope, people are slowly having enough. We are having enough of constant notifications, all the rampant sensationalism in general, and digital poison like TikTok.

The tabloid news just makes you anxious and feel bad about yourself. You know you feel crap after reading the news and scrolling the feed. But you can’t quite pinpoint what is it. So you keep going.

Stop. You don’t need to drive yourself crazy.

You’ve got plenty of agency over this.

Put the distractions away and work on things that make sense for you.

Focused Work is Key

NVIDIA’s CEO Jensen Huang recently shared a story on how he learned from a Japanese gardener a profound lesson on having time. The gardener was collecting dead moss from a gigantic garden. Understandably confused about how does he have the time, Mr. Huang asked how does he get it all done.

The answer was simple: It’s his life’s work. He’s been doing it for 25 years. He does the right things, every day, one piece of moss at a time.

The NVIDIA boss continues:

This aligns well with the results-oriented working style discussed in the last edition.

If every day you know what you must achieve instead of what you will “work on”, and then you get it done first thing, you will have more than enough time to respond to disruptions and things that just appear. And you know they always do.

  • Know what result you need today
  • Focus on it and let nothing come on the way

How to Focus: The Essentials

Alright, so you have the result and you need to immerse yourself to get it done!

The PhD Power Trio contains an extensive module on mastering your focus forever but here are what I think are the most important shortcuts to a hyper-productive state (aka flow state):

1) Sleep and Eat Well

I’ll bundle these together because they are equally important. If you’re in your 20s you can get by with a little less attention to these. But as you get older, you can’t do a bad job on these anymore.

Sleep enough. Whatever you need (this varies between people although generally it’s somewhere between 7-9 hours), try your very best to get that. There’s literally no way to focus – even in the morning – if you’re dead tired.

Then, pay attention to what you eat. I find this especially important for lunch.

If you eat a mountain of pasta for lunch, say goodbye to doing anything productive after that. The afternoon slump hits you and you’ll just end up checking YouTube shorts or indeed doing pseudo-work.

And remember to stay hydrated. You’d be surprised about how many people don’t drink enough water. There are hundreds of scientific papers about the benefits of literally just drinking water, yet this is a simple thing many neglect for reasons beyond comprehension.

If you have clean water coming from the tap or you have access to bottled clean water, why not drink it?

Oh, “we forget.” I’m sure this is a problem we can one way or another work around. Just fill a bottle every morning, put it next to your screen, and drink it. It’s really not that hard.

And speaking of drinking… you can always go for my favourite poison on the planet: coffee!

2) Turbocharge your Coffee

You can get L-theanine from any local weird supplement store full of hippies and nature-lovers.

It’s one of the few supplements I always have in the shelf, and I use it fairly regularly when I have to get important(tm) things done.

Boosts both focus and brainpower. Backed by solid science. Creates “relaxed alertness” when enjoyed with caffeine.

No side effects.

I have only one question for you here: Why not?


3) Exercise

Duh. So damn simple. Exercise every day. Especially if you’re not in your 20s anymore.

Walk. Even better, walk in the nature.

Exercise increases blood flow in the brain. I’m not going to even pretend to know the biological mechanisms behind why exercise is so critical, but I’m pretty sure we can all agree it is.

And it doesn’t have to be a hassle. Studies show walking is great.

Get 20 minutes of walk every now and then, and you’ll be able to dive back to work that matters.

4) Give your Brains a (Real) Break

Any kind of mindfulness practice will help calm down your racing mind.

Just few minutes here and there. Every day. It really doesn’t have to take a lot of time. And you can notice the effects already after the first time.

Just make sure you don’t fall asleep while doing it. Set a timer to go off after 10 minutes, experiment with 7-minute meditation clips, and fight the urge to quit. In the long run, you’ll thank yourself.

Or, go for a solid 15 minutes of NSDR (with a 20minute timer).

5. Work in Results-Oriented Chunks

This is the most obvious one but also one of the easiest ones to ignore.

Again, “working on a paper” is so easy to put in the calendar, but then what you’ll get done is literally just that. You worked on a paper. Maybe it’s just one sentence. Or two. Or you googled stuff around the paper.

But you got what you asked. Which was not much.

So ask better.

  • Results over hours.
  • Results over hours.
  • Results over hours.

It doesn’t really even matter how long you can stay focused. We can learn to get better at that. So just find your max length through trial and error, and start trying your best to put “one solid result” into those time blocks.

It takes some initial work to know yourself and figure out how your days really look like. What interruptions are important and what are not. How long time blocks fit in your routine. Which days can you even try, and so forth.

But once you know yourself better, it becomes easier.

Hit that result with deep focus, and suddenly you’ll find that life just got a bit easier!

Why Bother?

I know. It hurts when we can no longer say we’re busy all the time. We lose a thing to complain about.

Not a bad thing at all.

I’m happy to say I’m not busy.

But I want to loop back to the first effect of focused states of mind once again:

“When you are in a state of flow, time flies. It’s a state of effortless concentration so deep that you lose your sense of time, of yourself, of your problems.”

Coming from a Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, this one is easy to buy.

In a sense, the focused state of mind becomes addictive. Enjoy it a few times, and you’ll want to do it again. Most importantly, problems disappear. Even if you’re having tough time in life otherwise, during these focused work blocks, it all just disappears.

You’re one with the work. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s kind of fun.

So it’s a skill worth toying with and maybe even mastering. In the end, it really is a skill. And we can all get better at it.

But not if you don’t even try.


About the author 

Simo Hosio  -  Simo is an award-winning scientist, Academy Research Fellow, research group leader, professor, and digital builder. This site exists to empower people to build passion projects that support professional growth and make money.

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