Our individual ability to focus, to block-out distractions and really bear down on the task at hand is a hugely underrated mental asset.
Some people learn to use this priceless resource efficiently, while others waste it.
The good news is that our ability to pay attention — to focus — works much like a muscle. If we use it either poorly or too infrequently, it will wither. But if we work it, it will grow. It's the case of the old saying: What you don't use, you lose.
In this article, I'll try to shine a light on this underappreciated mental faculty, and showcase its vital role in helping you live a more fulfilling life.
The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.
Productivity Depends on Continuous, Uninterrupted Blocks of Time
If you can learn to manage your attention, you can win back your life.
In his seminal book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker said that for an individual to be effective, “time in large, continuous, and uninterrupted units is needed…”
He later refers to these "large, continuous, and uninterrupted units" of time as "discretionary." He clearly states that this is the time during which the effective individual gets real work done — work that contributes the most to the achievement of his desired outcome.
Research that is more recent than was available to Mr. Drucker at the time suggests that these discretionary blocks of time can be shorter.
This strongly suggests that we, as individuals, should seek to carve out a number of briefer blocks of time instead of struggling to create half or full day blocks.
The Counter-Intuitive Secret to High Performance and Extreme Productivity
Here's where Tony Schwartz's research can unveil some powerful breakthroughs. Tony Schwartz, as you may know, is the President and CEO of The Energy Project and the bestselling author of The Power of Full Engagement.
The premise of the book is based on a fundamental insight: The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not. In fact, the sub-headline of the book states: managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.
Living in a world where busyness is praised, there's a tendency to believe that working harder and longer hours is the key to high performance.
But science has proved that too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown. Thus, our capacity to be fully engaged depends on our ability to periodically disengage.
Here's what Mr. Schwartz stated:
Our activity and rest patterns are tied to circadian rhythms (circa dies, “around a day”), which cycle approximately every twenty-four hours. In the early 1950s, researchers Eugene Aserinsky and Nathan Kleitman discovered that sleep occurs in smaller cycles of 90- to 120-minute segments. We move from light sleep, when brain activity is intense and dreaming occurs, to deeper sleep, when the brain is more quiescent and the deepest restoration takes place. This rhythm is called the “basic rest-activity cycle” (BRAC). In the 1970s, further research showed that a version of the same 90- to 120-minute cycles— ultradian rhythms (ultra dies, “many times a day”) — operates in our waking lives.
He goes on to say:
Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery. Signals include a desire to yawn and stretch, hunger pangs, increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an inclination to procrastinate or fantasize, and a higher incidence of mistakes. We are capable of overriding these natural cycles, but only by summoning the fight-or-flight response and flooding our bodies with stress hormones that are designed to help us handle emergencies.
He refers to these stress hormones as artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and our body's own stress hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
Research from Peretz Lavie, Jacob Zomer, and Daniel Gopher on ultradian rhythms matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy levels throughout the day.*
*Ciotti, Gr. (2015, October 19). The Science of Productivity [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.sparringmind.com/productivity-science/
In yet another renowned 1993 study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each (87.90 min), with a break between each one. Ericsson found the same pattern among other musicians, athletes, chess players and writers.
Thus, an interesting question arises:
Isn't it better to work at full output for a set period of time and then take a break?
By knowing that a scheduled break is on the way, you'll be more likely to work on your most challenging task first and renew yourself with the few minutes of downtime that follow.
In other words, the counter-intuitive secret to sustainable high performance is to live like a sprinter.
In practice, that means you should make it a high priority to find at least one time a day — preferably in the morning — to focus single-mindedly on your most challenging and most important task for 60 to 90 minutes before taking a true break.
Resist the Temptation to Clear Up Small Things First
Notice that I said "your most challenging and important task." That's a key aspect to consider, which brings me to my final point.
If the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that’s probably the worst thing that’s going to happen to you all day long.
In other words, your frog is the number ONE, most important priority for the day. It's the one that you're most likely to procrastinate on.
Here's what Brian Tracy remarked:
If you have to eat more than one frog, eat the ugliest one first. What this means is, do the worst first. Do the biggest, most difficult task first because that’s the one that makes most of the difference. And then once you’ve done your most important task, you’ll find that the whole day will flow much better.
Most of us do exactly the opposite. We start our days by doing small, minor stuff and when we get to the hard tasks, we procrastinate. I was surely guilty of that myself, until I realized that my creative work is my number one priority for the day.
Don't let distractions and insignificant tasks get in your way. Phone off, email off and work on your own priorities first!
Remember the mantra: Create BEFORE you react! Resist the temptation to clear up small things first. Zero-in on ONE high-value task at a time and stay with it till it's 100% complete. Period.
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