Our 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 productive, creative, and fulfilling life.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi beautifully remarked in his book Flow:
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 Drucker at the time suggests that these discretionary blocks of time can be shorter.
In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes that periods of intense engagement and productivity are generally not sustainable for more than a few hours at a time.
This strongly suggests that we 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 alongside Jim Loehr, 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.
You see, 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.
We've built up a culture of "nose-to-the-grindstone” hustlers, first-in-last-out workers, all-nighters, and people that go to the office early, leave late, and never seem to stop working.
But science has proven time and again that too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown.
So in order to sustain that incredible amount of focus that today’s world demands of you, you need regular periods of rest and recovery sprinkled throughout the day.
Therefore, our capacity to be fully engaged depends on our ability to periodically disengage.
Here's what Tony 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 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.
So here's an interesting question: 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 work like a sprinter.
This means that 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 number one, most challenging and most important task for 60 to 90 minutes, and then take a break.
. . .
Do The Most Important Thing 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.
In 2007, Brian Tracy wrote an excellent time management book called, Eat That Frog. This "eat the frog" story comes from Mark Twain, who once said:
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 engaging in small, low-value activities and when we get to the hard tasks, we procrastinate.
. . .
I want to provide you with a simple statement you can use to remind yourself of your priorities and of what matters most to you on a daily basis. It comes from Gary Keller, the founder of Keller Williams, which is the largest real estate company in the world. And it goes like this:
Until my no. 1 priority is done — everything else is a distraction!
Don’t start your day by reacting to everyone else’s agenda. Focus on your mission and on what matters most to you first. Zero-in on ONE high-value task at a time and stay with it till it's 100% complete.
Until my no. 1 priority is done — everything else is a distraction! @garykeller
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