The Magic Power of Focus to Turn Down the Noise

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On those days when you feel as if you’re living and working in a circus, juggling a bowling ball, flaming torch and a lemon, knowing how to turn down the background noise can go a long way to decreasing distraction and increasing concentration.
That’s the power of focus. Or what the author of Deep Work and professor of computer science at Georgetown University, Cal Newport, Ph.D., describes as, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”  He says that working with focus allows you to master complicated information more quickly, become better at what you do and produce better results in less time.  
Specific techniques can help you create your own bubble of productivity and calm. You can practice it right now. This article will take about three minutes to read. As an experiment, tune out distractions and focus on this one task. You may walk away with enough tricks to help you find focus more often and for longer periods of time. Try these.
  1. Manage your physical space. If you’re trying to improve how you eat, you get junk food out of the house so you won’t succumb to temptation. If you want more focus, you need to get distractions out of your work space. Of course, that means closing out of pop-up messaging on all devices. But it may also require moving evidence of other “in-process” work out of sight and even putting things like family photos or trip mementos out of view. It’s not forever, but just for this dedicated chunk of time when you will give yourself the luxury of doing one thing with total focus.
  1. Manage your emotional space. Admittedly, this can be harder than clearing off your desk. If your mind keeps wandering away from the task at hand to something with an emotional charge to it, stop and do a gut check. Are you still angry about a comment your spouse made this morning? Was your boss unenthusiastic about your project proposal? Did you react more harshly to a colleague than you would have liked? Emotional distractions are not likely to be resolved quickly, so they have to be managed in other ways.
Consider quickly writing down the scattered thoughts and worries running through your head and then intentionally put them aside. They will be waiting for you after your focused work. Take a few deep breaths to relax your body and ground yourself in the present moment. Show yourself some compassion and acknowledge how difficult it is to concentrate with everything you have going on. Do 20 jumping jacks to release pent up energy. Anything you can do fairly quickly that helps you acknowledge emotional distraction and then intentionally release it for the time being can help.
  1. Find a place to hide. If the problem is a practical one (too much noise and activity nearby, direct reports popping in with questions, kids fighting right outside your home office), you may need a quiet retreat where you can physically and intellectually shut out the world and concentrate. You can let your boss and others know where you’ll be if they really, truly need to reach you, and of course ensure that kids have adequate oversight. Then, make a run for it. If physical privacy and quiet are not possible, noise-cancelling headphones may do the trick. Or calm music without words.
  1. Ask for help. Sometimes, all that’s really needed to turn down noise and interruptions is asking for it. A brief note on your door can let people know you are deeply engaged in focused work and would love to talk with them after 2:00. Even kids can be surprisingly cooperative if given clear parameters. If they should not bother you until the very last credits roll at the end of the movie, tell them that.
  1. Beware of your own need to be needed. It can be a bit of an ego boost to feel like the office, restaurant, or household can’t run without you. If you have a strong need to be at the center of the action, you could be fueling interruptions by sending signals that you constantly want to be included. It might even feel painful to shut yourself off from that stimulation. The knowledge that you are robbing yourself of real progress and the opportunity to make a bigger impact in a smaller period of time may be enough to motivate you to stay the course. The promise of a reward might also help. If you work without interruption for two hours, you can grab a coffee with a colleague at 4:00. She might also be an accountability partner, only meeting if you’ve reached your goal.
  1. Determine an end point. Commit to a prescribed period of time for focused work (about 90 minutes is best according to Newport) and then stop when you hit that mark. If your mind starts to wander before then, stay the course, ride out the boredom and wade back in perhaps with a less demanding part of the task. But when 90 minutes is up, stop. Research shows that you’re likely to face diminishing returns after that. Better to take a break, engage in a different sort of activity (especially more rote tasks like those Newport calls “shallow work”). Move around physically and then commit to another period of deep work again later in the day if possible.
Something else you may also discover through the intentional practice of focused work is a re-ordering of priorities. You are unlikely to carve out 90 minutes, post a note on your door and hide in a quiet closet to do unimportant tasks that don’t add a lot of value. When you focus, you naturally pick the big things and devote your greatest cognitive and physical energy to moving those forward.

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