Quora Question: How Can I Improve My Focus?

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Answer from Selene Chew, Experience Designer, Researcher, Storyteller.

I would like to share how I have applied the pomodoro technique in my work.

First, the gist of this technique is to have 25 minutes of hyper focus time, then a 5 minute break. A session includes 3-4 25 minutes of work with breaks in between. Between each session, take a long 20-30 minute break. This is a technique of focusing.

While it is easy to use the technique, the question that I often have is "what" to focus on. I could be very focused on Facebook, or video games, and the technique still works. Also, I am often catching myself thinking of other things while I'm trying to focus in the 25mins. So here's what I did to better prepare myself for pomodoro technique.

Each of these steps can be completed using pomodoro technique too!

Understanding yourself
Know what is your greatest problem when it comes to focusing, and what is the motivation for focusing. For me, I want to be focused so that I can be productive. But my greatest difficulty is that I have a lot of things I want to do, or my mind tries to distract me from my current work.

Planning your goals
Knowing that I want to be productive, I listed down everything I want or need to do. You can categorize them in whatever way you want to (personal, work, projects). I usually do this at the beginning of the week, on Monday, or Sunday night. I would brainstorm everything I need to do.

Next, looking at the things to do, pick the tasks that you need or want to complete or start THIS WEEK. I say start because some tasks are long term, some are shorter. If it is a broad goal like "learn guitar", start breaking down the steps to take to start the task.

Put all of them in a to-do list for this week. You can be over ambitious, or under performing on the list, that's ok. What's important is that you have something to hyper focus on with the pomodoro technique. Rank everything by importance.

Distraction free
What's your biggest distraction? Prepare yourself against that. For example, I'm less concerned about the environment where I'm working at, but more concerned about how my brain likes to think about other things when I'm working. If you have issue with the environment being distracting, then change the environment. Clean your desk, or go to the library, whichever works.

If you are like me, being more distracted by other less important things like putting out the trash, needing to cut my nails etc., list them down on another piece of paper. I call that the to-do list for breaks. Interestingly, I don't need to spend time generating these, they will pop up whenever I try to focus, so I just put them down on that to-do list for breaks (I will explain that later).

Applying the pomodoro technique
Once you have things to do, and distractions away, you can now start applying the pomodoro technique.

Focusing is a discipline. You need to trust the pomodoro technique that it is possible for humans to be hyper focused on only ONE thing for 25 minutes. Even if it's something you dread (that's what I tell myself).

Pick only one thing to do at any one time. You can multitask all you want during the break, but during the 25 minutes, do only one thing. If you finish your task early, you have the option to stop the time and take a break or start a new task. Even if you did not complete the task in that 25 minutes, take the 5 minute break, and continue the task in the next 25 minutes.

The most difficult part for me is the first few pomodoros. Like I've mentioned earlier, my brain would be distracted like: "I'm thirsty, I need to adjust the AC, somebody pinged me on facebook." during the 25 minutes. So, I would write them down on my to-do list for breaks (I keep a pen and paper close to me so I write them down whenever), and tell myself that I will do those things during breaks.

The only exception is when someone calls you or stops you physically, and of course during emergencies like fire. That's when I will pause my timer, or run for my life. If not, everything else can be deferred to break time.

Mentality is important
Don't be overly harsh on yourself at the beginning. When you realize you are distracted, gently pull yourself back to focus. If after one full session (3-4 25 minutes), you are still unable to focus, try (1) working on other stuff on your to-do list, or (2) try a different time or method to work.

What's important is that you follow the pomodoro technique consistently. When you are experiencing difficulty focusing, encourage yourself that the breaks are only 20 minutes or less away. When you are getting the "flow" of working, I still encourage you to take the 5 minute breaks. Or at least, the long breaks in between sessions.

Why? Because the practice of focusing is more important than the task itself. Being able to always come back anytime and start working is a more important skill, than to depend on the "flow". Also, you want to avoid burnout. Ideally, we all want to be able to get into the flow whenever we needed.

Other tips
You can adjust the 25 minute work phases to any time period you want. Start with 25 minutes first, and slowly adjust it longer as you get better at focusing. Also, remember to adjust the time for breaks accordingly too.

After awhile, you may realize that you have less distractions during the 25 minutes, and less stuff on the to-do list for breaks. Obviously, it's not necessary to spend time brainstorming what to do for breaks. I'm very sure it's easy to waste your break time away through emails and Facebook. Here are some things to do during breaks that I find helpful for myself (besides going to the bathroom):

  • Reward myself with snacks for the hardwork
  • Relax comfortably, close your eyes. Meditate if you know how to.
  • Prepare for the next task. Opening a file, or gathering related documents etc.

Track your progress. Note down how many successful uninterrupted pomodoro you have achieved in a day, at what time. It's encouraging, or embarrassing, to see your progress.

I use an app to time myself for the pomodoro technique. There are plenty of apps out there, but I'm just going to share mine because it suits me best and I use it for other stuff too.
Choose what's best for you.

30-30 is basically a timer for a task list. Here's what it looks like.

You can set whatever name for the tasks, and whatever time for each task. You can use it for exercising routine, cooking recipes, whatever you can think of. It allows you to save multiple lists.

Here's how I setup for pomodoro technique.

Three 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks in between and a long 20 minute break at the end. The app allows you to loop this list infinitely (until you stop it).

I also used a MindMap software for the big list of things to-do, and a to-do list app for my weekly and daily tasks. I only keep handwritten notes for my to-do list for break because they are just not that important and I strike them off and throw them away quickly.

Last tip:
If you don't try today, you will probably forget about trying.


Answer from Bill Hall, Consultant - IT, software development, end user computing innovation.

It is great that you are not looking for quick fix hacks, because improving focus is not about external items it actually comes from within. With that being said, the external stuff does cause distractions, and it's easy to address so I'll start there and move forward.

1. Shut down your email, turn off intant messanger, close Facebook, close Twitter, put your phone on silent, and turn off any thing else that blinks, dings, buzzes, or vibrates. These items will disrupt you when you are trying to focus, so you need to eliminate them and make the task easier on yourself.

2. Setup where you are at so it is conducive to focusing. A clean desk with nothing to draw your attention away from your work eliminates another barrier to focusing.

3. Set a dedicated block of time to focus on one item. It can be 30 mintues, an hour, or 3 hours, I recommend you start small and work up to longer sessions. During this time, work only on the item of focus.

4. The first couple of sessions are going to be about self awareness. For most of us, it is not the external things that distract us, it is actually internal feelings or urges that prompt us to stop working on the current item and switch to a distraction. This happens when things get difficult, when they get boring, or if we are wired to check email every five minutes, it can happen when your brain wants to satisfy the urge to check email or any of the other information sources that exist. When this happens, stop what you are doing and pay attention to your body. Did your neck tense up, are your legs restless, do you feel stressed, what is going on? It is different for everyone, but we all have physical triggers we react to that can cause us to run from what we are trying to focus on towards some thing else. Once you know what your triggers are, you are ready to move on.

5. The next time you do a focus session, when a trigger happens, stop what you are doing, resist the urge to change tasks or check whatever it is you want to check. Take deep slow breaths and tell yourself that what you are feeling is ok and it will pass. You will make the decision on when to change tasks and that you can check whatever it is you feel the need to check later. The urge will pass, it may take five minutes or more, but it will pass, at which point you can get back to your work. When the urge happens again, stop and do the exercise again. The biggest benefit here is that it is putting you back in control of what was previously an unconscious response. You are not flipping all over the place and you are giving you mind only one thing to work on at a time.

6. Reward yourself when you are complete. Do something enjoyable, whether that is checking email, going to a website, taking a walk, kissing your significant other, it doesn't matter just do something you like. This will positively reinforce the benefits of a focus session in your head.

Other points of note.
1. Don't punish yourself for slipping up and jumping tasks, just be aware of it happening, and put some thought into how to prevent it in the future.

2. Try and make a game out of it. If what you are doing is boring or too difficult, your likeliness of losing focus will increase significantly. If you can make the task into a game with challenges, it helps significantly with what you are doing. Keep track of how many activities you can complete with no errors. How many urges you are able to resist. Whatever the task is, get creative and make it fun.

3. Find the time of day where you focus best. Some people are in the morning, others in the afternoon or evening. Make time slots then to do your work that requires focus.

4. Tools are great but not necessary. If you find one you like, by all means go for it, but don't assume a tool will solve the issue for you.

Good luck with the efforts, and keep practicing, do these things everyday and it will become a habit that will benefit you the rest of your life!

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