It’s like someone put my mind through a paper shredder.
I feel frayed. Fragmented.
At first, it was just around the edges.
Now it’s all the time.
About a month ago, I caught myself trying to explain something complex to someone and all I could hear was mush coming out of my mouth.
An incoherent mess where clear thoughts once existed.
It got me.
After the panic subsided and I’d had my little rant about all the computer screens in our lives and the oppressive nature of capitalism, the question remained: How do I get out of this mess?
How do you occupy your own mind, and center yourself, in a world where everything is speeding up and our attentional resources are being constantly thrown against the rocks and beaten to a pulpy mass.
Yes, I need to turn my notifications off, spend less time on a screen, get more rest, exercise more, and meditate a bit more often, but I’ve been here before.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that removing distractions alone is not enough.
There are some core principles to rehabilitating focus that I’ve had to learn at two separate points in my life. First when I dropped out of college and put myself through Open University to finish a degree on my own. Then again when I taught myself to become a software engineer at 27.
The first principle is that you need to work on a project. You must section off time, in the shape of a project, where you can quarantine from the chaos.
And the project must be something meaningful to you.
A basic truth about our attention is that we have evolved to pay attention to things that matter to us.
It will be easier to pay attention to something that you care about, and it will always be harder to pay attention to things that seem meaningless.
The project I picked this time around was building a sales funnel for the business I run. We’re in the process of shifting from serving individual customers to serving businesses. Rather than just running ads, now we need an entire sales funnel.
We don’t have one.
It’s important that we do.
It’s a good project because it’s focused on a single, clear goal. A project does not have to be linked to work. I’ve just found it easier to find time for it when it’s deeply linked to what you’re already doing. The project doesn’t need to be perfect out of the gate, just pick something meaningful that’s good enough. I’ve given myself 6 weeks to build a sales funnel for my company. I’ll reassess the landscape and pick something better for the next project.
The second core principle to recovering your attention is that you must work at the edge of your ability.
If a goal is too easy, you’ll switch to autopilot. If it’s too hard, you’ll start to freak out and get distracted. It has to be something at the edge of what you can currently do, but not beyond it.
The last, and most important principle, is down to how you work.
Sustained attention can only be restored when you deploy everything you have towards a single task. You set aside everything else you need to do and focus on getting one thing done.
When I started this project three weeks ago, I listed out all the tasks I thought I’d need to do to build a sales funnel. Armed with some idea of what I needed to do, each day I’d pick one type of work on the list and then dedicate 30 minutes of undistracted focus to getting it done.
I couldn’t do it.
As embarrassing as this is to admit, I could not focus on a single task for a full 30 minutes. This was a humbling experience for me because I’ve always prided myself on being able to focus and get shit done. After two failed sessions I had to bring my focus session down to a 15-minute session.
I managed to get a total of fifteen 15-minute sessions done that week. That was almost 4 hours of focus.
Each time I completed a session I’d add a little tally at the end of my notebook to keep track.
The next week I moved up to 30-minute sessions. I managed to get a total of 7.5 hours of focus in that week.
This week I’ve bumped my session up to 60 minutes.
I will continue to ratchet my ability to focus like this till I am able to focus at this depth for 4 hours at a stretch.
Being able to focus deeply on a meaningful goal at the very edge of your abilities for 4 hours a day is more than enough to get some wicked stuff done.
And that’s it.
Pick a clear and meaningful project at the edge of your current abilities and then resolve to pursue it, and set aside all your other goals while you do.
This is strong magic and it’s incredibly difficult to do.
I only just feel like I’ve managed to get my head above water. I still gasp for air sometimes but the rhythm is setting in and I can feel myself think again.
In my experience, figuring out the right shape of a project to start with is often the hardest part. If you’re struggling with this stuff, and you are sincere in your desire to regain your ability to focus, it would be my pleasure to help. Feel free to get in touch with me and we can figure it out together.
I’m not an expert but I have done this before and I think it is important to know that we are not mindless monkeys trapped in a digital world of constant distraction and moral outrage. We can make efforts to focus. We are allowed make room for things that matter to us.