Focus seems so elusive at work sometimes. Why is it that when you need to focus the most, it doesn’t happen? Without meaning to, your mind wanders. Your hand inches to your phone every ten minutes.
Imagine that you’ve been assigned a task to do at work. There are 3 possibilities for what happens next:
- It’s completely boring, does not interest you, and puts you to sleep when you’re doing it.
- It’s very challenging, the learning curve for you to understand the concepts or its execution is steep, and it’s something you cannot do without guidance from a mentor.
- It’s just slightly beyond your capabilities, challenges you a little more than what you can already do, and it’s doable with some focus and independent learning on your part.
Which scenario will sustain your interest and perseverance the longest? Which scenario will leave you most easily side-lined by distractions?
Optimal Challenges Increase Your Focus
This happens in the third scenario, when the task is optimally challenging.
You are fairly confident that you can do the task, but you’re not entirely sure how. There are some things you have to figure out on your own, and these should be possible given what you already know.
When you find yourself in this situation, you can focus your whole being in doing and learning, and you lose track of time. You don’t have to count the minutes to lunch time or to get off work anymore, because you’re so absorbed in the task.
Very likely, that is when you’re working on your strengths, and when your focus comes in full force.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occurs when a persons body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
- Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Find Your Flow and You Find Your Focus
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi came up with the term flow to describe this state of full focus, with no distractions. He wanted to find out:
How is it that professional artists can work for days on end, to the point of neglecting themselves? Don’t they feel hungry or tired?
When you are in flow, you are naturally, fully engrossed in the task. You don’t have to tell yourself to be focused. You already are. At this stage, you lose awareness of distractions, people, gadgets, and time. You may even ignore your basic bodily needs – hunger, hygiene, fatigue.
This happens because all your attentional resources are put on the task – you don’t have leftovers to allocate elsewhere.
You may find flow in any activity you do. But you are more likely to focus when you are interested and skilled enough, and when the task is optimally challenging.
The idea of optimal challenge is important. If the task is too hard, you become anxious. If the task is too easy, you become bored.
Note also that focus means you have to be actively doing something, not just sitting and watching tv, or looking at scenery. Those are passive activities that may serve to recharge us, but focus is not applicable in those situations.
This is not to say that some activities are ‘inferior’. If the tv show is something you chose to watch for a reason, and you’re thinking about it or getting feedback about it while watching it, then that’s when you focus too.
6 Signs You’re Focusing
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow has the following aspects. You can tell you’re focusing when you have:
- Inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done
- Confidence in being skilled enough to do the task
- Intrinsic motivation – what drives you is what rewards you
- A sense of serenity – no worries about yourself, feeling like you’re out of reality
- Goals and progress in the task. There is direction and structure for you to follow
- Feedback clear enough to tell you how well you are doing and how you may progress
The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow, the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Does This Mean Distractions Are Eliminated?
Finding your flow isn’t a magic formula for removing all these distractions. What it does, however, is to make it easier for you to focus on what you need to do at the moment.
You’ll still have to make the choice to ignore your phone, or inform people around you that you won’t be disturbed. Flow and focus makes is easier for you to make that choice.
Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.