I’ve received a few requests for this post, so here it is: my approach to focus. It is not an end-all be-all solution for everybody, but rather a look at the key underlying ways you can keep yourself moving towards a task. The tricks here should work well for anybody, but some may need to supplement these with additional methods.
These are, though, the basic concepts which will allow you to work both harder and smarter. They will allow you to set out and follow through on your loftier goals in life.
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An Evidence-Based Approach to Self Improvement, available from Amazon and on the Kindle store.
The Joy of Craft
How to improve focus, practice better, stay motivated, and everything else you could want to know about better studying.
1. Understand your Motivation Structure
If you’re trying to motivate others, you need to know what drives them. It is no different when motivating yourself, except perhaps that the answers are even harder to come by.
Want money? Don’t we all. Looking for happiness? Me too. Trying to save the word? We all want to give it a shot, sooner or later.
Our day-to-day motivations are much more subtle. Our minds are designed to keep us in the short term, evolved during a time when staying alive was the most important task on a day-to-day basis. This is no longer the case. You do not need to think about food while you are working. It will, in all likelihood, be there when you want it. All those carnal instincts our brains flip on every few seconds are, in some ways, useless in our lives these days. They take up precious brain-cycles that could be used on other things.
Yet we cannot turn them off, so what is the use? Some people like to bribe themselves with treats throughout the work day. I prefer to look at it from the perspective of balance; a sort of natural progression from the ancient Greek idea of Dualism. There is some fundamental war going on for our mental energy, pulling it in each direction, dictating how we feel at any given moment.
Consider your energy level at the moment: what has led it to this state? Did you drink coffee this morning? Did you get a good night’s sleep? Did you eat something to give you sustained energy, like a big meal? Have you worked out recently? How is the weather — is it sunny out? Are you bored; do you need some mental stimulation? Are you feeling fulfilled in your current activity, or is it some sort of busywork getting you nowhere?
These are just a few of the many things which can comprise out mental state at any given moment. Understanding your motivations from day-to-day is about maintaining the balance by identifying which things you most need.
Once you understand these things, you can reframe your day to accomplish them better. This is not about making your body work at 110% at all times; it is about understanding how to use your body best at any given time. It is respecting the circadian rhythms we are subject to, doing the right thing at the right time.
There is something somewhat Zen to this idea. Like a rock garden, it can sometimes be important to look at something from the perspective of “what can be removed from this to make it better?” Who is it that you want to be? Paint a picture in your mind of that person and craft your activities, routines and deeds so that they fit with that eventual goal. Very little success is ever achieved by mistake, nor does it happen in isolation. Successful people craft success, they do not in general stumble repeatedly on proverbial jackpots.
It only makes sense to make a conscious decision to identify and align your motivational structure with the goals you ultimately want. Success can be a million dollars, or it can be a trip around the world, a happy family, a skill learned, a new home, a habit kicked, or one of infinite other things. Just as long as you decide what is important to you and set yourself towards it, it instantly becomes more achievable.
2. Know your Tasks
There is some small pleasure in checking an item off a task list. This tactile/visceral interaction gives a wholesome sense of completion which leads to a positive feedback-loop in productivity.
It is a tool video game designers know well. We incorporate flashy-bright-lights, bouncy-buttons, and lots of glitter to make the physical act of doing something innately pleasurable. A fellow designer called these “dopamine hits.” If games are to be compared to addictions, these are the micro-deliveries of the drug. These little interactions are the things that transform a game like stacking blocks from a chore to something you’d pay to do.
There is more to knowing your tasks than simply completing them, though. Your tasks are your map from where you are to where you want to be. They are a dissection of a goal into a series of pieces which are digestible.
Going to the moon seems impossible. Hand enough engineers long enough task lists, though, and you’ll get there.
In business, I recently learned about the idea of Gantt charts — really just a further extension of this idea of mapping the road from here to there, in a business context.
3. Track your Progress
I have noticed a pattern: every time I implement some new form of tracking, my results improve. Half of the motivation of this blog, in fact, is to “keep me honest.” When I conduct an “experiment” for the blog, I feel as though I have a responsibility to deliver some form of untainted data.
When you are aware of the minutia of what is happening, you are better able to control what does and does not work, thereby maximizing your efficiency. My basic belief in life is that anything about oneself can be improved. Your outlook, your body, your wealth, your skills, your happiness, your productivity… anything. The problem is that we operate on such small margins when we play for these stakes.
Our bodies and minds operate on a macro level. Am I alive? Am I hungry? We satisfy desires with the first available resolution we find. This is why it is so much easier to diet if you simply do not purchase those things not on the diet (or walk by restaurants, or otherwise put yourself in a decision-making situation). Thanks to ego-depletion, we lose a little of our ability to resist something each time we do so.
When we focus on the micro-levels of these questions, though, and examine how they interact and interplay with others we can better control the big picture. Instead of reaching immediately for a snack or the first available food when hungry, consider the possibilities. If you’ve tracked your food intake before (carbs, fat, protein, Calories, etc.) you may even have a sense of what different food options will do to you mentally and physically over the coming hours. If you need a break and enjoy cooking, the process of crafting this delicious and energy-boosting concoction can in itself be pleasurable. If you like working out and are aware of the improvements you have made this week (a slightly faster time on your mile run, a heavier weight in the gym, a new yoga pose) it can give you an important sense of accomplishment.
Focus is about seeing both the forest and the trees. Look too closely and you’ll get obsessed with the details; look to broad and you won’t know how to get to where you want to be. Tweaking a daily routine, a value structure, or just adding a new tracking tool can be ways to improve your vision of your own self-portrait in one way or another. Since we’re each always painting this self-portrait, we can constantly be making improvements.