Nutshell: In the flow: the power of focus and how to achieve it

Written by
Francesco Dimitri

Published
06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Francesco Dimitri

In today’s ‘attention economy’, we need to be able to concentrate on what’s important to us.

If the world of time management teaches us anything, it’s that attention, our ability to focus on one thing at a time, can be a scarce resource. It is so scarce, in fact, that, these days, it’s become a commodity with a market value attached to it. People will, and do, pay good money to track – and anticipate – which notifications we check on our phones; which apps we’ll open or not; which social media platforms we use, for how long, and when.

More than ever, countless actors are vying for our attention at every hour, minute, second of our lives, when we work, when we rest, when we sleep (yes: there are, of course, companies promising to make sense of our dreams). Psychologists talk of an attention economy, the idea that the more time we spend with a product, service or brand, the more attention we pay it, then the more likely we are to buy in to it, whether literally or metaphorically. 

As with all economies, we need to learn how to make the attention economy work for us, or we end up (literally) paying attention without getting much back. We need to learn instead how to focus on what matters to us, which is not always what others say should matter to us. 

Attention and focus have become valuable and tradable commodities precisely because they’re so scarce. We are not living in a cave on a forgotten Mediterranean beach. We do have all those actors shouting in our ears, and many, perhaps most, have something of real value to offer. If we find it tricky to zone in on one thing to the exclusion of others, it is not because we are stupid, or lazy, or a bit of a failure. Rather, in the face of so much choice, so many competing priorities, it’s because the focus we need really is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain.

Just as our self-control can be used up by ego depletion, so the sheer amount of information processing our brains need to do for us to learn and carry out tasks naturally limits the cognitive resource we have available. Excessive focus can be draining and counter-productive; our brains operate optimally when we switch between focus and unfocus. But just as we can build up our stores of self-control, learning how to focus better can help us to make the most of the brain power we do have at our disposal. 

The wonder of flow

The holy grail of focus and attention might just be what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. It’s a state of consciousness reported by athletes, artists, and other highly skilled professionals, but we can all recognise that moment when we’re completely immersed in a task, when time flies and when we’ve accomplished more than we realise. 

When we are in flow, we are fully focused and at the peak of our productivity; it’s a state of optimal experience – of happiness, no less. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.

The good news is that it’s something we can all learn to achieve. The key aspect to flow is control: in the flow-like state, we exercise control over our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces, or our own apathy and anxiety. It’s a state of intrinsic motivation, where the task becomes its own reward; in short, it has meaning. At the same time, our engagement is such that the chances of success are increased. 

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward and immediate feedback
  3. The feeling that time is transformed (speeding up/slowing down)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. It’s accomplished with effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

These characteristics form a virtual circle which not only supports performance, but also makes us feel good about ourselves. Because we find the task intrinsically rewarding, we want to do it more and the more we replicate the experience, the more engaged and happy we are. 

The flow felt by an athlete at the peak of his or her game may feel a long way away from the average work tasks that we just can’t seem to finish, but there are many key components of flow that we can all bear in mind when we need to focus. For example, having clear goals is an important underpinning. If we can overcome our tendency to internalise and ruminate, then the way forward becomes clearer. And the balance between challenge and skill is crucial: if the challenge is greater than our level of skill, we’ll become discouraged and demotivated. If our skill level exceeds the challenge, we’re more likely to become bored or distracted. 

Paradoxically, then, the more skilled we are, the more likely we are to fall into habit, and then boredom. We learn a new skillset, we are fired up by it, we grow professionally, and then we plateau; we stay where we were, and start losing interest in what we do. Instead, we might think about approaching a task with another basic human emotion: wonder. When we feel a sense of wonder, we are fully engaged with what inspired that wonder. As adults, we need to ‘wonder’ at things more, just as we did when we were children; in order to do that, rather than learning new things, we should forget the ones we know.

Whenever we are approaching a task, no matter how superficially similar to others we have completed umpteen times in the past, we need to ask ourselves three questions: 

  • what is new about it? 
  • what is strange? 
  • why is this interesting?

When we find the wonder in even the most unpromising of things, we no longer need to force ourselves to focus – the wonder will naturally keep us on track, giving us that sense of flow. 

Setting boundaries 

Thinking about flow and wonder can help us to re-frame the way we see focus and attention. In practice, to get us started, the best way to focus is to simply do one thing at a time. That’s easier said than done, of course. It not only means managing the many distractions which threaten to get in the way  but also working, intentionally, on our ability to give our attention fully to the task in hand. 

Fortunately, there are a number of techniques we can deploy to help us to set clearer boundaries when we need to zone in and focus. 

The Pomodoro Technique

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique is a simple tool to help us break down tasks into intervals, separated by short breaks. Its name comes from the Italian for tomato; Cirillo apparently had a tomato-shaped kitchen timer when he was a student. But don’t be deceived by its folksy origins; the technique is underpinned by some very sound science

Pomodoro’s regular sequence of focused intervals and breaks are proven to improve attention span, train concentration and provide mental stimulation and motivation – all the while busting the cognitive boredom we might feel from working on a task for too long. Those breaks really do begin to feel like a reward. And they really do improve focus and flow. 

The Pomodoro Technique has six basic steps: 

1.    Decide on the task to be done.

2.    Set the pomodoro timer (the default is 25 minutes, but this can be customised) 

3.    Work on the task.

4.    Stop working when the timer rings. 

5.    Take a take a short break (3–5 minutes). 

6.    After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15-30 minutes) – and, if needs be – start again. 

Download a timer and give the power of the pomodoro a go.

From to-do lists to timeboxing

The humble to-do list has been under attack in recent years, portrayed as overlong lists that simply paralyse us with the sheer number of choices on offer, lacking sufficient differentiation between tasks of different lengths, complexity or importance, and providing us with no incentive to focus on anything other than the things we like to do or are easy to tackle. 

Enter the concept of timeboxing, effectively a to-do list crossed with a calendar. Instead of writing a list of the things we have to do, in timeboxing we estimate the time each will take and put them in our calendars. Daniel Markowitz calls it “living in your calendar”, creating a “production plan for your work”. 

By asking us to estimate the time we’ll need for what we have to do, timeboxing’s promise is that it will also help us to get better at estimating and scheduling. It also encourages us to allocate time to those routine tasks that can otherwise take over our working lives, such as managing our email, and to be deliberate about factoring in space and time for the unexpected. Crucially, it also  prompts us to get serious about the time we need for thinking and reflecting. 

Another way to boost the power of the to-do list is simply to make them more detailed, specifying what really needs to be achieved and adding in more context rather than simply noting down “draft new proposal”. Breaking down to-do list items into more actionable elements has a similar focus-boosting effect to timeboxing. 

Batching

We all have similar tasks that we have to do more than once. Batching groups these together, the idea being to focus on the tasks less often, but for longer. It increases efficiency because we reduce the time it takes to switch between, and get ready for, tasks that can be tackled together.

We may think it would be ridiculous to visit the supermarket for just one item of food at a time, but how many times a day do we stop doing what we’re doing to read and answer that one email that’s just pinged into our inbox? Could we, instead, read our messages in batches, or even try to group meetings so that not every day is disrupted by them. Batching forces us to be more organised about what to do and when.

Batching afficionado, Dan Silvestre, offers a step-by-step guide for creating batches: 

  1. Make a list of recurring tasks
  2. Choose tasks suited to batching together
  3. Create time blocks for them in your calendar
  4. Assign task batches to time blocks
  5. Create lists or folders to keep track of tasks
  6. Don’t procrastinate or delay batches
  7. Don’t cave in and finish the task ahead of schedule
  8. Schedule batches as far into the future as possible
  9. Have regular reviews to evaluate success and schedule the next batches

Buffering

It’s easy to find ourselves spending our working lives bouncing from meeting to meeting, from task to task, hardly drawing breath along the way. Switching task and context repeatedly is not only exhausting, it’s also inefficient – and is hardly designed to help us gain and retain our focus. Instead, we need to cut ourselves some slack, to build in margins – buffers – between activities and events to give us time to process, reflect and re-prioritise. For example, if you have to have back-to-back hour-long meetings, plan to space them out by at least 15 minutes every time. 

Taking this time out saves time in the long run, and also protects us from that awful burnt-out feeling we often have at the end of a day of relentless shuttling between things. Buffering helps to carve out the space we need to regain our energy and our focus. 

Focus and simplicity

We instinctively know that mental focus is a powerful tool. And it’s more than just efficient. Aspiring to attain a state of flow can be professionally valuable and personally satisfying. Apple’s Steve Jobs went on record as saying that one of his mantras in life was “focus and simplicity”. But he also acknowledged that they can be hard to achieve. 

“You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” he said. “But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” 

Most of us living in today’s attention economy – that Jobs helped to create – know exactly what he meant. 

 

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