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How to Maintain a Razor Sharp Focus

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This post is part of a series called Build Your Own Productivity System .
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The Internet, according to journalist Nicolas Carr, is re-shaping our minds and destroying our attention spans. In Carr's seminal 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (it even has its own Wikipedia entry) he explains how the Internet is "scatter[ing] our attention and diffus[ing] our concentration." Carr quotes medical blogger Bruce Friedman, who says:

I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.

Research backs up this claim. A study by web usability consultant Jakob Neilsen found that the longer a web page is, the more people skim it. Even on pages with just 100 words, the average reader reads only half of those words.

Meanwhile the BBC reports a study from 2002 claiming web browsing can reduce attention spans to as little as nine seconds. The same article cites psychiatrist Pam Briggs, who claims that email can cause just as many attention problems as web browsing. Briggs states:

E-mails are very seductive. You can't leave them alone when your computer beeps to tell you have a new message, even though you are working on quite an important task.

An attention span of nine seconds might have seemed short in 2002, but it's become the norm. Nowadays, the average attention span of a human being is just 8 seconds, which by some accounts is less than that of a goldfish.

Compare current attention spans to the beginning of the century, when the average person had an attention span of 20 minutesone minute for each year of their life until they hit age 20.

Since Carr's article and these attention studies were written, the Internet has arguably got even more distracting. Email and endless surfing are no longer the only temptations. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest are all shiny gold coins to our magpie minds.

This is all very well. But does it really have a detrimental affect on our workflow? Don't the efficiencies of the Internet mean we get more done in less time, so it evens out?

In 2004, social computing professor Gloria Mark investigated the effect of constant interruptions on workflow. She'd noticed how "trying to do 30 things at once" negatively impacted her productivity, and she wanted to discover if it was the same for other people.

She convinced two high-tech firms to let her team into their offices. With her team, Mark watched how employees worked. In particular, she and her team took note of how interruptions impacted workflow.

The results, in Mark's words, were "far worse than [she] could ever have imagined."

On average, office workers in the study spent 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted. Following an interruption, it took them an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. That means they were spending more than twice as much time being distracted by interruptions than actually getting on with work.

What does that mean for you and me? The "two minutes" we allow ourselves to log into Facebook or check our emails is never only two minutes. Whenever you give into a distraction, you're allowing your workflow to veer off course.

Our lives are immersed in constant distraction. For many of us, being distracted has become integral to our lifestyles. We can't imagine ignoring email alerts or social media updates as soon as we receive them.

Is there any hope?

The good news, paying attention is a skill. It's a learned behavior. We know that because attention spans used to be so much longer. Learning to pay attention will mean "re-wiring" the network of neurons in your brain, and it will take dedicated practice. But it can be done.

Let's look at a technique you can use to win back your attention span. It's time to get back above goldfish in the attention span league.

What Do Tomatoes and Betting Have to Do With Focus?

To find the answer to winning back your attention span, we need to return to the 1980s, before the Internet became mainstream.

In the late '80's, Italian student Francesco Cirillo hit a slump. He'd made it through his first year examsand was elated to have passed. But since then, he'd lost all motivation to study. He felt confused about what was happening to him, and he became determined to do something about it.

I made a bet with myself, as helpful as it was humiliating: 'Can you studyreally studyfor 10 minutes?'

He took a tomato-shaped timer from his kitchen. He set it for ten minutes. And for that ten minutes, he aimed to study without giving in to a single distraction.

The experiment failed. Cirillo couldn't do it. But he was determined to win the bet. He tried again and again, until eventually he could keep going until the timer buzzed.

With that the Pomodoro Technique was born. Cirillo named the technique after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he usedas "Pomodoro" is Italian for tomato.

Following the success of winning his bet against himself, Cirillo refined and developed the Pomodoro Technique. He has since taught the technique around the world, and has found that it helps users to:

  • Reduce anxiety over procrastination and wasted time.
  • Improve focus and concentration.
  • Reduce interruptions.
  • Boost and maintain motivation.
  • Stay on track to achieve important goals.

Let's look at how you can incorporate the Pomodoro technique into your working day.

Step 1: Plan Your Tasks

Before you can implement the Pomodoro technique, you first need a task list. On this list you should include:

  • The things you need to do today.
  • Space for unplanned and urgent tasks. Here, you can note these tasks down as they arise.

Tasks should be listed in order of importance. To help you list tasks in order of importance, you may like to read through our previous tutorial on the Eisenhower Matrix.

Beside each task you can also list how many Pomodoros you believe each task will take. As you practice the Pomodoro technique, you will get better at making accurate estimates. To begin with, you can leave this section blank if you'd prefer.

Step 2: Set Your Timer

Once you've completed your task list, you're ready to start work for the day. Before you do that, you need to set a timer. Pomodoro Technique guidelines suggest setting it for 25 minutes, but when you're starting out you can opt for a shorter time period.

The length of time you set your timer for is known as one Pomodoro.

Note: You may wish to begin your day by setting the timer and completing your task list during the first Pomodoro.

Step 3: Work on the Task

As soon as the timer starts, begin work on the first task on your to do list. During this Pomodoro, maintain complete focus on the task. Don't stop to check Facebook, Twitter or email. If the phone rings, leave it for the answering machine to pick up. Emergencies aside, you shouldn't break your Pomodoro for any reason. As Cirillo puts it:

A Pomodoro can’t be split up; there is no such thing as half of a Pomodoro or a quarter of a Pomodoro.

Once the timer rings, you must stop working. You may be in the flow of a task and feel tempted to carry on. Don't give into this temptation! Stepping away from an incomplete task will make it easier to re-enter the task when you return for your next Pomodoro.

Step 4: Track Your Progress

When the timer buzzes, stop the buzzing, then immediately put an X next to the task in your task list. This shows you have devoted one Pomodoro to the task. With each Pomodoro you spend working on the task, you will add an X. Tracking your time in this way gives you a sense of accomplishment, and helps you get better at estimating how long tasks will take.

Step 5: Take a Short Break

Have a rest. You've earned it! At this point, limit your break to between three and five minutes. You can take a longer break later.

During this break you should avoid any temptation you feel to start another work task. As Cirillo puts it:

For example, don’t start talking about work-related issues with a colleague; don’t write important emails or make imperative phone calls, etc. Doing these kinds of things would block the constructive mental integration that you need in order to feel alert and ready for the start of the next Pomodoro.

Instead, use the break as an opportunity to relax. Let go of what you were working on during the previous Pomodoro. You might like to:

  • stretch
  • drink a glass of water
  • breathe deeply
  • think about your plans for the evening or weekend
  • joke or chat informally with a colleague

Step 5: Set Your Timer Again

After your break is done, you're ready to return to work. Set the timer for your next Pomodoro.

If you've decided to opt for a Pomodoro of less than 25 minutes, keep all your Pomodoro's the same length.

As soon as the timer starts, get to work! When you're done, remember to mark down the Pomodoro with an X on your task sheet.

Step 6: Take a Longer Break

Every four Pomodoros, take a longer break of up to 30 minutes. In this time, you can make yourself a coffee, check your emails and voice mail, catch up with your work colleagues about work related issues, or just take time to relax.

As with the shorter breaks, avoid thinking about the work you've been doing during the break.

After this break, go back to work for another sequence of four Pomodoros.

Bonus Pomodoro Tips

That's the Pomodoro Technique in a nutshell. Follow the steps above, and you'll be amazed at the productivity boost you see in yourself.

As you practice the Pomodoro Technique, you'll develop your ability to stay focused.

If you find yourself struggling through Pomodoros, bear in mind the following:

First, prepare for distractions. These can be internal distractionssuch as remembering a task you should have completed last week, or external distractions such as a phone call or a query from a work colleague.

Internal distractions are easy to tackle. Whenever an internal distraction arises, write it down on your task list, in the space you left for unplanned and urgent tasks. At the end of the Pomodoro, you can evaluate the urgency and importance of the task, and decide whether it really needs to be on your task list.

Dealing with external distractions involves training yourself and those who work around you to communicate at appropriate times of the day. If a colleague disturbs you during a Pomodoro, politely let them know you're busy, and tell them when you'll be available. The best time to catch up is when you'll have a 30 minute break between a series of Pomodoros. Those who work with you will quickly get used to not interrupting you while your timer is running. Cirillo explains:

With practice, you’ll come to realize how often apparently urgent activities can even be postponed till the following day while still satisfying the person making the request.

Second, don't beat yourself up if you struggle or fail. Even the founder of Pomodoro couldn't stay focused for a full ten minutes to begin with. As you practiceover time you'll increase your attention span. If a Pomodoro goes wrong, just have a five minute break, take a deep breath, reset the timer, and start again. You can do it!

Why not try out a Pomodoro now? Download the Pomodoro Tracking Sheet to get started. Let us know how you get on in the comments.

Other Tips to Boost Your Focus

Still struggling to keep your focus in check, despite using Pomodoros? Then you can try the following:

  • Meditate. Meditation is essentially the practice of focused attention. It's the perfect training ground for teaching your mind to stay focused. As a bonus, it has numerous health benefits. Could you spare ten minutes a day to sit in silence?
  • Block the Internet. I use the free SelfControl app to stay focused while working on my Mac. Windows users can use SelfRestraint, which is also free.
  • Try chunking time differently. Are 25 minute Pomodoros too short for you? How about challenging yourself to a 90 minute period of intense focus? Or you could try the 40-on 20-off approach - 40 minutes of focused work, followed by a 20 minute break.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Razor Blade designed by Jonathan Higley from the Noun Project.

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