Q: I get distracted easily, whether it’s my co-worker chatting with me or an interesting Facebook post. How can I improve my focus?
A: Have you ever attended an NBA game? In the final minutes of close games, the losing team usually resorts to a strategy of intentionally fouling the other team. When a player is fouled, the game clock is stopped to allow the fouled player to attempt free throws. The fans do anything they can to break the shooter’s concentration—they yell, wave towels, and jump up and down. To be successful, the shooter has to block this mayhem from his mind and fixate on the basket.
The most focused NBA players make 90 percent of their free throws; the least focused make less than 50 percent. To succeed in basketball and in all areas of life, you have to keep your eye on the goal, which requires a method for coping with distractions.
Focus doesn’t come naturally for most people. It’s a skill that must be learned, polished and practiced. There is a process you can follow to acquire it as a skill:
- Become aware of the need to improve your focusing skills.
- Make a conscious decision to invest the time and energy needed to improve.
- Practice and train your mind to concentrate.
- Implement your new skills and make them routine.
The first step toward improving is becoming aware of your level of focus.
Jon, a mechanical engineer who attends my church, works in the oil and gas industry. He is an expert in designing heat exchangers, which are expensive, custom-built pieces of equipment. The design of these contraptions is a complex process.
He sifts through roughly 400 pieces of information to build a machine that—if improperly constructed—could cause tremendous negative financial impact. The process requires attention to detail. Although he’s been trained to perform this process and he consistently produces good designs, he told me he initially found it overwhelming because he couldn’t concentrate. While designing the machinery, Jon was constantly barraged by colleagues, phone calls, emails and package deliveries.
He could not perform his job well, which would impact his career path, financial gain and overall satisfaction. He needed to change, and he knew it.
To start improving, you must conduct an inventory of what you believe about your ability to concentrate. To help Jon better understand the strategic nature of focus, I urged him to ask himself the following questions:
How well do you focus throughout the day?
How many minutes a day do you lose because of distractions?
Getting to the bottom of these issues is the first step you must take to discover the strategic nature of focus.
Most people don’t think of focus as a strategic skill, so they haven’t spent much time examining how good they are at it. When you don’t treat it as a strategic issue, minimizing its importance is easy. Soon you’re ignoring it altogether.
Your ability to concentrate is related to how well you avoid and eliminate distractions.
People who lack intense focus approach it as a time-management issue or an organizational challenge. But it’s neither. Your ability to concentrate is related to how well you avoid and eliminate distractions. You become distracted whenever you allow something to enter your mind that takes you away from your tasks. Don’t worry—it’s natural to get distracted. Your ability to overcome disruptions depends on your ability to think in ways that will counteract what comes so naturally. It’s about establishing priorities. To do that effectively, you have to be able to control the distractions that bombard your mind.
How well do you focus? Only one objective standard can measure your ability in this area, and that standard involves the ability to consistently complete predetermined objectives on time. People who are consistently late for meetings and in finishing tasks have a focus deficiency. I’m not saying you will never experience times when you have more on your plate than you can handle; I’m talking about when those conditions are a way of life. Some people are always harried and behind on work.
To help you determine exactly how well you fixate on the important things, I challenge you to keep a journal for two weeks. All you need to do is keep a daily log of your activities. Write down your priorities and the specific things you intend to finish each day. Then keep an activity log of all that happens to you during the day. Be particularly mindful to log each distraction you experience and the amount of time you invested in the distraction. If you keep this log faithfully for two weeks, you will have a clearer picture of your daily focus and how you can improve.
When you complete your journal, look at how many minutes of each day you lost to distractions. Take a closer look at the priorities you established and the specific things you intended to finish each day. Make a list of the priorities and tasks you did not complete on the day in question, and then ask yourself what caused you to not complete the work you prioritized. The answers to those questions are your primary distractions.
Regardless of how legitimate they look, if they hindered your ability to finish work, they were distractions. You should now have enough information to understand how much you need to improve. Your journal will expose your focus challenge, and you should be able to commit to improving your skills.