My husband Scott keeps trying to get me to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy with him. If you’re listening and you’re a huge fan – I’m sorry, I’m just not interested. I had to read JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit back in 6th grade, and I couldn’t get into it then, and I just don’t see being into The Lord of the Rings now.
But – there is a quote from The Fellowship of the Ring, one of the books in the trilogy, that has emblazoned many an Instagram bio, graphic tee and Pinterest image. You’ve probably heard it before without realizing where it came from:
Not all those who wander are lost.
It’s part of a much longer poem within the book, but When I heard that line – Not all those who wander are lost – it makes me think of mountain ranges, road trips, camping and wide brim hats. It makes me think of adventure in the great wide open.
But what about when your mind wanders? When you get distracted and lose your train of thought. Wait… what was I just doing? When your mind wanders… when you really need to be focusing on something else – getting work done against a deadline, reading an important report, researching for a client, when you need to focus – it’s not exactly all fun and adventure, right?
In Episode 84, we’re talking about focus, and how to get better at it. Yes – it really is possible.
Some mind wandering is GOOD
Now Don’t get me wrong – I am all for letting your mind wander whenever you’re sparking your creativity, you’re brainstorming or you’re in problem solving mode. That’s actually a pretty important part of the creative process. What I’m talking about here in this episode is not being able to stay focused when you really need to stay focused.
So today, we’re talking about
Focus – and how to get better at it
What it means to be intentional and deliberate
How you can increase your ability to focus for longer periods of time
And Three simple exercises you can start doing today to flex your focus and strengthen your attention muscle
Chances are your mind wanders much more than you realize. In fact, a Harvard study found that we spend 47% of our waking hours daydreaming – aka not focusing on the thing right in front of your face.
So – if you’re like most people, you only bring 53% of your attention to the table at any given moment.
And the less of your attention you bring to a task – whether that’s Deep Work like, say grant writing, drafting a contract, writing a lesson plan or creating an event line-by-line, or Shallow Work like addressing an envelope or scheduling social media posts – the less of your attention you bring to a task, the MORE time it takes to complete it.
In other words – when you aren’t giving as much of your attention to something as possible, you’re just not being efficient – and wasted time leads to missed opportunities. And those missed opportunities could look like less intentional time spent with friends and family or doing those things that matter most to you.
If there’s one thing that I hope you’ve learned as you’ve listened to It’s About Time, it’s that Time Management and Productivity are not about doing more, faster – for the sake of doing more. Instead, it’s about doing the right things, deliberately and with intention.
Deliberately and with Intention
Let’s look at that last piece a little closer – “deliberately and with intention.”
When you’re deliberate – you focus on the task in front of you, giving as much of your attention as possible – and therefore being as efficient as possible.
Being intentional starts with knowing what matters most – your vision for the future, your goals for how you’ll achieve that vision, and your priorities that drive your everyday activities.
Part of being deliberate with intention involves managing distractions – things like making sure your environment is clear of physical clutter, so you aren’t adding to your mental clutter, or using the Shiny Things method to capture things that pop up to interrupt us while we’re trying to focus.
In Episode 44 – Multitasking is a Lie! 5 Strategies for Being More Focused Than Ever, you can pick up 5 new strategies for staying focused, including the Shiny Things method I just mentioned.
But even if you’re a pro at stopping distractions and interruptions in their tracks we still struggle with staying focused…
So how can we truly become more deliberate, despite our natural tendency to give less than half of our attention to what’s in front of us at any given moment?
Strengthen Your Attention Muscle
That, my friends, comes from strengthening your attention muscle. Aka – training your brain to focus. And just like six pack abs don’t just happen after one trip to the gym, strengthening your attention muscle takes time – it’s a long game – but it’s oh so worth it.
So consider me your Productivity Personal Trainer with three Attention Muscle Exercises you can start doing this week:
Exercise 01: Monotask
Exercise 1. Do just one thing. Single task. Or Monotask.
Now if you’re raising your eyebrows at me, because that sounds way too simple to actually be effective, hear me out.
Doing just one thing is easier said than done.
On average, the American knowledge worker – that’s anyone who spends time behind a computer screen – the American knowledge worker is hit with a distraction every 40 seconds. Plus our brains desperately want to multitask because it locks us in a dopamine feedback loop that feels productive.
Skip hopping around from one thing to the next makes our brains HAPPY but it doesn’t help us actually get things done. Crazy, right?
So how do we get out of the skip hopping distraction loop and do just one thing at a time?
First. Start small. Very small.
Grab a timer – a simple kitchen timer is best, because picking up your phone to use your timer app is too tempting. Seriously – anytime I try to use my phone timer I end up checking my email or instagram or something without even thinking about it. Here’s the little cube timer that I like to use. So grab a timer and set it for 10 minutes. Then challenge yourself to single-task, or monotask – by doing just ONE thing for those 10 minutes.
Anytime you feel your mind start to wander or you catch yourself switching over to something else, stop and go back to the original task in front of you.
So if you decide, for 10 minutes, I’m going to write this blog post and do nothing else. And then you catch yourself switching over to check your bank account. Just X out of Capital One, and go back to writing. No big deal. If checking your bank account is really important, write a note to yourself on a notepad, get it out of your head and refocus on the blog post.
The Good News
Here’s the good news:
Research shows that when you repeatedly make a conscious effort to refocus on your work after your mind wanders, over time, you heighten your executive control – the thinking and planning part of your brain that lives in your prefrontal cortex.
Every time you refocus – you reinforce the habit, which gradually becomes stronger over time. You’re literally strengthening your focus muscle.
But just like you wouldn’t walk into a gym on day 1 and expect yourself to immediately start squatting 300 pounds, don’t expect yourself to be able to successfully monotask for an hour on your first try.
Instead, start with 10 minutes and take a break. If that goes well, consider upping it to 15, and take a break. Continue adding a little bit more time to your focus sessions day by day.
If you’re working longterm to increase your focus – here’s your end goal. 3 90 minute sessions a day. Scientific research shows that our max capacity for focus is limited to 3 sessions of 90 minutes. Anything more than that and the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in, and we’re actually less productive.
And keep in mind – going from using 53% of your attention to 90 or 100% of it isn’t going to happen after just one 10-minute monotasking session. It takes time and practice, just like building that six pack at the gym.
So that was exercise #1: Monotask.
Exercise 02: Mindful Mealtime
Exercise 2 is to have a mindful mealtime.
Mindfulness is the practice of doing one thing deliberately. Monotasking. just like we practiced in the last exercise. But when’s the last time you ate a meal solo without glancing at your phone or having your laptop open? Here’s your challenge: For your next meal – or one meal in the next few days, sit down, set a timer for a few minutes, 5, 7, 10, whatever. Eat your lunch and focus on each bite. The flavors. The textures. Your fork. Your drink. And anytime you feel your mind begin to wander – bring it right back to eating. And if doing this during lunch feels daunting, try it with a snack.
You’ll likely be surprised by two things. First: How frequently your mind wanders, and second: how delicious food can be when you slow down enough to really enjoy it.
You can actually take any activity – like folding laundry, washing dishes, brushing your teeth – and do the same thing. Focus on just that activity, and bring yourself back to the task at hand whenever you feel your mind begin to wander.
Exercise 03: Meditate
Now, our third exercise is this: Meditate.
Mindfulness and meditation are two sides of the same coin. While mindfulness is something you practice as you do something else, meditation is something you do by itself. They have the same amazing benefits.
And this is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of my favorite benefits include
Increased focus, less mind-wandering, reduced cortisol levels – aka your body’s stress hormone, leading to less stress, and more calm.
Meditation helps your brain age more slowly and can boost your test scores. I’m looking at you grad schoolers. If you lead a team – the more mindful YOU are, the higher your team performs. That’s a serious win-win.
And those are just a few of the many benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
So – to practice meditation – and there are so many resources you can find online and in books, but here’s a super simple explanation to get you started.
How to Meditate (a non-comprehensive guide)
First. Find somewhere you won’t be distracted. Set expectations with others around you if you need to. Our house is typically bonkers on weekends, but occasionally I’ll ask Scott to take over so I can slip away and have some uninterrupted quiet time for a few minutes.
Second. Once you’ve found your spot, sit upright. In a chair, on the floor, in your closet – wherever. You should feel relaxed, but alert. Sit up straight, but not overly rigid.
Third. Close your eyes – or don’t. Whatever helps you feel more alert and focused.Step 4. Set a timer – or use a meditation app like Headspace or Calm. Start with 5 minutes and see how it feels. Again – anytime a timer is involved, I try to stay away from using my iPhone because there are so many distractions ready to pounce every time I pick up my phone.
Step 5. Once you start your timer, focus on your breath. Don’t try to control it, or analyze it, just notice it.
And finally – here’s the most important part: Whenever your mind begins to wander – and it most definitely will, bring your attention back to your breath. And repeat. Whenever your mind wanders, don’t judge yourself, or be hard on yourself, just acknowledge it and go back to your breath.
And that’s it. That’s meditation in a nutshell. The third exercise in your personal training plan for strengthening your attention muscle. And – don’t think for one second that I’m claiming to be an expert on meditation or that it’s something that I, myself, do daily.
I’ve cultivated a meditation practice at different times in my life, and actually had a pretty good morning meditation habit in place before Millie was born – which was January of 2019. I’ve meditated here and there since, but nothing long term or continuous. Maybe this is episode is just the boost I need to restart the habit and reap the benefits of continuing to strengthen my focus muscle.
Most of us are only bringing about half of our focus to any given thing in front of us. Fortunately, it’s possible to strengthen your attention muscle and train your brain, but it’s a long game. Three exercises to strengthen your attention muscle include Monotasking, or single-tasking while you work, having a Mindful Meal – or Mindful Laundry Folding or whatever you decide to try, and Meditation.
Overtime, regular attention workouts with Monotasking, Mindfulness and Meditation will have you bringing more focus than ever before to your work. And when you bring your best focus to your most important work, that you’re doing at the best time – well – that’s a recipe for true productivity and the ability to create more space for spending time on what matters most.
Your Challenge – Should You Choose to Accept It:
Before we go – I want to challenge you to take one of these three workouts – monotasking, mindfulness or meditation and test drive it in the next week.
Strengthening your attention muscle takes time, but you have to start somewhere. Today can be your day 1.
LINKS & RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE