7 Ways to Maintain Focus by Totally Fracturing It
I’ve taken enough cult-fitness classes to know that “focus your attention” can be used to motivate you to do just about anything. (Have you taken the one where you do aerobics on top of a vibrating plate? It’s called PlateFit.)
But focus is easier mantra’ed than done.
Focus very well may be the entire crux of human productivity. (Have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport? I haven’t, but everyone always references it.) But no, focusing is not easy. (Do you think Adele’s “Easy on Me” is still as good now as it was that first week it debuted? I’m a little like, “Eh, it’s not hitting the same.”)
What I was trying to say is that focus is so difficult that I’ve come to admit that it’s not meant to be achieved. Rather, in order to stay productive, nimble, generative, and all the things caffeine wants us to be… I recommend developing habits that intentionally fracture your focus.
I should own up to the fact that my job is not like all jobs. I’m a freelance writer. This means that my entire thesis is contingent on the fact that I’m paid for creative work and can do the majority of it behind a computer. It is very well possible that de-focusing works better in my context than in someone else’s. (Have you ever watched a chocolatier as they swirl intricate designs into their semi-sweet bark? They should probably focus on focusing. Oh, and trapeze artists.)
Anyway, here are some strategies I recommend to achieve the split focus thing.
1. Read two books at the same time.
Starting simply — juggle two books at once! The philosophy for me stems out of a tendency to become bored with books, especially when they take longer than a few weeks to read. The momentum of a second book, running parallel, inspires me to check back in with the first book more excitedly.
If you worry that it will be hard to keep track of two plots simultaneously, consider two things: 1. You never remember every element of every book anyway. 2. If the stories blend together, isn’t the overall takeaway one closer to that of the actual human condition in which a storm of experiences swirl around you at all times?
Really makes you think.
P.S. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading two books of similar themes — one fiction and one non-fiction. Not only does this strategy help me get through both, but it enlivens the reading and provides tons of extra context. I most recently did this with The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller and The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. It was a wild ride of psychoanalyzing and texting apologies to my mom.
2. Sever your day with project management.
This one’s easy: Split up your day into small blocks, and pair unlike projects next to each other.
My writing partner and I, for example, make a point of rewarding ourselves with project management every time we complete a creative task. (Depending on the nature of your job and the chemicals in your brain, of course, you can do it vice-a-versa).
We prefer to do this rather than fully isolate time to upkeep our schedules. Switching things up inherently breaks our creative flow, but it allows us to see stop signs ahead, which compels us to finish our thoughts. Left with too many broad and long time blocks, we might not feel the urgency to get work done.
3. Split your hardware.
This means two laptops. (I’m sorry). At least for me this means two laptops. I lucked out to have a primary client in a sensitive space (healthcare, it’s healthcare), so they require that I do work on their company laptop. I do everything else on my own.
The benefit I’ve found from working in two different computers is the formal stop-and-start process. You quite tangibly have to close one project to open another. By doing this, you are able to “stow” attention away, and trust that you’ll reunite when you are ready to do so. You break your attention, yes, but you’re also more attentive to each project when you’re in there.
Splitting your hardware does *NOT* mean you need to buy two laptops. Most computers have multi-desktop functionality that might achieve the same effect. Try logging into one account and logging into a completely different one when you need to switch projects.
You can also think of splitting your hardware in even simpler ways. Try exclusively using your phone for some projects. Or require that you only do a certain task when you are able to be connected to a large monitor. However you approach this system, consider ways you can physically interact with intellectual work.
4. Relocation. Relocation. Relocation.
Where you work defines how you approach your work. If you want things to feel new, make them feel new.
What I’ve found most impressive about relocation is how it can help you to compartmentalize. I don’t know how many times I’ve been scared of an email that felt entirely innocuous once I read it under new overhead lighting. Relocating helps you to avoid catastrophizing and tunneling. You’re reminded that no matter your work, the context of it always pales in comparison to the greater world around you.
When the going gets tough, the tough go to a coffee shop.
5. Copy and paste.
Focusing solely on the information in front of you only goes so far as your blood sugar allows. Sometimes it’s necessary to dance with a doc.
What I mean by “copy and paste” (and “dance” apparently?) is to intentionally fiddle with your own focus by dragging and dropping your work from one digital environment into another. For me, this often means taking information from a .PDF brief and recontextualizing it into a Google Doc. At first glance, the move is entirely meaningless and easily perceived as simple procrastination. But the remixing of information helps it to feel more palatable and deeply known. It relieves me of the intimidation that comes from the first impression of an assignment.
Depending on your work, you can adopt this philosophy in many ways. You can transcribe by hand something you read printed. You can take data from a spreadsheet and drop it into Photoshop. You can read half of a book on the page and the other half via audio!
Consuming information repeated in multiple contexts helps me to better decipher the essence of things. It… dare I say… helps me to focus.
6. Go to sleep.
Writer Johann Hari recently published an all-encompassing prescription for our universal “attention crisis” in his new book, Stolen Focus. (I have not read it, but it’s centimeters from my shopping cart!). In an interview with the New York Times, Hari says he prioritizes sleep as part of his focus-fixing regimen. It’s a pretty rudimentary way of avoiding the tech that he says inherently jumbles our ability to maintain attention. (Sad that it’s come to this, but we need 8 hours off from the phone!)
For my blog post (this thing you’re reading), “go to sleep” means bow out whenever you feel yourself squinting too hard. It means separating yourself from the work at the moments the work feels hazy. I rarely achieve focus through exhaustion. Rather, recuperation gives me the energy I need to return to work and get stuff done.
7. Never leave something complete.
This is my favorite, although I cannot claim responsibility for it. I learned it from a college professor. She said that the hardest way to rise back to work is to know that it reached a stopping point. Finding the invigoration to restart and refocus can feel so challenging, you might never get back to the work. She recommends breaking for lunch just inches (or words!) before that stopping point.
That way, when you return to your desk, you know just where to—
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