The Secret to Beating Anyone at Anything
Focus is the act of putting all of your attention and concentration towards a single act. It’s staying away from distractions like email and Twitter to finally get some real work done. It’s doing the hard work and putting your all into it. Focus is a cycle of abundance which takes less time than your normal, easy routine. Focusing leaves you with more time to recuperate your energy, which ultimately allows you to focus harder tomorrow.
When assessing your progress on producing things of real value (the best path to building a rewarding and well-rewarded life), consider your own capacity for hard focus. Most important accomplishments boil down to this single, often overlooked ability.
This quote is from Cal Newport, who believes that the ability to sustain focus for long periods of time is the key to success.
Let’s say you and your best friend run against one another. Your best friend runs for three hours a day, listening to his pumping workout music and looking on as the sun sets under the ocean. You, however, simply run in your neighborhood for an hour every day. But you’re different. You’re not the staring at the sights or the people, you’re focusing on your running form and your breathing, every single day. After a month, who do you think will be the better runner? You will, because you were focusing.
Anyone can “work” for five hours. But, if you’re capable of really working on meaningful and important tasks, then you’re going somewhere.
It’s so much easier to allow your brain to drift off into the scenery or the blend of noises in the environment, maybe even dreaming about how your life will be when you’re rich and famous. Maybe you’re letting yourself get into the flow. “I understand this work, I am good at this work, and I’m not challenged at all.” This flow is seen as a sign of mastery and the key to workplace happiness. Being in the state of flow, however, doesn’t make you any better at what you’re doing. There is no progress when your brain isn’t being strained and pulled in directions it doesn’t feel comfortable moving towards.
But this strain and discomfort is what drives progress. This brain strain is called deliberate practice. It’s fast (in the long-term), hard, and not the most natural reaction to work. You will burn out very quickly when you start, but this is how the best students, creatives, and athletes are made. It’s not too late to get started, and it isn’t so hard to do so.
How to Focus
Although focus can mean taking less classes or working on a fewer number of projects, this kind of focus isn’t going to help you with excelling and being more efficient about your work . What is going to help you is something I like to call the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique.
If you don’t know, the Pomodoro Technique is a time-management tool. You essentially write down a task list, estimate how many pomodoros (or 25-minute segments) it will take to finish these tasks, work for those 25 minutes at a time, take a short rest, and continue. It’s really, really good…if all you’re doing is vacuuming or digging a hole in the ground.
For those of us with deep, hard work to do, the Pomodoro Technique has its flaws. My use as a student who has new and different work every day caused me to hugely underestimate the amount of time certain tasks take, and overestimate others. Along with that, the timer stops at abrupt moments, in which you may be in the middle of a deep thought. After your five-minute break, time is wasted trying to recuperate and realign whatever you were working on. Speaking of breaks, five minutes is a very frantic margin to be relaxed and ready to work again.
The problem with the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s not flexible enough to accommodate the varied tasks and work that individuals have to accomplish.
That’s where the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique comes in.
Rules of the Task-Based Pomodoro Technique:
- Start with a pre-work ritual. Make sure this gets you feeling relaxed, ready, and pumped for work. This must include writing down your task list (more on that below). I start by writing down my tasks and preparing my environment for the stretch of work I will be doing. Then, I take a 20-minute nap, and when I wake up, my mind is cleared and energized, and I’m ready to start work.
- Write down a very limited task list. Choose 5-7 specific tasks you want to get done that day. Nothing can be open-ended (eg. Write novel). If you do need to do a long-term project, break it up into specific tasks with specific goals to reach that day. I use 3×5 index cards for this, simply because there’s a bottom to the page and it’s durable enough to carry around.
- Divide your tasks into “pomodoros.” Think about and skim over what you have to do in this specific task. Estimate comfortable stopping points that never leave your brain too tired to go on, or too energized to recuperate properly. Remember, if a task looks long, but not hard, you should be fitting more of that into one pomodoro. We’re focusing on quality of energy, not quantity of time.
- Work and rest accordingly. More than your hard work, the way you rest and recover is much more important. Don’t do anything that requires cognitive ability (eg. replying to email) or anything that sucks you in for hours (eg. Twitter, Facebook). Go for a little walk, meditate, or relax in your seat and listen to a song of your choice. Do what works for you, but make sure it doesn’t take more than 5-10 minutes. After a couple of these breaks, feel free to take a longer break. A nap, a chat, or a bit of exercise are all great ways to spend this extended break.
- When you’re done, you’re done. After your task list is complete, that’s it. No matter what time it is, you are not allowed to work anymore. This doesn’t mean you still can’t be productive, it just means that your hard, deep tasks are done for the day. Make a list of productive, yet non-work-related activities you can do in your downtime. Reading’s my #1 choice.
This is focus. It’s going to be hard at first, but as you get more skilled at it through daily practice, the deep work you find excruciating today will turn into a breeze a year from now. It’s a struggle, but in some time, you’ll find yourself being way more productive, yet having more free time than you did before. You can make up your own system or use mine, as long as your system involves deep, hard, and straining focus that’s constantly pushing you towards progress.
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