Learn to Focus to Stand Apart from the Crowd

One of the best ways to ensure your continued relevance and even enhanced prestige in anything is to be able to do something that most people can't do. I think it's a good habit to periodically look around yourself to see what skills seem to be in demand that many people are lacking. The most glaringly obvious one to me right now is the ability to truly and deeply focus on one thing. This skill, and that's what it is, a skill, seems to be fading from the personal arsenals of many people I know. I think it largely stems from a lack of adaptation as our world changes under the weight of incredible technological advancements.

The new norm is to multitask when working at the computer. The constant chime of notifications follow us from desktop to commute to personal time away from work as our phones, tablets, and computers become more mobile and ubiquitous. There's nothing inherently bad about information and there are plenty of reasons you may want to be constantly connected. I'm simply arguing that this reality is resulting in fewer and fewer people who can shut out these distractions and truly focus on something for a sustained period of time.

This starts to become important when you realize how much of the truly great work that exists from history and today relies on the ability to focus. Without focus we are constantly flitting across the surface of ideas and concepts -- never diving deep enough to figure out how they are, or may be, connected. Deep insight requires deep focus. Large projects with complex parts require us to shut out the world long enough to interact with information and ideas at a level that can only be reached with sustained focus.

Focus requires effort and it's incredibly difficult. It's easier to be distracted. It's easier to live and work on a more superficial level where the constant tug of distraction is a welcome respite from the hard work of thinking long and deep about challenging things. Luckily, there are two forces working in your favor if you choose to develop this ability. First, because it's so difficult there are less people willing to put in the hard work to get good at it -- making you more valuable and rare. Second, as you may have noticed from my choice of verbs a couple sentences ago, the ability to focus is something you can develop. It's something you can get better at with practice.

I've been spending the better part of the past few years trying to do exactly that. It's a long process and often results in frustration with how slowly I'm making progress. But like anything worth doing, the difficulty is justified.

Meditation and the development of mindfulness is always cited as a great way to develop the ability to focus, and I won't argue with that. My meditation practice, when I'm doing it consistently, is incredibly valuable. However, I think there are other ways you can train yourself to focus better so I'd rather share some of those lesser talked about ways:

  1. Listen to an album in complete solitude.
  2. Watch a movie with full concentration.
  3. Work with a paper and pen.
  4. Read with nothing but the content in front of you.
  5. Wash dishes by hand and in silence.
  6. Run without audio stimulation

Boring? Maybe. Do you have to do these things like this every single time? Of course not. If you don't normally listen, read, watch, or run like this, though, you'll quickly find that it can be very difficult to do these things with full focus. And that's the point. Try picking one of these things to do each week and take notice of what the experience is like. Build up your tolerance for focus over time by slowly adding additional time or activities to your "focus regimen."

You will be one of very few people who knows how to cut through the discord of distractions to bring your mental abilities fully to bear on tough problems. Kind of like when a professional body builder shows up at an average gym, you will be on a different level than most people -- and you will be noticed. Over time you can develop the reputation as the person who works with such deep focus that you can fly through work in half the time as most people and the solutions you come up with are deeper and creative than those who never learned to focus can develop.

It can be hard to predict what specific skills you'll need in the future but it's an incredibly safe bet to think the ability to focus will be at the center of any great work.

Photo by Sylvain Courant