Forget Sunscreen….Focus

Matt McCormick


Focus. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, focus would be it.

In the next 20 years, we are going to face an extreme shortage of people who are able to focus single-mindedly on what they are doing. Children growing up these days face an onslaught of distractions thanks to news feeds and smartphones and it is only going to get worse.

Why is this a problem?

People cannot multi-task well. I know there will be many people who say they can, but they can’t - at least not on a task that requires concentration and focus. If you think multi-tasking is fine, answer me this: if you were going into surgery and saw your surgeon preparing while checking his mobile phone messages and watching TV, would you feel comfortable?

The ability to focus is a habit that can be trained or drained. Growing up in a distraction-oriented world, this will be a problem because the best work gets done when someone is focused on what they are doing.

When programming, my best days are when I don’t even check email until the end of the day. I have my tasks laid out and just start on them. When I need a break, I take a break but focus solely on the break during that time. Then when I am refreshed, I get back to work and focus just on the work. Days like these are bliss. I finish work feeling energized and enthusiastic.

The worst days are days I usually check email first thing in the morning. Immediately the distractions start. And even though I may check email only for a few minutes, it can throw me off for the rest of the day. On these days, I finish work feeling drained of energy and wondering what I got done.

My first full-time job after university was at a large, bureaucratic organization. As part of their IT policies, they blocked access to “time-wasting” sites like Gmail and Facebook. At the time, I thought this was a horrible, Orwellian thing to do. By restricting access, they were treating employees like children instead of trusting people to get their work done.

Now, I realise there is some benefit to this course of action (although it is better for people to figure it out for themselves - you can’t block every non-work essential website).

How to focus

What is focus? Focus is setting limits on yourself. In today’s world where most North Americans are in debt, setting limits is something that very few people do. The average person might even be annoyed at just the idea of setting a limit on themselves. Most people don’t even limit their spending to the income that they earn. After all, it benefits others when you don’t set limits on yourself. I hear advertisements all the time saying things like “Buy this. You deserve it.” I never hear an ad saying “Buy this if you have the money saved and can afford it.”

Luckily, the ability to focus can be improved just like any skill.

There are two parts to it - mental fitness and physical fitness

Mental Fitness

I meditate for 15 minutes a day in the morning. There are different kinds of meditation but for improving your focus, the best one I know of is just trying to focus on your breath and only your breath. Whenever another thought or sensation enters your mind, just picture a bubble or cloud forming around it and floating away while you come back to focusing on your breath.

It can be a very challenging activity. Currently, I can only last up to a few minutes before getting distracted without even realising it. However, improvement comes with practice.

After a couple weeks, you should start noticing that you are able to focus more while working. You will build up higher resistance to those thoughts that enter your mind throughout the day which tug at you saying “Let’s just check Facebook for a few minutes…” This will help you get more done in less time.

Physical fitness

It should go without saying but being physically fit helps you in so many areas of your life, focus being one of them. Your body can only expend so much energy at one time and if you are unhealthy, your body needs to spend more energy to keep your heart beating or your lungs breathing. The more energy your body uses keeping you alive, the less energy you have to expend on the task at hand.

As we get further along in the technological revolution, the focus divide between people is going to become more noticeable. If you want to set yourself apart from your peers, train and improve your ability to focus. While other people are distracting the day away, you will be able to accomplish more in much less time.