Distracted by Bright Shiny Objects? 5 Ways to Increase Your Concentration!

This post was created by my friend and colleague (and excellect agile+professional coach), Kathy Harman. I asked her to cross-publish it here for your benefit.  Please visit her at Real Results and see what she does and what she offers.  This article originally appeared in her newsletter, which I always find enlightening and worth the time to read.  Sign up! From Kathy Harman:

I've noticed recently that many people have been complaining about their lack of focus.

"Dug" from the movie Up!It reminds me of the dog in the movie "Up!" Right in the middle of an important event he hollers "Squirrel!" and takes off after real or imagined prey. Then he comes back happy as can be, ready to start all over again. I find myself saying "Squirrel!" several times a day as my attention is caught by a myriad of bright shiny objects (BSOs). I have fun with my BSOs, but I don't make much progress on my main task. So, I started studying concentration and focus (another BSO!) and will share with you some interesting ideas.

"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."             ~Alexander Graham Bell

So what is the problem with a short attention span? Why not chase squirrels? After all, pursuing a BSO can result in learning valuable new knowledge that has the potential of increasing your well-being. However, consider the downsides:

  • Every time your attention wanders, it takes minutes or hours to refocus on the original task. This can result in your original intent taking much longer to achieve than you planned.
  • Squirrel chasing may be fun, but it might not be productive. At the end of the day, what have you achieved?
  • If you're chasing squirrels in the middle of something important (say a relatively boring meeting to discuss an upcoming project that you'll be a part of), you could miss critical information. You also may be letting other team members down by missing a chance to add valuable information because you're more interested in your email than you are in the meeting topic.  By the way, multi-tasking is a myth!
  • Lack of attention can be insulting to those who are speaking (whether your boss, your spouse or your mother).

If you have been frustrated with yourself for doing any of the above, then this article is for you! Read on for some tips to increase your concentration and sharpen your focus:

  1. Commit to focus: What you put your attention to, expands. If you really want to sharpen your focus, commit to do so. This means that when you find your attention caught by a bright shiny object, be aware that your attention is starting to wander. Make a conscious decision to bring your focus back to the task at hand, or to continue to chase the squirrel. Just the awareness of your loss of focus is a huge first step!
  2. Set up a special focus time: decide the start time and stop time. Commit (see #1) to be focused during this time. Identify a way to reward yourself if you maintained your concentration during this time - maybe by allowing ½ hour of squirrel-chasing time. My favorite is ice cream.
  3. Set yourself up for success: When you absolutely need to focus on a particular task and get it done, create an environment conducive to concentration. Remove distractions such as cell phones, email notifications, Facebook and Twitter alerts. Find a quiet spot without distracting views. (College Son, don't try to study where lovely young ladies are hanging out!) Use white noise such as a fan to help minimize noise distractions. Figure out your particular distraction triggers, and set up your environment to minimize those.
  4. Determine your focus enablers: think of times you are able to focus, and figure out what makes you able to do that. Are you a faithful Facebooker? Maybe what makes you enjoy that so much is the connection to others. If so, figure out how this task you want to complete supports your connection to others. Do you love video games? Maybe what makes you spend hours playing them is meeting and overcoming challenges. If so, figure out how to make this task you want to complete challenging, and how you'll reward yourself when you overcome (I mean achieve) it.
  5. Realize the why: What does doing this task do for you? Figure out what completing the task will bring you. If it is something you really want, then keep that goal in mind as you focus in on the work at hand. When your mind starts to wander, remember the goal and refocus. For example, say you need to gather financial information from last year to finish up taxes. Why are you doing this? So that you can file your taxes. Why are you filing taxes? So you can keep your business viable. Why do you want to keep your business viable? So you can continue to provide the service to the public. Why do you want to do that? Because you're making a difference in the world. So, making a difference in the world is much more motivating than simply messing around with financial information, which makes it easier to concentrate.

Meanwhile, try some or all of our focus tips for at least one task, and experience the difference it makes in your attention span. If it helps, try it again! And if you have something that works particularly well for you, please let me know and I'll get the ideas out to the others.

Remember, the sooner you focus and get that task out of the way, the sooner you can chase the Bright Shiny Objects!