Can the ability to focus and concentrate intensely be trained?
Newport states that the ability to focus and concentrate intensely can be trained and that in doing so we must also focus on our capacity to resist distraction.
“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it”
Probably the most common distraction is our phone or the internet, in some way.
We often take out our phones as soon as we are bored or if we are facing something that is just slightly challenging, since we look for a distraction to the discomfort.
What can you do?
Cal Newport suggests a series of things:
- Scheduling your internet time in advance. He insists that you should not use it outside these designated slots. Of course, most of us use the internet at work, so disconnecting for a full day would be impossible.
You can probably carve out some time in which you are not online if you let people know in advance and explain that you need uninterrupted focused time to complete a task efficiently. For example, you can check your emails and messages every hour, reply to anything urgent and then log off for another hour
- Be mindful of this distraction pitfall in our free time, i.e. outside of work. If we train our ability to focus and resist distraction while doing our job but then are constantly on our smartphones in the evenings, we are likely wasting a lot of the effort we put in hours before.
This is because we are attempting to rewire our brains, and this will be extremely more difficult if we regularly end up following old patterns.
He suggests applying the same internet-scheduling strategy doing our leisure time, too. We can be a bit more flexible, but the idea is to not use social media as a quick distraction as soon as we feel bored. “It weakens your mind’s general ability to resist distraction, making deep work difficult later when you really want to concentrate.”
- The easiest and most rewarding solution is to think ahead and plan some quality and fun activities in your free time. You will be happier for having done something you really enjoy, rather than mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you pick up a new hobby, for example, you will be excited to learn something new and you will see quick improvements.
But my situation is different!
In the book, the author also addresses the main objections to the approach he proposes:
- “Social media makes me happy, I use it to connect with friends”.
The main thing to ask yourself is if spending your time on social media is the best way to connect with friends. Why not call a friend, or go out for coffee or for a walk at the park? Of course, this might not apply to everyone: if you are abroad, for example, or you just moved to a new city, social media can have an overall positive impact.
What we must be careful about is to not fall into the “any benefit” trap, when we justify using a tool because it has any small benefit.
I deleted my Instagram account months ago and I have never looked back. I remember sending a message to a few friends of mine, telling them about my decision and asking them to keep me updated on side projects they were working on since I would no longer see posts and stories on the progress made. Apart from that, I don’t really care about what my friends ate for lunch or dinner, and if a close friend has an important update to share they would simply tell me directly, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
- “In the evenings and weekends I am too tired to do anything”.
Generally, what we need is change, rather than passive scrolling. Or sleep, if we are completely exhausted. Usually, a change in activity will make us not feel more tired, but refreshed and overall more fulfilled with our day.
I fully agree with this idea that we need change more than passive and mindless activities.
Something that has really worked for me is to have a hobby that I do with other people. This means I have to schedule it in and know I will be dedicating an evening or two to that specific activity. If your hobbies are not something you do in a pair or group, you will still benefit from the structure they can offer.
In the evenings or weekends, I sometimes don’t feel like working on side projects or engaging in activities that require a certain level of concentration. However, if I can get myself to start, I am always happy I did and the satisfaction is really high.
Of course, this doesn’t apply in every circumstance. I am aware I am in a privileged position since I don’t have many barriers that others might have. Sometimes mindless activities are exactly what we need.
Overall, reframing “rest” as a change in activity that will re-energize me has really worked for me and I want to remember this more often.
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