This article is a collection of thoughts on the nature of mental concentration and an informal record of my experiments with improving mine. I've grouped them into topical sections, but otherwise the organization is a jumble right now because I wrote things as I thought of them, and in the interests of posting quickly, I only lightly edited the content. I'll revise it all later and give it a better flow.
Try these techniques if they seem promising for you, but you might need other methods. Different brains work differently, and different circumstances will need different approaches. When I say "you" in these notes, I mean me. I wrote this to myself.
The key features of my situation are that (1) I spend a lot of time doing complex knowledge work at a computer, (2) it's often not what I want to be doing because it's boring and tedious or downright difficult, and (3) I'm easily distracted by easier and more interesting tasks that arise from my mind or my environment from moment to moment.
There are people for whom focus and determination seem to come naturally. I'm glad for these people, but I'm not like them. I need lots of help.
Any problem will involve multiple factors, and the solution will presumably involve changing one or more of them. That gives you several approaches to try. In these thoughts I'll address various facets of the problem.
Keep in mind that some of these ideas are untested, mostly the ones phrased tentatively.
Here are some first steps for a knowledge work session. These apply to me and not necessarily everyone else:
- Get the task list and other tools ready, and put yourself in the frame of mind to add things to them whenever the job gets hard.
- Get in the frame of mind to regularly draw information from the depths of your mind. This is one of my biggest barriers to work. One helpful image is of a conveyor that continually runs from my abdomen (where the information is deeply stored) out through my forehead. If I sit there with my eyes closed for a minute, I can usually grab enough of a thread that I can pull out the rest of what I need.
- Minimize distractions physically and mentally.
- Read this list to remind yourself of what you need.
One size does not fit all when it comes to focusing. I need different techniques, images, or messages for different states of mind.
States of mind:
- Sleepy - I tend to be very distractible in this state and not to care about diligence.
- Distracted - Another topic is on my mind, and I want to think about only that.
- Disengaged - Not distracted, but not wanting to fill my mind with my work, usually because it's hard or boring.
One thing to try for the distracted state is to find a transition topic, something that draws and holds my attention but doesn't lead me down another rabbit trail. Then I can let that go and move into work. For example, when I'm distracted, I could spend some time writing about what I'd really prefer to be doing. That might be more satisfying than jotting one line in a task list.
Honestly I think half of this advice becomes unnecessary, or at least more effective, if you follow this Picard management tip: "When you've gotten enough sleep, an impossible task becomes an interesting challenge." Since I usually haven't, during the workday my mind is frequently in a desperate state of grasping for life and energy, and for me life and energy come more from non-work activities than from work. David Heinemeier Hansson knows what I'm talking about. This desperation will come through a lot in the thoughts that follow, and it doesn't paint the most flattering picture of me. But I think there are helpful insights and techniques to be gained from studying my mind's dissatisfied and fatigue-addled state, so I present them here.
If you get tired:
- Stand up and walk around.
If you get tired of working on the same thing for a long time, break up the time and alternate that work with other types of tasks, if possible.
Dividing up tasks and recording them in a list really does help take off the strain. It keeps tedious work from feeling endless.
Since I get so tired in the afternoon, at least when I've had too little sleep, I should try to do easier tasks then.
When I'm really tired, I'm really distractable. I don't feel the importance of staying focused or the satisfaction I'll feel at the end of my work. My world is reduced to the moment and the fact that I want to be doing something else that will liven me up and not take so much effort. Maybe there's nothing wrong with a little break for that purpose, just not a long rabbit trail.
Often when I'm very distractable, time and work feel endless, so work feels oppressive and time feels unimportant. So I can afford to waste time, and I should waste it to keep work from smothering me. That's why I want objectives for my work sessions--to give my work some definition--and I think listing my tasks more consistently would help with my sense of time.
When I find that I'm tired, I need to pause and redouble my efforts on focusing.
I'm noticing I can concentrate okay in the morning when I take the time to get focused, but by midday my focus has frayed. Work tires me out; I see the amount of time I still have to work; and potential distractions have seeped in simply from those few hours of thinking. It's worse when I'm tired, because at a certain point the distractions feel *way* more important than work and I just stop caring about diligence. Until it's the end of the day and I feel I have to work longer to be fair to my employer. So I need to find a way to keep working even in those conditions.
I feel satisfied when I achieve goals, and I work more intently when I'm pursuing them, especially when the time frame is short or I just want to get past them, usually so I can pursue another goal afterward. So a good addition to my work preparation would be to list objectives for that day or work session and maybe their purposes. Backward planning would help here.
Keep track of what motivates you. I find that creating things I can use to make my life better is one motivation. Helping people is another. Gratitude isn't really one, such as gratitude for having a job. I can imagine motivating scenarios for the work I'm doing if my determination is flagging.
Determined work looks different from the inside than the outside, so I'm not sure imagining myself being industrious would really work. But sometimes I feel inspired when I hear about other people being industrious, so I can imagine that. I keep a list of these people so I can remind myself of them.
The suggestion that I can be interested in my work when at first it doesn't appeal to me is motivating. I got this idea from Nick Fiore's flow exercise in The Now Habit. The idea takes different forms, depending on the target for interest. I can be interested in the problem I'm solving, in the process of solving it, in the blocks I feel to working on it. I can be interested in the possibility of finding surprising interest in what I'm doing. And through mindfulness meditation, I've found that I really can find interest in the present moment. In fact, curiosity about the moment's minute subtleties is what I'm relying on to keep me focused on it.
When I'm in a foggy, dazed state of mind, I often just follow whatever ideas enter my head instead of filtering them. Part of the problem is that often I'm not engaged with my work. I don't really care about it, and so I'm not deeply focused on it. Maybe I can use the techniques of Immanuel prayer or hypnosis to enter into it before I start working. This is different from simply focusing in general. It's focusing on the particular subject matter of my work.
So what would a guided descent into a topic look like? It would be a sequence of questions guided by the responses, and the questions would include these:
- What are you experiencing right now about your work?
- What tasks are you facing?
- Which one would you like to start with?
- Where are you on that task now?
- What's involved in it?
- What is it like to work on this kind of task?
- What can it be like to work on it, given the right state of mind and methods?
- What would make this task easier?
- What will it be like to finish this task?
- Is there a goal that depends on this task, or is there something you'd like to work on after it's done?
- Is there anything outside of work that's preoccupying you?
I haven't tried this yet.
Remind yourself of how much better things will be when you finish the current task or project. That will help it not seem so endless.
When faced with a project you don't want to do, just get started.
In doing this, it helps to have in mind some ways to make the job less daunting, boring, or otherwise unpleasant. These ways are skills, so it'll take practice to make them automatic. They are also tasks that can be put off, so you have to just get started on them too.
The limits of my own mind are a chief demotivator for me, at least when doing knowledge work. So it helps to have external tools at the ready to extend its capabilities:
- A physical notepad for free-form problem solving.
- A task manager app for splitting into subtasks, tracking progress, and noting distractions for later attention. I use <a href="https://nirvanahq.com/">Nirvana</a>.
- A wiki app for recording and searching free-form notes. I use <a href="https://evernote.com/">Evernote</a>.
Whenever possible, survey your project's tasks, and put them in your task manager. You may have to do this multiple times during the project whenever new tasks become apparent or an existing tasks turns out to be complicated. Side note, I'm using the terms job and project synonymously.
When you're starting a job or task and you feel stuck, not knowing what to do, sit with your eyes closed, and ask yourself a few questions:
- What needs attention?
- What is a current objective in this project? (What was I doing just now, or what am I doing next?)
- What can I look at that will help me find these answers?
When you have even a word, write it in one of your tools, probably the task manager. If that brings more info, keep writing. Otherwise, go back to closed-eyed sitting.
Remember that "List tasks" is a task that can be listed! That will at least let you feel like you've accomplished something, however small, and that your project is a little more concrete, and those may encourage you enough for your ideas to flow a little faster. You can also list questions for the same effect. Plus they'll remind you later of what you still need to find out.
Once you've brainstormed the latest tasks, clean up the list and put it in order.
Look at the list. If there's something you can do now and you don't feel like listing more tasks, do the thing!
Keep track of the degree to which different kinds of tasks are hard or absorbing for you.
When you're looking at the task list and a task seems large, complicated, and daunting, note it as a task to split into subtasks. You can even list a task for splitting it.
When you pause for a break, make it obvious where you left off. Make a note somewhere, or leave your work out in a way that it's clear what you were doing. If you come back and it's not obvious, sit and draw out from your mind what you need to do next.
At the start of the work session, gather all the materials you think you'll need so you don't have to stop to gather them so much during the session. If it's hard to keep in mind everything you'll need, list them at the start of the session. If more materials are needed in the middle, gather them all at once rather than one at a time.
If a task becomes more complicated, slow down and be patient.
If you run into a hard task, figure out the very next step you need to take, and then just get started.
If your setup or materials are hard to work with, modify them if possible.
When my task list gets long and I don't want to keep reordering everything, I'm starring my current item to keep my place.
It's okay to remake problem-solving diagrams that have become messy. In fact, I should probably expect to do that.
When my mind is stuck not knowing what I need to do next, especially when I'm tired, I find that looking at relevant things to help me jog my thinking is important. Physical cues seem to be more helpful for me than mental cues, maybe partly because they're more immediately available. I sometimes have to drag up the mental cues along with the info they're supposed to be cuing. Of course, I also have to drag up which physical cues to consult, but in their case I only have to call to mind the identity and location of the cue and not all its details.
When I have only mental info to draw on, recording my thoughts gives me physical cues to return to. I think one reason writing helps me feel better in general is that I'm gradually relieved of the burden of having to recall the info from only my mind.
When thinking about where to find the info I'm looking for, it helps to think about where or how I wish I could find it so I can possibly reorganize the material. It also helps, of course, to think about how I'll search for it in the material as it is.
When a task feels hard, I feel defeated before I even start. So I try to escape by distracting myself, and when I come back to the task, I feel even more defeated because I failed to stick with it. One way out of the initial defeat might be to ask myself what would count as a victory in this case. That is, what is the key obstacle to moving forward, and what would it look like to succeed? What is the general scenario on the other side of the obstacle? Even if I don't know the specifics yet (ignorance could be the obstacle), I usually have some idea of what a successful result would be. Visualizing that result can be motivating as well as giving you some kind of concrete goal.
The next step is to look at the situation in front of you and then to plan the steps between the two scenarios. Ask yourself what feels hard about what you see. Then it might help get the work moving if you just try the first step toward a solution you think of. Later you can collect more ideas and conduct a more orderly process. If the first step you think of immediately fails, then think a little more and follow the next step you come up with.
Sometimes it's hard to gain momentum when I'm dealing with a programming project with a lot of hard tasks in a row. It might help to journal about each hard task as it comes up. For me journaling is in some ways like collaborating is for other people. It helps me focus on my tasks and clarify my thoughts.
The idea of a lot of these techniques is to make hard tasks easier and thus more inviting by creating stepping stones across them.
I also want to experiment with more problem solving techniques, ways of easing my mind into a problem and smoothing the path to a solution, such as planning an algorithm in columns for the different types of info they need.
Keep track of the degree to which different things distract you. Familiar instrumental music tends to be my least distracting background activity.
If you get distracted, gently bring yourself back to your work, and reset your frame of mind, if needed.
When considering what to do with a distraction, ask yourself if it will still be waiting for you later and if you'll already get some timely reminder of it, if it's time sensitive at all. If yes, then see if you can drop it and keep working. If you need a reminder, put it in your distractions list. Don't "just take care of it," because it'll take longer than you think or want.
Be aware of when you're taking an action that you think will only take a minute but could lead to a much longer distraction, and decide before you take it not to continue on past the first step.
When you're tempted to let your mind wander, remind yourself that even if you feel like you're being tortured by work, you'll still be happier if you focus. Craig Hassed notes, "You might feel tempted to answer that we are happiest when the mind is wandering to pleasant topics. In fact, according to a study from Harvard University, people report being happiest while their mind is not wandering from what they are doing" ("<a href="http://www.yvg.vic.edu.au/file.php?fileID=5502">The health benefits of meditation and being mindful</a>").
One reason I might feel more like following my distractions than working is that they're there, reminding me of how great they are. If I kept them at a distance by not making them so available, it might be easier to absorb myself in my work.
One problem I have with distractions is when they arise in my mind and they're so compelling that I feel I have to follow them right then. It'll probably just happen a bit at first, but when you see it happening and you can get yourself to stop, get yourself back into a frame of mind for focusing on work. Some mental imagery about the situation might help. Stopping the pursuit of a distraction might look like slamming on the brakes on a large, speeding truck. Maybe it skids to a stop but flips over from its momentum. Returning to work might look like entering a thicket of brambles and pushing your way through. On the other side is a soothing bath of aloe vera gel. (These are the kinds of odd, overly dramatic images that pop into my head.)
What can also help is getting back into a mind frame of entering distractions into a task list so you know you can follow them later.
Distractions can be passive or active. Passive distractions arise from my environment and pull my attention towards them. Active distractions are ones I look for, such as suddenly wanting to chat with someone. Passive distractions are the main kind to record in my distractions list. When I'm actively distracted, it might be worthwhile to observe the situation to see why I might be motivated to distract myself. I suspect it's usually because I've run up against a hard task without noticing.
If the opportunity to take advantage of the distraction really is temporary, see if you can let go of it.
When I feel very distractible, maybe it would help to repeatedly push myself just a little. I'd tell myself I'll do just a little more before I follow the distraction.
Try a conveyor belt image for addressing persistent distractions. The idea is to imagine thoughts on a conveyor belt coming toward you, and when they reach you, you drop them into buckets based on their categories. The categories are things like, "later this evening thoughts" or "anxious thoughts."
One helpful little technique for when I'm feeling mindlessly distractible is to start asking myself, whenever I think of something to do, whether this is work. If it's not, then no. This is similar to ADD Crusher's "Is this what I'm doing now?"
Try a more distraction-free work environment by simply keeping your browsers closed except for the moments you need them for work. Ideally I want to be able to resist distractions, but I think for mental training, it's more effective to remove them. I think mental training works differently from weight training, where resistance is what's necessary. In mental training you have to give your mind the space and context to learn different ways of working. You put yourself in an environment compatible with the new way of thinking and then let your mind learn what it's like and conform to it. The absence of the usual stimuli is sometimes itself a form of resistance.
One type of distraction occurs when I turn away from a hard spot in my work to do something more interesting. Why should this be necessary though? Why do the mild despair and boredom at hitting a mental block mean I have to do something to keep myself entertained? It occurs to me that I can become okay with feeling dead if it means I stick to my work rather than veering completely away from it. I might stare blankly at the screen for a minute (or two, or five), but at least I would minimize the time my work wasn't progressing.
One thing I hate about getting distracted, at least at work, is that I completely forget what I was doing before, so when I come back to my task, I have to rack my brain to remember what it was. I think that shows how disengaged I am from my work at those times.
Take time to reset your mind after a break, especially lunch.
When I meditate successfully, I feel like I'm entering a different world, a dark, cushiony tunnel. Sometimes I need help entering it, so I'm looking for things that can help. Maybe the specific suggestions I give myself would do it. I think calming music also helps. Probably other environmental factors such as light level, temperature, and resting surface, but I have control over those less often. But I don't want to go to sleep usually, because I'm trying to focus for work. So I have to find a balance between drifting off and staying alert.
Visualizing a conducive context could help entering the focused world, such as being wrapped in a warm blanket or even something more imaginative, such as being in a flow of water yet being able to breathe. So could remembering the feeling of focus I'm aiming for.
One question I have about mindfulness meditation (MM) is whether the goal is focusing on one stimulus or simply attending to the present. I find that my mind has room to wander if it doesn't have multiple anchors, so I like the idea of paying attention to whatever's happening through whichever senses. But I'm not sure if that fosters the kind of focus I want. Maybe a middle ground would work, focusing on all the stimuli coming from a narrow range of sources, such as the sensations within my body rather than sounds from my environment.
What I'm aiming for is a single stream of activity, like riding through a landscape in a minecart in Minecraft. Distractions such as monsters come by, but I'm zipping along so fast that they don't seem important enough to hold my attention.
For a while this has been the script of my focus exercise for work. They summarize a lot of my reflections on the subject:
Focus with five deep breaths. Now ... If I focus instead of wandering, I'll be happy. I'll be like the industrious people I admire. When I finish this work, I'll feel relieved, happy, and satisfied. I'll be a source of relief to my coworkers. When a task gets harder, I can slow down and be curious about it. I can draw from my mind and find outside cues. I can work through it in my task list. I can diagram it on my notepad. When a distraction comes up, I can record it for later in my task manager. When a distraction is a fleeting opportunity, I can question it and maybe let it go. When I look for a distraction, I can let it go and address the underlying problem. Now ... List the day's or session's objectives and their purposes with backwards planning. List preliminary tasks. And gather all the materials you'll need.
I put it in a text-to-speech program and output an audio file, which ideally I'll listen to most mornings and sometimes at other times during the workday.
Something I keep losing sight of is that my focusing exercise isn't an impenetrable shield against distraction, at least at this point. If I turn on distraction generators like YouTube (listening to the videos while I work), my mind will make use of them. I need to keep in mind that a large part of the purpose of the exercise is to help me feel okay about creating a large distraction-free zone of time in which to work. Then the other part is to help me sweep away the remaining distractions.
The website Gnostic Teachings gives a helpful technique in their Mental Discipline lecture, mentally narrating your actions.
You need to be more mindful during the day, you need to pay attention to what you are doing in every moment and do one thing at a time. And from that naturally your Meditation will deepen, your concentration will deepen.
In the beginning, you can utilize the mind itself in this effort; if the mind will not be quiet on its own, make it focus on what you are doing by identifying your actions in thought. If you are washing the dishes, think, "I am doing the dishes, I am washing a fork." This can help you move toward doing things without thought. Eventually, you wash without thought, yet with perfect awareness. No thought. Just mindfulness. That power moves you deeper, that practice moves you deeper.
I've tried using it to help me concentrate on complex tasks so I don't lose the thread of what I'm doing, as I do constantly when I'm not engaged with it. It does help. As usual, however, my practice petered out after a day or two.
Something I'm trying is listening to minimalist music while working. Some kinds of music can lead to rabbit trails (because I want to research something about them), ambient music is calming but not engaging enough, a lot of music just bores me, but most minimalism I've heard is active enough to keep part of my brain occupied but not distracting enough to steal my attention. That's my hypothesis anyway. I think minimalism works for me because there's not much happening, but it happens a lot, so my brain has time to study it. It does explicitly what my mind does implicitly when it's trying to understand something: It retreads the same ground over and over, examining the pieces and their relationships. Minimalist music does seem to help. It gives me that zoney feeling, like when I'm daydreaming, except that I'm getting things done.
Here's the Spotify playlist I created, Minimalism for Focus. Note that I will change it over time.
Choice of work
Reading all this, you may wonder why I don't just get a different job that's easier or that I enjoy more. I have a multipart answer to this:
- For various reasons, I'm not ready to leave yet.
- The kind of work I care about will always involve some of these difficulties, and I'm not willing to give it up for the sake of ease. So a better solution is to learn to focus, and I think of my current job as a training ground.
But if you have trouble with your work, if those reasons don't apply to you, and if you have a chance to take an easier, more enjoyable job that will support you well enough and so on, then by all means take it.