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The Focus Code for a More Meaningful Life and Work

At a surface level, time appears uniform for all. Looking closely, not everyone's time has equal 'weight'. Two people may seem busy at all times - answering emails, picking up phones, filling out forms, you name it - but their productivity could extremely vary. 

Disregarding individual discrepancies, this is the reality: Our capacity for sustained concentration is strictly limited within a set timeframe. It is also true that we can spend that daily dose of opportunity being busy but barely productive. 

Let's be honest. How much time of the day do you really spend on 'working'?  

Time flies by for everyone. Two people might stay in the same room, in the same office, spending the exact amount of hours. While their physical amount of time is the same, the 'density' of their time may dramatically differ. This density is determined by the degree of focus exerted during those hours. Put another way, your time may either be wasted in trivial pursuits or harnessed for highly productive endeavours. 

Over the past few years, many scholars have found that as a society, we have greatly lost 'focus'. In the midst of daily hustle and bustle, oftentimes, we frequently feel a lack of solid ground beneath us, it's easy to lose sight of a clear path forward, leaving our efforts feeling unfocused. We often find ourselves pulled in conflicting directions, leaving us feeling as though each day merely slips away, rather than contributing to our overarching dreams. 

Addressing this widespread issue comprehensively and offering practical solutions is too grand a goal to achieve in this short article. Instead, we'll narrow our focus to discussing a couple of contributing factors and suggest some possible avenues for mitigating their effects and regaining our lost focus. 


Diagnosis: Culprits of Lost Focus 


It's a small computer in the pocket. 

Everyone applauded when smartphones arrived. This device eliminates the necessity of a laptop for tasks like emailing, document typing, online shopping, and photo and video editing. Meanwhile, social media inundates users with an overwhelming amount of content every passing moment. 

A few years ago, a study published in the journal World Psychiatry raised concerns regarding the detrimental effects of increased internet usage on cognition. Put simply, the reliance on online storage for information retrieval may impair the functioning of the brain's memory centres, potentially resulting in decreased verbal intelligence over time. 

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo also found a correlation between people's cognitive skills and their usage of smartphones. The study revealed that participants with weaker cognitive skills tended to devote more time to utilizing the search engine feature on their smartphones. In contrast, those with stronger cognitive abilities and a preference for analytical thinking exhibited reduced reliance on their phones for finding answers. 


Myth of Multitasking 

The strength of contemporary computers resides in their capacity for multitasking. For instance, it can effortlessly juggle tasks like transferring substantial files while efficiently filtering through myriad messages using specific keywords. We wish we could do the same. A plethora of research, however, has repeatedly proved that we humans are simply incapable of multitasking. What we perceive as multitasking is, in reality, merely task-switching. 


Unfortunately, many job postings seek candidates with the ability to 'multi-task' as if it were a skill attainable through training or discipline. This unrealistic requirement equates to looking for a radio that can also cook at the same time. Our brains, accustomed to the constant content switching facilitated by cell phones, demonstrate a perpetually divided attention span. While this may create the illusion of multitasking ability, it actually reflects our tendency to switch tasks frequently due to our incredibly short attention spans. In the end, this frequent task-switching only results in subpar performance across all endeavours. 


When we switch tasks, we cannot immediately get into the 'focus' zone like computers. After a distraction, on average, it takes about a whopping 23 minutes to get back to the task with our full mind. So even when you're distracted for one minute from doing something meaningful, you will need 23 minutes after for your mind to fully engage in the work you were previously doing. 


Reclaiming Our Lost Focus 

Reclaiming our diminished focus requires both dedication and adjustments to our surroundings. In a world saturated with overwhelming messages bombarding us relentlessly, this task demands unwavering determination and deliberate, consistent effort. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that reclaiming your complete cognitive abilities, particularly the capacity to focus, will make you stand out from the crowd and enable you to lead a truly fulfilling and gratifying life. 


Organizational Effort 

  • Before hitting that 'send' button, think again 

Cal Newport, the author of A World Without Email and Deep Work presents a somewhat unconventional viewpoint: Email reduces productivity. This is his reasoning: Continuous, unstructured digital communication fosters a chaotic environment that will waste everyone's time. If you find your inbox filled with messages exchanged between multiple people, it's wise to refrain from participating. As emails circulate extensively, individuals often lose track, making it challenging to locate relevant information amid cluttered threads. 

The solution to this problem would be simple. Before you hit that send button, pause for a second. Reconstruct your email to clear any confusion and to ensure the recipients would easily and immediately grasp your intention. Ask yourself, "Is this email truly necessary?" and "Could this message be communicated more efficiently through alternative means?" In the book, Newport illustrates a situation where a brief in-person conversation would turn out much more efficiently compared to exchanging multiple emails. Reserve email communication for situations where it's deemed the most appropriate method. 


  • Try sprint sessions 

Many employees attempt to juggle multiple projects simultaneously. As previously highlighted, this approach isn't the most conducive to productivity or quality. Managing numerous projects concurrently typically leads to task-switching which will invariably undermine the quality of work.

Instead of working on several items at the same time as a team, consider having a sprint session for each item. Set clear deadlines, goals, and timelines exclusively for each project. An article from Harvard Business Review explains how sprint sessions are not in not only efficient in addressing substantial tasks but also in fostering team focus and enabling timely decision-making. 


Individual Effort 

  • Try harder tasks 

In the book Stolen Focus, the author Johann Hari explores methods for regaining lost focus. One of them is to work on a task that would stretch you, pushing you out of your comfort zone. In confronting such challenges, you naturally concentrate all your efforts on finding innovative solutions. This immersive engagement often leads to a state of 'flow': a state in which where external distractions dissipate, and you feel propelled forward by an inner drive. During his research, Hari found that top-notch artists experience this often when in their artistic pursuits. 


To get into the flow state, besides including a task that's at the edge of your ability, choose a clearly defined goal. It is nearly impossible - if not entirely - to reach it if you're trying to do two or more things at the same time. That given task must be meaningful to you. This way, you will have more internal motivation to continue the work. 

  • Dopamine (Digital) fast 

Fast is not just with food; You can use it with other things, especially with digital distractions. Dopamine fasting, often referred to as "dopamine detox," involves refraining from stimulating activities and behaviours that trigger dopamine release in the brain. While this term covers abstention from various activities including social media, video games, junk food, excessive shopping, gambling, and excessive internet browsing, our focus lies on digital fasting. 


A few years ago, dopamine (digital) fasting gained huge popularity among Silicon Valley workers. For those who work in the IT industry in which constant exposure to digital media is inevitable, short-term dopamine fasting becomes a great tool to cool off their brain from the constant stimulations today's media offers. By implementing regular intervals—such as a day or two every week, a few consecutive days, or even an entire week each month—you afford your brain a healthy break. This will mitigate or break dopamine addiction and restore a healthy baseline level of dopamine activity. 


You can definitely apply this concept to your own needs and circumstances. Bill Gates famously adopts his "Think Week", a practice wherein he retreats to a nature-immersed environment for a week annually, disconnecting from the internet and relying solely on books, notebooks, and writing materials. Gates has found that having these "going-off-grid" times greatly helps him to gain clarity of thought, enhanced creativity, improved productivity, and overall improved mood. 


  • Embrace boredom 

Haruki Murakami is a well-known Japanese writer. His novels, essays, and short stories including Kafka on the ShoreNorwegian WoodIQ 84, and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage have been best-sellers internationally, with some of his work translated into 50 languages and having sold millions of copies outside Japan. 


Murakami's commitment to routine is well-known, especially during the process of crafting a new novel. Murakami always wakes up at 4 am with 5-6 hours of writing. Following this, he runs for 10 km and/or swims for 1,500m to maintain his physical strength. Murakami's day always ends at 9 pm. Murakami values the unchanging nature of this daily pattern, recognizing its role in "mesmerizing" him and fostering a deeper level of focus. 


You may not be an aspiring writer but we can definitely take some lessons from this Murakami's routine. Think of it this way: When you establish a routine that works best for you and ruthlessly follow it, you're giving yourself a clear cue to go into a deep focus state. Once you settle into this rhythm, both physically and mentally, immersing yourself in a state of complete focus becomes significantly more attainable. 


The path to greatness often winds through seemingly 'boring' terrain. Only those who persistently go through that dry land find the treasures at the journey's end. So embrace the boredom. In that quiet, still zone, free from distractions, you may be creating something truly remarkable. 

Know the Difference Between Being Busy and Being Productive 

"I am busy" is a phrase I often heard from a coworker I worked with a while ago. Whenever I inquired about unfinished tasks, his response was consistently "I am busy." Tom (For our convenience, we will call him Tom) was constantly late for the deadlines for the tasks he was assigned to. On the surface, Tom did seem busy: His workspace was cluttered, with two monitors constantly flashing and multiple windows open. He frequently complained of feeling disproportionately burdened compared to his peers in the department when his workload was not heavier at all. Tom felt guilty about his low productivity, but he later embraced 'busyness' as a justification. Like social media 'likes,' his backlog of unfinished tasks became a badge of honour. Long story short, Tom's time was short-lived. After Tom left, he was rarely discussed. 

It is not just Tom's problem. Using being busy as an excuse or even a justification for our unmet goals is too common to ignore these days. 

The misconception of being busy is like a parasite in many ways. Like a tiny sneaky worm inhabiting us, it gradually nibbles away concentration and drains us of joy and contentment. Our productivity suffers, and time slips away from us like water through clenched fists. 

In the modern world saturated with digital diversions, our focus serves as our greatest ally. Think of it as your best friend and advocate propelling you toward your aspirations. Make a commitment to safeguarding and enhancing it. It may unveil extraordinary opportunities beyond your imagination. 

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