Retrain your focus muscle before it’s too late

I have something to admit. I am reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. But my actual confession is that I’m struggling to read it. And while I can read blog posts and articles until I’m blue in the face, it’s increasingly hard for me to sit down and read for long stretches of time. Even when the subject matter is fun and the prose lighthearted.

Maybe it’s because I often read on my phone (which btw is the no fun league). This means that I’m never more than a tap away from my financials (via QuickBooks), my to-do list, or an Instagram video (these days, mostly House of Highlights). And when I’m hanging with Harry, even the whiff of a dull paragraph, pulls me into a world of distraction.

This is both puzzling and frustrating. I pride myself of having deep stores of self control (and a penchant for delayed gratification via burpees) yet in the past 6 months I have felt myself really struggle to read.

Of walls and marathons

In 2009 I trained for the NYC Marathon and learned about The Wall. It usually strikes around mile 20 (i.e 76% into the race) but this physical psychological obstacle feels deeply insurmountable.

I always found The Wall fascinating because you only could reach that point at the 20 mile mark. So for a newbie long distance runner like me, it meant 3 hours into training. And with a standard training schedule being comprised of maybe one or two runs of 20+ miles, you barely had the chance to even test yourself at The Wall – let alone overcome it.

That’s how I feel when I hit The Wall when I read. It feels recent. And it feels like that muscle I used rely on to overcome The (Reading) Wall is atrophying away.

When the going gets tough…

I recently came across an interview with Craig Mod, a prominent designer who blogs about the publishing and tech industry. He succinctly verbalized my suspicions:

[su_quote]Whenever you encounter any kind of mental hurdle, you’re reading a difficult text and you hit on that passage that takes a second to process, we’ve reprogrammed ourselves [such that] instead of working through that passage, we just flick up and go to Twitter and take that hit.” [/su_quote]

We hit those mental hurdles all the time in our work – as writers, investors, and creators. And overcoming these hurdles (without an Instagram detour) feels like a necessary skill, the thing that separates you from the pack of knowledge workers. Or at the minimum, frees you up to spend time on the things that truly matter to you. Here are 3 steps to rebuilding this focus muscle.

Step 1: Notice when it happens

Ever notice how you can spot a notification alert from a mile away? Big Tech is so skilled at understanding our tendencies that we subconsciously interact with our phones. And eradicating any bad habit begins with the act of noticing.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work has long been sounding the alarm bells about tech-based distraction. He created a practice called Productive Meditation, to train this muscle. It consists of going for a walk. While he’s walking, Newport is deliberating and analyzing a work problem in his head. And every time his mind wanders from the topic at hand, he introduces a does of mindfulness: first, he’ll notice it’s happening, and then slowly will rein it back in. This is much harder than it seems. Even when I stop my mind’s constant multi-tasking attempts, I find myself easily distracted by anything (like signage or graffiti) that’s not the topic at hand.

Step 2: Rebuild in tiny bursts

Rome was not built overnight. So unwinding a decade worth of bad habits will take some time. Years ago, when I tried learning meditation someone suggested the following exercise: start counting in your head. “One. Two. Three…” and as soon as you have a thought, reset the counter back to zero. (Rest assured that despite years of meditation, this is still insanely difficult.)

This second approach involves a similar tactic. Sit (or stand) in your workspace and try to do uninterrupted for for a small increment (say 5 minutes). This time daydreaming is ok, but anything else (surfing the web, getting a glass of water, reorganizing your desk) are not allowed. If you slip up, reset the timer.

For me, this involved lots of hacks – putting my phone in a different room, blocking the internet with a Chrome extension, even standing up – but I’ve been able to work my way back up to 25 minutes (which happens to be the length of a Pomodoro). I’m unable to do this on a daily basis (both out of laziness or deadlines) but the days during which I do two uninterrupted pomodoros, I always find myself at 3 pm saying “Wow, I might be done for the day.”

Step 3: Investigate the root cause

Why is self-control so hard when it comes to technology? It’s easy to blame tech and their relentless efforts to keep us in front of our screens. But that’s usually just a cop out answer. Let’s look at flow states. We’ve all been in that mode where we’re tackling a difficult problem or deeply immersed in a creative activity. During these sessions, time melts away – as does our urge to check Instagram. The proverbial wall has been scaled.

Now let’s look at the opposite scenario, when we’re dreading a task. It could be an email to your boss or a presentation that you find pointless. As we’re working on these, once we hit the wall – boom we’re on social media. It’s an escape. An avoidance technique. And in this instance, social media is just the symptom and not the cause of your inability to complete the task at hand.

Here’s where the uncomfortable introspection comes in. Your avoidance is rich with information content. The email to your boss – well it could be because you don’t feel like they respect you. The presentation – maybe there are elements of it that you don’t know how to do, and are afraid of getting called out.

So instead of going for the quick hit – investigate the root cause. Ask yourself what you’re avoiding or what you’re afraid of. It might take hours, maybe weeks (or a lifetime) to address that root cause. But that, my friends, is how you scale The Wall.

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