Developing Powerful Focus


Getting distracted in class, whether it’s online or in-person, is more common than people think and procrastinating work is no secret to us students. Sometimes you just can’t help but avoid writing that essay for just a little longer or keep postponing doing those incredibly “short” 100 paged readings, and paying attention during the whole time of those online double sessions can be challenging. But it’s okay because we are all in this together and in this article today, we will be going over some techniques you can use to prevent distractions. 

Illustration by Rob Levin

The article below is heavily based on the research and advice conducted by Nir Eyal. He is one of the world’s greatest experts regarding the field of habit formation as well as focus. He is also a bestselling author, lecturer, and inspiration to many.

Before we start, let’s give ourselves a little lesson on distraction: one thing most people may not know is that distraction isn’t something that simply happens to us. It is in fact an action that we ourselves take. The opposite of distraction is traction and one thing that both of these have in common is that they are both actions! These are things that you do with intent which in essence help you move closer to your values (traction) or move us away from what you really want (distraction). Both of these have two triggers which are external and internal. External triggers are usually things in our outside environment such as our phone which is constantly lightening up to show us new notifications. Interestingly enough, external triggers usually make up 10% of the reason why we get distracted, whilst the other 90% come from internal stimuli. 

Most of our distractions come from our inner environment. These triggers are uncomfortable sensations and emotions that we want to escape from. Some examples are feeling stress, boredom, and fatigue amongst many others. And what do we do when we want to avoid those uncomfortable states? We find quick and easy distractions in our devices. This is why the first technique to help you focus more consists in: 

1. Master your internal triggers

There will always be a distraction out there as long as you don’t learn how to master your internal triggers. One way to help avoid this is by establishing a 10-minute rule. Next time you feel tempted by distraction, set yourself a 10-minute timer. Now you must make a choice to either go back to the task at hand or you can sit and explore the urge. Attempt to acknowledge these uncomfortable sensations and analyze what is causing you to distract yourself. Preferably do it with compassion.

Over time, the 10-minute rule of going back to the task can become the 20-30-50 minute rule. This is helping you prove to yourself that you can keep your word. If you say that you will work on this assignment then you will and if you say that you will not do it at the moment because you need time for yourself then you won’t work on that assignment and will make time for it later and actually do it later.

2. Make time for traction

Illustration by Sonya Mankrikyan

Time is perhaps the most precious thing any human being will ever have. So if you don’t plan your day, someone else will do it for you. Time should be treated as valuable as money, and one should be stingier with their time rather than their money considering we will never get time back, but we can always find a way to make more cash. One of the main problems regarding traction is that most people don’t know what traction for their day is. So how can we call something a distraction if we don’t fully know what it is distracting us from?  By planning our day, we avoid getting distracted because we already made a commitment to ourselves that from Time Point A to Time Point B we will be dedicating our time to X performance. In other words, we have to plan how we want to spend our time and make it valuable. 

Let’s try an experiment: go to your calendar and look at the week ahead and ask yourself how would the person you want to be spend their time in the following areas? Me time, Relationships, and Work. 

It’s important to remember that you are the center: if you can’t take care of yourself then you can’t take care of others. Save some time for you, check on how you are doing and prioritize yourself. 

Relationships are crucial. Part of the reason why there is a loneliness epidemic in our industrialized world is that we don’t make time to spend with the ones we love like we used to. Our society has become more secularized so we no longer put in the effort to not only see people and actually engage with others and listen to them, but we have also become very closed and almost refuse to meet new people and make new friends.

Work, though not always a fan favorite, plays a big role in our educational and professional life. A common mistake is that people spend most of their time doing reactive work rather than reflective work. Reactive work is quick things such as checking emails, making a to-do list, etc. while reflective work is the work you should actually be doing. For example, digesting the course material you learn from class, reflecting on the research you have done for your paper, and focusing on your thesis. This is also the work that can only happen when we work without being distracted. On that note, if you have a to-do list, throw it away as they are truly overrated. The best way to ensure that you do what has to be done is simply by asking yourself, “Did I do what I said I was going to do, for as long as I said I would, without distraction?” . That’s it. It’s not about being done with the task but rather about doing it for as long as you said you would without distraction.

3. Hacking back external triggers

This one is perhaps one of the simpler techniques: it is about looking at whether this external trigger is serving me or am I serving it? As mentioned before, external stimuli come from your outer environment, as for example your phone and social media. The best way to hack this is by putting time in your calendar to be on social media, the reason why is because this way you are doing it with intent rather than having it as a distraction where you are working on a project and every 2 minutes you look at your phone. Simply schedule working 40 minutes on this assignment and then have a 10-minute break where you can go on your phone, and let the cycle do its magic. When it comes to hacking, it means gaining unauthorized access. Big media companies do this 24/7 with you as they make money by hacking your attention and then selling it to advertisers at a higher price. They don’t want you off the app because they lose money, so YOU have to decide for yourself to hack back. Some ways to do this are by limiting your time on social media.

4. Prevent Distraction With Pacts

This technique is much more extreme than the others. It’s almost a firewall or a line of defense preventing us from getting distracted. It is also very important to know that you shouldn’t do this technique if you have not done the other three before. The reason why is because you will then have an internal trigger coming in saying, “oh, well I don’t really feel like actually doing this”.This technique has to do with taking steps today in order to prevent yourself from doing something you will regret. There are usually two effective types of pacts: 

The first one is called price packs and usually involves money. You make a pact with yourself where you set a goal for X amount of time and there is usually either a reward or a punishment revolving around money. Example: You say you will exercise every day (whether that is going to the gym or doing 10 jumping jacks) and if one day you don’t exercise you have to burn €100 euros. 

The second one is identity pacts, where you have a type of moniker or use a noun to describe yourself. For example, someone who is a vegetarian would not even consider having meat for lunch, why? Because they are vegetarians which is part of their identity. When we make a pact with ourselves and others to identify ourselves as being a certain type of person, we become much more likely to not need willpower or self-control. 

Every technique listed above has to do with not only commitment, but also respecting yourself to the point where you understand that you can count on yourself to lead the life that you want to live.

Illustration by M. Wildan Cahya Syarief

Make sure you try these techniques and tell us via @ieustork which one was more useful for you! Stay tuned for other articles very soon!

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