In the ancient story of Mahabharata – the great Indian war that happened five thousand years ago – there was a famous archer, Dronacharya. All the princes used to come to learn archery from him. His most intimate disciple was Arjuna, whose concentration was the reason for this intimacy, because archery depends on concentration.
One day Dronacharya was examining his disciples. He asked one disciple, Yudhishthira, Arjuna’s eldest brother… Dronacharya had hung a dead bird on a tree, and the dead bird’s right eye was the target. He told Yudhishthira – he was the first, being the eldest – “Take the bow and the arrow, but before you shoot, I have to ask you something.”
He became ready with his bow and arrow, and Dronacharya asked him, “What are you seeing?”
He said, “I see everything – all the trees, all the birds.”
The second man was called in and asked, “What are you seeing?”
He said, “I can see only the bird.”
The third man was Arjuna. Dronacharya asked him, “What are you seeing?”
Arjuna said, “Only the right eye of the bird.”
Then Dronacharya told all three to shoot their arrows. Yudhishthira’s arrow went so far off… you cannot even say it missed – the distance between his arrow and the bird was so big. The second man’s was a little closer, but still did not reach the right eye – it hit the bird. But Arjuna’s arrow hit exactly the right eye of the bird. And the right eye of the bird on a faraway tree is such a small spot…
But Dronacharya said, “Just your answers had given me a sense of who was going to hit the target. If you see so many trees, you are not focused. If you see only the bird you are more focused, but still you are not focused on the right eye. The whole bird is a big thing in comparison to the right eye. But when Arjuna said, ‘I can’t see anything else except the right eye,’ then it was certain that his arrow was going to reach the target.”
If you’ve ever found it difficult to get through a challenging task at work, studied for an important exam, or spent time on a finicky project, you might have wished you could increase your ability to concentrate. In this digital world, we are easily distracted. Information is everywhere and we feel the need to deal with increasing and multiple forms of information. It drags on our time and our attention. You pick up your phone to call someone and notice notification on WhatsApp and after some time you even forget why you had picked the phone in the first place. Our daily routine is dominated by switching in and out of our mobile phones and computer. We get a constant influx of messages from WhatsApp, email, and other apps that are somehow critical to our job. We constantly search for information to help solve our daily problems or get our work done.
Frequent distractions affect productivity. It takes longer to finish a task. We don’t listen as well. We don’t comprehend things as well, whether with our partner or with colleagues, and end up in misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and conflict. It affects memory. We forget things or can’t recall information promptly which affects our personal life and professional image.
Toolkit to improve Focus
- Eliminate Distraction: Make a practice to block time in your schedule to do a specific task or activity. During this time, request that you be left alone or go to a place where others are unlikely to disturb you. Close social media and other apps, silence notifications, and keep your phone away. As described in Harvard Business Review, researchers found that cognitive capacity was significantly better when the phone was out of sight, not just turned off. Keep Your primary focus is to complete what you need to do. Shutting off both internal and external disturbances can help you to concentrate.
- Minimize multitasking:Multitaskers might seem superhuman, but they pay a big price, according to a 2009 Stanford study. Close all tabs if working online.
- Meditate: There are many studies which show that who meditated for just 20 minutes a day for four days performed better on certain cognitive tests. They were also less likely to engage in “mind-wandering” and were generally happier.
- Exercise regularly :Exercises like running, swimming, and weight lifting aren’t just good for the body. They promote brain health, too, which is important for memory capacity and concentration.
- Establish a to-do list: To-do lists not only help you prioritize what tasks you need to get done first, but they can also serve as a record of the loose ends. Moreover, incomplete work could eat away at your concentration. This stems from something called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency to remember incomplete tasks instead of completed ones.
- Try Caffeine: If you’re feeling groggy, grab a cup of coffee. Studies suggest that caffeine may, in moderate doses, help to boost focus — particularly in those of us who are fatigued. But don’t over do, or you might get the caffeine jitters, which typically reduce your ability to concentrate. You can also try a cup of tea, which won’t give you the quick buzz like coffee but can provide you energy for a longer period thanks to the L-theanine chemicals in it that our bodies metabolize throughout the day.
- Get more sleep: Many factors affect your sleep. One of the most common is reading from an electronic device like a computer, phone, or tablet or watching your favorite movie or TV show on an LED TV just before bedtime. We had a Good Vibes issue devoted to toolkit for better sleep and you can check that out here
- Take a short break: This also might seem counterintuitive, but when you focus on something for a long time, your focus may begin to die down. You may feel more and more difficulty devoting your attention to the task. Taking very small breaks by refocusing your attention elsewhere can dramatically improve mental concentration after that. The next time you are working on a project, take a break when you begin to feel stuck. Move around, talk to someone, or even switch to a different type of task. You will come back with a more focused mind to keep your performance high. Try Pomodoro method. Work for 25 minutes, taking five minute breaks in between 25 minute intervals. After four of these intervals, you can take a longer 15-30 minute break. This method of time blocking gives you the needed break in between work sessions to help you maintain focus longer and more sustainably.
- Stare at a distant object for a few minutes: Many of us spend most of our waking hours staring at a digital screen, which can strain our eyes and actually make it more difficult to focus on, and therefore process, what we’re looking at. To refocus the eyes, just stare at a distant object for a few minutes. You may try the “20-20-20 rule”. It goes like this: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to stare at an object at least 20 feet away.
- Train your brain: Scientific research is starting to amass evidence on the ability of brain training activities to enhance cognitive abilities, including concentration, in adults. Such brain training games can also help you develop your working and short-term memory, as well as your processing and problem-solving skills. Examples of such games include jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, chess, and brain-stimulating video games.
(Earlier in the year I had read the book Stolen Focus by Johann Hari and also recommended in one of my newsletters. This is a small excerpt from that book )
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – the fact that these apps and other online platforms suck so much of your time isn’t a design flaw. They’re supposed to be addictive. After all, there’s a reason tech companies calls its customers “users.”
And where did this design originate? That’s easy: the Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University. In the early 2000s, the lab asked whether the theories of influential behavioral psychologists could be incorporated into computer code – in other words, it asked whether tech can change human behavior. And the answer, as you might have guessed, was yes.
Here’s an example. One of the psychologists studied in the lab was B. F. Skinner. Skinner was famous for the experiments he conducted on rats. He’d present a rat with a meaningless task, like pushing a button. But the rat showed no interest in doing this – why would it?
So Skinner modified the task. Now, every time the rat pressed the button, it would be rewarded with a pellet of food. Rewards would motivate animals, Skinner found, to carry out tasks that had no intrinsic meaning to them.
Can’t relate to the rat and the button? Well, Skinner inspired the creation of other buttons you might recognize: like buttons, share buttons, and comment buttons. Those little hearts and emojis and retweet buttons aren’t design quirks; they’re programming us to use social media in addictive ways by rewarding us for the time we spend on the platforms.
These buttons keep us engaging longer. But they’re only one of the many design elements geared at keeping us online. Here’s another one: the infinite scroll. Back in the early days of the internet, web pages were just that: pages. Sites often comprised multiple pages; when you got to the bottom of one, you clicked through to the next. The bottom of each page offered a built-in pause. If you wanted to keep browsing, you had to actively decide to click ahead.
That is, until Aza Raskin stepped in. Raskin invented the infinite scroll – the endlessly refreshing feed of content that now features on the interface of nearly every social media platform, giving the impression that there is a never-ending supply of content. If likes and shares encourage users to stay online longer, the infinite scroll encourages users to stay online in perpetuity.
Raskin, however, has come to regret his invention. At first, he thought the infinite scroll was elegant and efficient. But he became troubled when he noticed how it was changing online habits – including his own. Noticing that he was spending longer and longer on social media, Raskin started to do the math. He estimates that the infinite scroll induces the average user to spend 50 percent more time on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The business model of most of these platforms is predicated on time – or, as they call it, engagement. This refers to how much time a user spends interacting with a product. That’s the metric tech companies use to measure their success – not money, but minutes. But money does play a part, too. Because the longer you spend “engaging,” the more chances the companies have to sell advertisements. The more you engage, the more companies track your behavior and build a profile uniquely designed to target you with specific ads. We don’t pay for platforms like Facebook and Instagram with our money. But we do pay with another precious, finite commodity: our attention.
Time equals money. The money is theirs. And the time – the attention – is yours. We can reclaim our attention … if only we can focus on the task at hand.
What do you think? Have you noticed a decline in your ability to sustain focus? Do you lose time diving down rabbit holes, only to emerge blinking into the daylight wondering what just happened? Do you skip the 20 min read in favour of the 2 min read.
If you have managed to read all the way through this newsletter without getting distracted, Congratulations!
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We have also archived all the old issues and you can access them at www.sandeepmall.com. They contain some very good tool kits to take charge of your well being.
See you next week .
The information provided in this newsletter is not medical advice, nor it should be taken as a replacement for medical advice. I am not a medical Doctor so I don’t prescribe anything. Most of the tools suggested are based out of scientific research and my experiments with them. Your healthcare, your wellbeing is your responsibility. Anything we suggest here, please filter it through that responsibility.