You don’t stay focused by avoidance, you stay focused by keeping your unwavering attention on the task at hand.
Thus, first of all, don’t try to avoid unwanted thoughts. Ignore them, acknowledge them, but don’t try to avoid them. That way you only fuel them.
Try to close your eyes, and focus on not seeing a pink elephant. Good luck! It will be probably the first picture that will pop up in your mind.
Your attention needs to go to things you want to focus on, not the thoughts you want to avoid. Controlling your attention and focus is a matter of practice. Here are some helpful techniques that you can practice regularly.
1. Clean Your Environment.
You need to avoid distractions when you try to focus. I mean the real distractions coming from the external world, not the ones coming from your mind. Try to keep your environment clean. Research has proven that even one piece of garbage on your desk works to your disadvantage.
Also, clean your digital environment. The only loud notifications I ever get on my mobile are about the old fashioned text messages. I have zero automatic notifications on my desktop computer. If I want to check if someone commented on my post on Facebook, I have to visit Facebook.
When I want true focus, I switch my mobile into silent mode, so even phone calls and text messages will not interrupt me.
I work mostly from home. I taught my kids to knock to my home office’s door if it is closed. That means I’m working and I don’t want to be interrupted. (I only wish I could teach my wife to knock…)
Sometimes, it’s enough to mentally separate yourself from distractions. My desk is always messy. Usually, it disturbs me in my work. As research has found, the mess provides cues for distractions.
But when I write, my eyes are glued to the keyboard and the screen. My eyes register the mess, but my mind ignores it. It also has to do with simple physical limitations. I truly don’t get my eyes away from screen for dozens of minutes, so there is nothing else that will jump into my sight.
I often write on crowded trains. I put earphones on, start my instrumental playlist and drown out the chatter of co-passengers. I glue my eyes to my laptop’s screen. Distractions are all around me, but they don’t reach my conscious mind.
Eliminate dissipative cues from your environment and focusing will get easier.
2. Practice Something Creative.
Play an instrument, paint or write. Those activities requires quite a focus to do them well. The more often you practice, your ability to focus will get better.
When you play, paint, write or do anything creative you need to dedicate your whole attention to the task at hand. It happens automatically. You get into the flow. You have to, or you won’t create whatever you want to create.
Practice and your ability to focus will grow. I mastered the art of focus for writing, but it also spilled to other areas of my life, including my day job. I procrastinate like everybody else on tasks I don’t like. But when I use my writing routine for work — I put earphones on, listen to my playlist and glue my eyes to the computer’s screen — I am able to knock out those disliked tasks in no time.
This is great shortcut to improving your focus and positive self-awareness. Meditation is like a gym for your mental “focus muscles.” When you lift weights, you flex your muscles with every repetition. When you meditate, you train your focus.
You have no idea how helpful it is, till you try. If unwanted thoughts attack you when you try to do something meaningful, try surviving their onslaught when you do nothing at all! They will come in throngs.
And it’s good. You see, the goal of meditation is not to think about nothing. Unwanted thoughts will bombard you, but you will go back to your meditation routine every single time. This is your repetitive exercise for training focus.
Reserve a couple minutes of your time, preferably in solitude.
Sit or lie and relax (not mandatory, but very helpful).
Close your eyes (not mandatory, but very helpful).
Breathe deeply for two minutes, focusing on the air flowing in and out of your nostrils. You can also focus on any of your body parts or sense your body in general. When a thought comes into your mind, acknowledge it and get back to what you were focusing on.
Congratulations. You’ve just meditated for the first time in your life; repeat this process ten days in a row and you will develop a stable meditation habit.
4. Remember Your Why.
If you keep in mind your deep reason for doing what you are doing, distraction will have no access to you. Acting with your “why” in mind makes all the difference. There is no better demonstration of this principle than the one shown in this short video:
Every day, before my first writing session I say a short prayer asking for divine guidance. It consists of all my whys — I want to serve, I don’t want to provide entertainment, but a real lasting life change for my readers.
Every morning, the first thing I do when I open my eyes is reciting my personal mission statement in my mind. This is a vision for who I want to become. This is how I want to be described in my eulogy. This is how I want to be remembered by others.
It’s deeply motivating. The words of my personal statement push me through everyday struggle and keep me focused on my mission.
Objectively speaking, I shouldn’t have published 15 books or have my answers on Quora read 5 million times. When I started six years ago I had exactly zero evidence to think it’s possible. It was a cosmic-size struggle. Even my wife was against me when I started writing.
I persevered through years of this struggle because I kept my “why” firmly in my mind.
Avoidance is not a good tactic to improve your focus. Practice is.
Remember your why.
Practice something creative.
Clean your environment.
Your focus will grow. You will grow.
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