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Working Smart III: Focus Strategies

Interestingly, the best remedies for inability to keep your mind one-pointedly on the task at hand are the same as the Pacing Strategies (see post above). So if lack of focus is your main productivity issue, I recommend you start with those. If, however, you’re already pursuing those avenues and feel you need further help, here are some quickies.

Here-Now Update. Here’s a quick helper to try on your breaks. This 30-second exercise brings your mind's attention fully into this space, this time.

Stand up. Look at the wall ahead of you. Now close your eyes. Open them again and see something you didn’t see the first time (any small detail: a speck of dirt, a shadow…). Look to your left. Do the same with that wall. Then the wall to your right. The wall behind you. And finally, the ceiling. Close your eyes again, enjoy three deep breaths, then sit back down.

Relaxation Response. Stress, that bugbear of the modern workday, can haul you off into mind-stories that have nothing to do with your current project. Your mind tries to protect you from feeling your tired, tense body by taking you far, far away… Doing this classic de-stresser at least once an hour can help keep you here, now.

Take a long, deep breath in through your nose; notice your shoulders rising. Then blow the breath out through your mouth with a whispered “whoo!” or “hah!” At the same time, let your shoulders drop and slump forward so your chest caves in slightly. Then straighten, but with shoulders down and relaxed.

Not to mention the side benefits. It turns out the physiological results of doing this little exercise once an hour (or more!) are staggering. The deep breath and shoulder-slump both signal the body to reset to baseline, canceling those unnoticed stress responses that have risen as we instinctively defended ourself against the assaults of our day. Blood pressure and heart rate both fall, stomach-acid production goes down, the dreaded stress hormone cortisol is placed by healthy cortisone, and much, much more. By doing this “reset” once an hour, by the end of the day you can be about where you started after a night’s rest, instead of accumulating 16 hours’ worth of body tension and mental distress. And here’s a great bonus: after you’ve done this several times a day for even two or three days, the body will take over, adding this to your store of unconscious habits. You’ll find yourself doing this when you didn’t consciously initiate it; and every time you do it, your body benefits and your mind’s willingness to stay here, now, increases. (Note: another great time to practice the RR consciously is at red lights!)

Music Monitor. The third aid to focus is one that our stimulus-pervaded society has trouble with: stillness. Perhaps our addiction to a constant stream of transmitted sound, from loudspeakers or our own ear buds, is a way to fend off all the other noise in our environment; nonetheless, music is a distraction to some of us.

If, after applying the other focus remedies you are still having trouble focusing on your work, first try switching to only instrumental music, no vocals. Then turn the volume down progressively, day by day, until you can hear it barely or not at all. Enjoy the stillness!

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