“Do I have to do this right now? No, I can do this later. Get back to work.”
The ability to stay focused and concentrate on a single task is a critical ability of any productive person. To produce at an elite level, deeper and longer periods of concentration are required. To achieve these longer periods, one must learn how to let go of distracting, impulsive thoughts. Letting go of impulses is a skill that can be learned and will enable significantly longer periods of deep work.
I am not a psychologist or neurologist of any kind, so I will refrain from attempting a technical definition of impulse. Let’s just say that an impulse is a powerful, quick thought that compels action immediately. Note that an impulse is the thought, not the corresponding action. For example, I might be writing away on my latest blog post and I hear the notification sound from my smart phone. The impulse is the thought “Someone is trying to tell me something and its critical so I must check it now!” Impulses are a natural part of the human experience, and we will always have them. But we don’t have to always engage in them. Whenever we are doing something difficult, especially tasks that require deep focus and concentration, an impulse provides an opportunity to do something easier. Think of the ability to focus and concentrate as a muscle. Through repetition and resistance training, you can enhance and strengthen the ability to focus. Here I present a few exercises to help let go of impulses, strengthen those focus muscles, and give a major boost to your productivity.
Exercise 1: Let Go Of Impulses
We have impulses all day long. Check my email. Wash the dishes. I feel an itch on my butt, I better scratch it now. Check this website real quick. Click on this link. Click on that link. Let me check Wikipedia real quick to find out more about Channing Tatum. Install this software first. Need to stretch. I have to use the bathroom. Pay this bill now. The list goes on and on and on….
The best way to become stronger at letting go of impulse is to practice letting go of impulse. Throughout the day, be mindful of impulses – thoughts – that attempt to take you away from your current task. Even if you are not focusing on any particular task, practice being mindful of impulses to act. Practice observing the thoughts, letting them go, and not acting on them. The more impulses you can observe or identify and not act on, the better. Sometimes a single deep breath between the impulse and action is all it takes. Even if the impulse is something seemingly immaterial, like “I have an itch on my nose, I better scratch it!”, don’t do it! Let the itch pass, it will. Remember, the point is to let go of impulsive thoughts without acting on them. Strength is built through repetition.
It is important to let go of the impulse instead of trying to control it. When I have impulses to do something distracting, I take a deep breath and say to myself “Do I have to do this right now? No, I don’t. I can do this later. Back to work!” And then refocus my efforts on my current task.
Exercise 2: Limit Opportunities For Impulses
The less opportunities we have to trigger an impulse, the less we have to let go of. I personally keep my phone turned off unless I need to use it or am expecting a phone call. This limits any notifications or phone calls from distracting me from my work. You may also consider turning off your desktop email program, limiting the number of open screens you have on your desktop, and keeping your desk clean and tidy.
Exercise 3: Sprint Meditations
Last month I wrote an article on sprint meditations. You can read that post for all the details, but the idea is while walking, focus on something 30 or 40 meters in front of you, and do not turn your gaze from that object, no matter what the impulse to look away may be (except of course if you are crossing a street – please stay safe). Sprint meditations are great way to develop “tunnel vision”. While there are distractions going on in your peripheral vision, you are getting into the mental frame of staying focused and not looking away.
Exercise 4: Quick Idea Capture
Sometimes we have impulses that have valid corresponding actions. Maybe it’s a mental reminder to pay a bill by the end of the day. Or perhaps while coding an important assignment, you recall there is a blog site that gives great programming tips. While it may be a distraction to act on an impulse now, we don’t want to lose the reminder or thought either. In this case, its helpful to have a small notebook on hand so you can quickly jot down the idea, reminder, thought, action, etc. for later use. In addition to using a small notebook, to-do list apps are great for this sort of thing. I personally use Any Do. If you are going to use this strategy, be sure to spend no more than five to ten seconds recording the impulse and then get back to work! The idea is to capture the thought quickly, not to turn it into a formidable distraction.
I’ve presented a few exercises here to let go of impulsive thoughts and develop stronger focus muscles. Practicing letting go or limiting impulses, sprint meditations, and quick idea captures will all help it your quest for greater focus and elite productivity.