The Mindful Way to Actually Focus at Work
"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
— Alexander Graham Bell, inventor
"It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much."
— Alain de Botton, writer
How many notifications have you seen today?
Think of your emails, texts, tweets, and so on. Unless you started reading this post the moment you woke up, you’ve likely already encountered dozens of alerts calling for your attention.
That’s a lot of noise.
Sometimes it can feel as though everyone in your contacts list is physically crowded around your workplace (alongside a crew of spammy marketers), trying to get you to notice them. That might make for a fun party (depending on your contacts list and sans the marketers), but it doesn’t make for a productive work environment.
So, how do you set yourself up for success?
In his book Deep Work, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport says that true productivity requires dedicated commitment to a single task. Without dedicated commitment, the chances of doing deep work (which Newport defines as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”) are zilch.
That’s a tragedy because knowledge work is deep work. You might be able to disengage your brain during routine tasks such as gardening or washing the dishes, but you can’t disengage as a knowledge worker and be truly successful.
You need a simple way to analyze your workday and experience deep work.
See, Hear, Feel: A simple way to analyze your workday.
Shinzen Young, mindfulness teacher and neuroscience consultant for Harvard Medical Center, offers a way forward — one that can immediately make a difference in your daily work.
To start, Young says that everything we experience is filtered to us in one of three ways:
- That which we see.
- That which we hear.
- That which we feel.
See, hear, feel.
It may seem like an overgeneralization, but think of anything you’ve experienced — books you’ve read, lectures you’ve listened to, pain you’ve felt, etc. It’s all filtered to us via one of these three categories.
Young says there’s also an inner element to these three ways we experience life. That is, just as we see, hear, and feel externally, we also see, hear, and feel internally.
Put simply, it looks like this.
Your outer experience consists of:
- Seeing with your eyes.
- Hearing with your ears.
- Feeling sensation with your body (including taste, touch, and smell).
Your inner experience consists of:
- Seeing inside your mind (i.e., imagination).
- Hearing inside your mind (i.e., thoughts).
- Feeling inside your mind and body (i.e., emotions).
See, hear, feel — in and out.
That’s it. Everything you're aware of moment to moment is filtered to you in one of these ways.
So, what does any of this have to do with deep work?
For starters, if you’re mindful of how your attention shifts throughout the day, you'll recognize patterns — and once you recognize patterns, you can begin to fix the problem.
Begin with asking the right questions about your outer and inner experience.
Questions about your outer experience —
See: Does your work setup make you prone to visual distractions? Do you sit in an area where co-workers consistently walk by your workspace? Do onscreen notifications from messaging apps pull you away from the task at hand, destroying your ability to focus for long periods of time?
Hear: Are you distracted by noise around the office? Do nearby conversations tug at your attention?
Feel: Are you consistently tired or hungry at a certain time each day? Are you ever too cold or too hot to focus?
Questions about your inner experience —
See: Do you regularly get lost in daydreams?
Hear: Do you keep returning to the same unhelpful thought over and over? Are thoughts about your daily to-do list sometimes so loud they pull you away from the task at hand?
Feel: Do you frequently get swept up in a pattern of unhealthy emotions at work?
These questions set you up to focus.
“Be on guard. The road widens, and many of the detours are seductive.”
― David Foster Wallace, writer
The moment you analyze each of these six filters (see, hear, feel — out and in), it's clear there are many ways to be distracted. And yet by systematically naming these detours and observing how they play out in your day, you can start to take charge of your workday.
It helps to first address your primary source of distraction.
If you're primarily pulled away by visuals, you might do what it takes to change your seating arrangement or turn off all notifications for set periods each day. If you're primarily pulled away by noise, you might do what it takes to carve out quiet time to focus, even if it requires you to schedule a meeting room for yourself. If you're primarily pulled away by unhealthy emotions, you might look directly at the core cause and unflinchingly work to address it.
In a word, this is the practice of concentration, a practice which the writer Jack Kornfield compares to training a puppy to sit still. You tell the puppy to sit still, and yet the puppy wanders, again and again and again — until it finally learns. In the same way, developing a habit of concentration requires you to return to the task at hand over and over, regardless of what is being filtered to you via your outer or inner experience.
In this way, you'll eventually experience what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls flow, or a state in which you're "so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” That’s the state of mind where deep work occurs and you reach genuine productivity day in and day out.
Fortunately, experiencing flow is not impossible, even in the digital age. In fact, although at times it may seem not seem like it, technology can make flow more likely by enabling you to better manage your work and focus on your most important task in each moment. For instance, creative team members at Fender used modern work management technology to eliminate 30–40% of their time in meetings and focus instead on their primary work.
In parting, I’ll offer a word of warning: Keeping your focus on work, work, work might turn you into a curmudgeon. (All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes.) So be sure to structure deliberate breaks into the day. Have lunch with coworkers and friends. Find moments to rejuvenate.
Just note that such moments of rejuvenation are far more likely to occur when coupled with deep work rather than in its absence. As Csíkszentmihályi says of flow, “Happiness takes a committed effort to be manifested.” Joy stems from concentrated effort.
And that, really, is the true benefit of a mindful approach to deep work.
For more on this topic, read Chris Brogan’s “Why Your To-Do List is the Enemy,” where Brogan outlines the idea of blocking out at least nine 20-minute segments each day to practice deep work.