While writing the title, I checked Instagram twice, spent 15 minutes texting my friend, and stared blankly at my screen for way longer than I’d like to admit. When it comes to productivity, focus is everything. We want to be able to finish our tasks quickly. We want to be able to complete the projects we start. We want to be able to give our full attention to others. But focus is also difficult. How are we supposed to focus? What do we…um…yes, what do we do to focus?
Focus is an important thing. Whether it is for schoolwork, internships, or even working on our hobbies, being able to ‘get into the flow state’ and work productively ensures that we can finish what we need to do in the shortest amount of time possible.
But alas, focus is a hard thing to achieve (I just checked both my email and Instagram (again) while writing this introduction). According to research, it was found that Millennials and Gen-Zs unlock their phones upwards of 60 times per day (working out to 3.75 times an hour if we sleep 8 hours a day). And since it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for us to regain focus after each distraction, we’re spending A LOT of our time not focusing on the tasks at hand.
But, how are we supposed to focus? Is there a secret button to press somewhere? Do we just have to tell ourselves to get into the zone? To find out the answer, I asked around to find out the different focus techniques that are being used:
Benjamin Javitz, Editor-in-chief for Osqledaren: “I use good noise canceling headphones especially if there are many people around. I also take breaks because I’ve heard that you can’t focus for more than 45-50 minutes at a go. Take a 10-minute break and go somewhere to clear your mind”
Carlos Casanueva, Associate Professor: “It depends on the task and activity — meetings, group work, course development, and other collective activities do not typically require me to explicitly focus; others like extensive reading and writing require me to reserve a longer chunk of time (I try to use “time blocking” for 1.5 hours or more) and have lo-fi beats or brown noise in the background. Sometimes I throw the smartphone into the backpack or to another room to avoid getting distracted.”
Sarabjot Kaur, Nuclear Physicist: “Break bigger tasks into smaller ones and enjoy the small wins every day. For me, one major reason for my focus fading away is my anxiousness about what the future holds. So, I create lists of pending tasks at the beginning of the day and try to complete as many as I can.
Yuki Okamoto, exchange student from Tokyo: “I can’t concentrate in noisy places, or even when I am around my friends. As such, I often go to the silent room in the library to study. At the same time, I also find that massaging the acupuncture points on my hands helps me stay awake and ready to focus.”
Okay, those were some very good tips for focusing while studying and doing homework. What about attending a lecture or a seminar? What can we do to ensure that we don’t end up distracted in class? Professor Joseph Siegel of Stockholm University (who has studied classroom interactions, practices, and language teaching pedagogy) has given us 3 tips that might be able to help:
“a) work and reward: promise yourself some rewards (a coffee, some net surfing time, etc.) if you stay focused for the entire class but try to avoid "rewarding" yourself during study time/lectures.
b) prepare and predict: do all pre-lecture reading so you are familiar with relevant terms and material. Then you can see during the lecture where the teacher is covering "familiar" ground and where they are introducing new material. Especially for the new material, you'd likely want to take notes. Also, predict. As the teacher is speaking, actively guess what they will say next. This could be the word, phrase, sentence, or longer section length. Our brains are always predicting upcoming language input based on patterns we've heard before. By actively and consciously doing this, listeners will be more focused on the speaker.
c) take it all in: Teachers never feel they have enough time with students, so they make many conscious choices of what to say, share, include, and show during lessons. Students should be aware and try to draw out / milk each piece of input for as much information and meaning as possible. In addition, students should use their attention to look for links and connections between these different sources of multimodal input.”
Basically, if you want to focus in class, one of the key things that you have to do is to remain engaged. I know, we’ve all been there. We tell ourselves “Hey, you know what, we’ve seen that particular slide before, I’ll just take a quick peek at my Instagram feed”. Before you know it, it’s the end of class and you haven’t stopped looking at social media.
Okay, but that’s the listening side of things. What if we want to capture the attention of others? What if we are presenting and we want other people to focus on what we are saying? Are there any special presentation styles that we can use to encourage others to focus? Prof Siegel shares 4 (+ 1 bonus!) tips with us:
“a) Use voice qualities to attract the listener's attention. This means varying pitch, speed, word stress, etc. Use pauses effectively, especially if one has said something that might take time to process. Say the complicated point. Pause and let it sink in before moving on.
b) Rephrase. Use signposts like "In other words", "To put it another way", etc. These signal to the listener that they are about to hear an "easier" or more accessible version of a potentially complicated idea. These signals also show the listener that they are essentially hearing the same idea twice, which means it is an important one.
c) Use signposts in general; for example, First, Next, Another main point, The last thing I want to talk about...etc. These add structure and clarity to speech and also help the listener understand the organization.
d) provide some kind of comprehension check ("Are you with me?", "Know what I mean?") and look for physical signs of comprehension / non-comprehension (facial expressions, sighs, etc.)
I would also add that it can be helpful to do/say something somewhat unpredictable to get/keep the audience's attention. I don't mean crazy or silly but something that keeps to the main point but is delivered in a memorable way.”
But as with every journey, we don’t only spend time doing work and presenting. Sometimes, we have projects (both academic and fun) to work on. How can we stay focused on these? To find out, I interviewed Carlos Casanueva, Associate Professor in Rail Vehicles and Program Responsible for the 5-year Vehicle Engineering program (Farkostteknik CivEng). Before answering the questions, Carlos also stressed that because he is ADHD-inattentive, he has challenges with organizing his work, focusing on certain tasks, and having a good long-term understanding of the projects. As such, his perspective might not apply to everyone.
“[Project management] is arguably one of the most difficult skills to master. Different projects require different focus at different times, so to have a person specifically in charge of project management (and nothing more) would be the best option so that the personnel, time, and resources are distributed properly. This is possible for bigger companies but not for students or universities though…
My approach here is to write a weekly review of my work where I go through my notes and recall the coming deadlines, the running tasks (tasks with no real deadline or periodicity like courses), what was done, what was not (and from that what is important or can be pushed or delegated). I use a simplified bullet journalling technique for my notes where I only have one “journal” where I write work-related stuff, then every week I “restart” or “process” everything from the previous week (so I only have one week of pages or activities to look back). It takes some time but is a good investment for me.”
Of course, focus isn’t easy and sometimes, we will find ourselves distracted. Carlos shared that “the one specific activity that I find challenging is keeping focus while processing emails and keeping my mailbox in check – it needs both a proactive and reactive attitude. Some emails can be processed in a minute while others require more work – here the focus can shift quite a lot, and my brain can start losing focus and jump from mail chain to mail chain with the risk of forgetting what I was doing.”. And I think, at the end of the day, it is important for us to recognize that we aren’t all robots that can continually focus all day. Some of us will find different tasks challenging to focus on while other tasks will bring us into the ‘flow’ instantly. All we can do is try our best and apply different techniques to help ourselves focus better when doing work. If you do happen to lose focus, don’t beat yourself up for it. Accept it and try again when you are more ready to focus.
And now, if you are still focusing and reading this(!), I want to reward you before you go…by giving you even more to read! As I went around knocking heads, I also asked another question: what works will you recommend others to read in order to their improve focus?
Benjamin: Thinking Fast and Slow — a very detailed book about human psychology and the two systems in your brain. I think there were a few things about focus in the book.
Professor Joseph Siegel: For presentation styles, there is a great book — Presentation Zen by Garr Renolds. Otherwise, Developing Notetaking in a Second Language by Joseph Siegel and the article “Academic Listening and Lecture Notetaking for Ll/L2 Students: The Need to Investigate the Utility of the Axioms of Good Notetaking” by Patricia A. Dunkel (1988). There are likely more technical works on attention, etc. but I'd say these three are more accessible to students than more research-type works.
Carlos Casanueva: For books about how to organize things or time management-related topics, there is Getting Things Done by David Allen, a classic book that details a method to get things done. The method itself can be overcomplicated but it introduces some concepts that one can adapt to their routines for keeping the work on track, especially when there are different courses or projects to track or work with. Another book is Drive by Daniel Pink — it provides great insight on how to motivate people and talks about what drives us (which helps with focusing!)
And from me: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker — while this is not a book about focus per se, this book highlights why sleep is important for us and how getting enough sleep is key to allowing us to learn and focus. Especially as students that probably don’t get enough sleep, this book will help you realize the importance of sleep, and by association, improve your focusing abilities!