Personal Development

How to Effortlessly Focus For 2.5 Hours at a Stretch

Written by Andrew Long

Okay, I admit, the headline sounds a little bit outrageous. Most folks I know have trouble focusing for 15 minutes at a stretch, let alone 2.5 hours.

Why is this?

It’s because everything in our digital environment — from the ping of incoming text messages to the buzz of constant status updates — conspires to interrupt us, break our concentration, and encourage us to procrastinate by reaching for a quick, sugary spike of ‘instant gratification,’ rather than buckling down and finishing the job.

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What are the heights you might soar to, if you were able to prioritize, focus, and finish?

First off, let’s get the obvious out of the way: every single person reading this article already has the ability to focus, uninterrupted, for 2.5 hours at a stretch.

How do I know that?

Easy. When was the last time you went to a movie?

“But that’s different,” you say. “That’s in a dark theater, with a huge screen, and surround-sound, and everybody knows not to talk or ask me questions…that’s totally the opposite of my work environment!”

To which I say, Exactly.

Could it be that your work environment itself is a distraction?

Many modern workers think so: sitting down, constantly connected to the world’s greatest distraction machine (a computer hooked up to the Internet) with a schedule turned into time-confetti by near-constant ‘drive-by questions’ and internal meetings.

What are we to do?

Well, what if you really did do your work in a dark theater?

I’m only half-joking. Sensory deprivation is just one of the techniques that can help us screen out distractions and create focus. How can you change your workstation or environment to produce more focus?

If you’re one of the lucky folks who can work from home or remotely, think about changing up your physical environment so it’s a little more of a “cell” — that is, a featureless space, empty of tantalizing books, magazines or distractions, where your view is dominated by the work in front of you. It’s a great idea to remove the phone, or at least put it on silent (or better yet, put it on silent in another room) while you’re being productive. It’s an even better idea to disconnect your computer from the Internet during key work time.

Let’s look at the other aspect of the movie theater that makes it so easy to focus: the social agreement not to talk or ask each other questions. (Yes, I’m aware of the omnipresent couple that loves their witty commentary, or the young child who has to dialogue with the on-screen characters.)

What if you had a no-talking rule at work? What about even two hours of no-talking, first thing in the morning, one day a week? Certainly this is not an unreasonable proposal. Consider it a social experiment! Maybe you can propose it to your team at the next staff meeting? What sort of productivity ‘return on investment’ might it yield?

Let’s recap what we’ve discussed so far:

  1. Work in a dark theater.
  2. Disconnect the Internet.
  3. Have a no-talking rule in effect for the full 2.5 hours.

Here’s a final, powerful tip that even highly effective people often get wrong: taking breaks. 

Most people don’t take enough breaks, and when they DO, they use precious, limited willpower on the choice of activity they engage in during their breaks. (And I’m not even talking about “smoke breaks.” Don’t get me started.)

What most people do for a “break” is “fire up Facebook” or “check out some news headlines.” Bad, bad, bad.

Here’s why:

  • Facebook drains willpower. It forces you to process items sequentially and, for each item, decide whether to engage or ignore; whether to “like” or comment. It’s just another email inbox. Scientific studies have shown that the more time we spend on Facebook, the more depressed we get.
  • Most news headlines are negative, lurid, designed for titillation, or just plain dumb. They often start our brain ruminating on nonproductive thoughts.
  • The dopamine vs. oxytocin cycle. Most people view a break as a way to get a “quick fix” of pleasure, in the typical case, by checking personal email or social feeds for something delightfully unexpected (which gives us a good-feeling hit of the brain chemical dopamine.) What actually restores our willpower and gives us more “gusto” to continue focusing, however, is the nerve-calming, soothing brain chemical oxytocin, which is produced when we pet a furry animal, take a walk in nature, get a massage, or give a hug. 

Here are 10 better ideas with what to do with your “break time” than Facebook, Twitter, sugary donuts, caffeine hits, news headlines, cigarettes, or water-cooler gossip:

  1. Walk around the block
  2. Stare into nature
  3. Pet an animal
  4. Give / get a hug
  5. Hold hands with someone
  6. Get or give a quick massage
  7. Just zone out (unfocused eyes, relaxed body)
  8. Full, deep, slow breathing (try to take no more than 4-5 breaths per minute)
  9. Praying or meditating (even for 5 minutes)
  10. Listening to music

Okay, here’s the final tipsheet:

  1. Work in a dark theater (or the closest thing you can create to a dark theater.)
  2. Disconnect the Internet.
  3. Have a no-talking rule in effect for the full 2.5 hours.
  4. Take breaks that truly recharge you, rather than reaching for dopamine-inducing attentional junk food.

Will these tips allow you to achieve 2.5 hours of uninterrupted focus? Maybe eventually. If you have trouble going 5 minutes without switching tasks today, it may take some time. But if implementing even one of these tips helps you spend even 10 extra minutes focused, I’ll consider my job done.

Let me know about your favorite focus hacks in the comments!

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About the author

Andrew Long

Andrew Long is the founder of FierceGentleman.com based in San Francisco, California. He is currently facilitating men's groups & retreats in northern California and coaching men who want to leave their jobs and start their own businesses.