What is focus?
Let's take an example. Have you ever seen a hassled mom trying to get her young daughter to leave whatever she is doing and do something else? It's a common enough sight: Young children can get so wrapped up in whatever they're doing that it takes a lot of persuasion to get them to switch their attention.
This ability to focus totally on one thing comes naturally to young children, but it's one of the biggest challenges that most of the rest of us face. We struggle to concentrate and, because of this, fail to get on with the work we're doing.
Some people, though, seem able to focus intensely on what they're doing, and perform exceptionally well as a result. Modern psychologists refer to this state of absolute absorption or concentration in what we are doing, as being "in flow."
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, suggests that this state of being able to achieve total focus applies to almost every field of activity. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow involves "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost". So how do we enter this "ecstatic" state?
Creating the Right Environment
Flow is easiest to achieve when: You have enough pressure on you to stay engaged, but not so much that it's harming your performance. You believe that your skills are good enough to perform well. You have distraction under control. You are attending to the task in hand, rather than analyzing and critiquing your performance. You are relaxed and alert. You are thinking positively, and have eliminated all negative thoughts.
Some of these are hard to achieve in a busy office environment. Your phone rings, your e-mail beeps to indicate that a new message has arrived, and co-workers pop by to ask you questions. At the same time you can't stop thinking about a whole range of personal and work issues that are causing you stress, not least of which is the sheer quantity of work which is piling up.
So if you're to have a good chance of getting into flow, you need to sort out all of these distractions first. Here are some practical things from time management courses you can do to improve your productivity:
Get comfortable, and eliminate distraction from your environment. Rearrange your working environment so that you eliminate as many distractions as possible. Change the orientation of your desk, so that people passing don't distract you. Use plants and screens to damp noise. Adjust furniture so that it's comfortable. If untidiness distracts you, tidy up. Make sure the temperature is comfortable, and that your work area is well lit.
Keep interruptions at bay. Put up the "Do not disturb" sign, switch off your cell phone, close your email reader and web browser, and do anything, anything that will block the most common things that distract you from work. You'll be surprised at how much you can get done in just one hour of uninterrupted work, which may be the equivalent of plodding on for several hours if you're handling interruptions at the same time. Handling interruptions is a key time management skill.
Manage your stress. Identify the sources of stress you experience with a Stress Diary, and then work to reduce or eliminate the greatest stressors. One of the most common sources of stress at work is feeling that you have too much to do. See our in-depth section on time management to find out how to deal with this. And if you're under so much pressure to perform that this is distracting you, use relaxation imagery to calm yourself down.
Keep a To-Do List or Action Program. Time management experts agree: empty your mind of those distracting things you have to do by writing them down in a to-do list or action program. You'll be amazed how much this can clear your mind! Do the same for worries - write them down and schedule a time to deal with them. And don't try to multi-task: Just concentrate on doing one thing well.
Think positively. It's very hard to concentrate if you have negative thoughts swirling around your mind. What's more, the negativity they cause undermines the way we deal with work, with people and with issues, often making things more difficult. So the final step in preparing to concentrate is to stop thinking negatively and start thinking positively.
Successful athletes commonly use relaxation and positive thinking techniques as they face the challenge of competition. They deal with their feelings of nervousness with relaxation techniques, and by reminding themselves that they have the skills needed to succeed. And when they are out there running, jumping, or throwing, they concentrate on what they're doing, rather than on the distractions around them.
Getting Into the Flow
With all of that in place, you can start to practice your concentration skills. Try to focus on one task at a time to the exclusion of others, as far as you can.
Before you know it, you will be in flow. You'll be so involved in any activity you undertake that nothing else seems to matter. Not only will your productivity increase, you'll find that your work is more rewarding. Flow is productive, flow is fun, and flow is essential for real success!
When you achieve a state of flow, you're able to achieve more because all of your thoughts and energy are focused on the task in hand. To get into a state of flow, you need to eliminate interruptions and distractions from your environment.
More than this, you need to empty your mind of worries, anxieties, negative thinking, and all those little "mental notes" that flit in and out of our consciousness. This sounds hard, but in reality is quite easy if you take the time to get into the right time management habits.