Stop thinking about productivity, and start thinking about focus.

Illustration of a man holding a coffee mug


If you’ve clicked on this article, you’ve probably seen a bunch of content with similar tips to boost your focus and productivity: make a schedule, get dressed, have a designated work environment, and ensure you get enough sleep and exercise. But while all of those tips may be true, they imply that focus is something that can be dealt with topically, that you can just tweak some aspects of your daily schedule and focus will magically appear.

The truth is a bit more complicated. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you’re willing to actually face the facts and begin a practice of focus, then the improvements you’ll see both at work and in your day to day life will be exponential.

So let’s weed out the facts from the overly-circulated hacks.

1. Focus is a state, not a result

Like all important things in life, focus takes practice, and it doesn’t just appear magically over night as a result of trading in sweatpants for slacks to wear at your home-office.

To understand how to focus better, we need to have a more clear definition of what focus is.

Often when we talk about focus we are actually talking about the results of focus, not the experience itself.

A lot of the current conversation about focus undermines itself before it even begins, because it tries to use focus rather than actually grow it. As long as we are treating focus like an object we can squeeze productivity juice out of, no one’s habits (or indeed productivity) is going to be radically changed.

Think about it: if achieving focus was as simple as following ‘5 focus hacks’, wouldn’t we all be enlightened, focused beings by now?

Focus isn’t getting more things done in the day, earning a promotion, or responding to every email.

So what is it?

Perhaps the thinker who has contributed most meaningfully to the science and philosophy of focus is the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his seminal work Flow. Though he is using a different term, Csikzentmihalyi is essentially talking about the same phenomenon, in which a person enters into a state of deep engagement with whatever they are focused on. The state is frequently described as existing outside of space and time, of being intensely pleasurable, and not impacted by the mundane itches of boredom, anxiety, or a desire for distraction. 

Focus, in this understanding, is not about a result, but a process. It’s an optimal state. The problem with states rather than results is that they are harder to quantify. It’s not something you can put on a list and check off. But the good news is that achieving a higher and higher state of focus is possible for all of us, whenever, wherever, and regardless of what we are working on. 

By separating focus from results, and seeing it in a more accurate light, we are able to free ourselves from a tyrannical, never-ending onslaught of expectation. We can learn to enjoy ourselves in a focused state, irregardless of outcome. And here’s the ironic secret–once you can learn to enjoy and practice focus in and of itself, outcomes will naturally increase both in quality and quantity.

Productivity is the buy-product of focus. 

2. Focus means trusting your judgment

Merriem-Webster defines focus as “a state of activity, attraction, or attention.” Focus is a way of being in relation to something external to us that makes that relationship stronger, more fulfilling, and more constructive. 

In simple terms, focus is what binds us meaningfully to things outside of ourselves. 

When we focus on something, whether it’s a conversation with a loved one, a passion project, or a key objective at work, we are giving it the entirety of our attention. That means trusting in and whole-heartedly giving ourselves over to one thing–which necessarily means ‘de-prioritizing’ other things. Therefore focus takes trust: in yourself, your judgement, and the object of your attention. 

The fact that focus requires trusting yourself is a critical psychological aspect that is given far too little attention. But think about it. Imagine that you are working hard on an important project with an upcoming deadline, and an email from a coworker comes in. Surely, from a rational, objective perspective, the best version of yourself knows that nothing could be more important than what you are working on. But the itch to check, and the dozens of justifications you come up with–ranging from hypothetical emergencies to the more nebulous social anxiety that if you don’t respond quickly you will be perceived as a bad team player–fill you with self doubt until you cave and toggle over to email. To stay focused is to trust that your initial judgement is correct, that you have accurately assessed what is of most import and directed your attention there. 

Focus, therefore, is delimited by the extent to which you can trust yourself and your judgement. It is a form of confidence, of boundary-setting, and of self awareness. 

3. Listing your priorities means precious little if you don’t trust the voice that lists them.

Once we see that focus can’t–and shouldn’t–be treated as a purely external phenomenon (ie only about our relationship to things outside of us, rather than also being about your relationship to ourselves), there are a number of ways we can improve our practice of focus. 

1. Pay attention to when you are confident in your judgment, and when you are insecure. 

2. Pay attention to the kinds of work that you stay more immersed in, longer, and the kinds of work you are constantly seeking a distraction from. 

3.Pay attention to how external factors (from the environment you work in to the amount and type of communication you have with others to time of day you do any given kind of activity) impacts how you feel about the work you are doing. 

As you may have noticed, each of the tips above is framed by ‘pay attention to.’ It sounds a little meta, but the importance of attention applies to the practice of focus, too. 

Getting good at focus means applying focus to your practice of focus. 

So pay attention. When are you most likely to get distracted? What type of distraction are you most prone to? By tracking yourself in relation to the onslaught of information that modern knowledge work entails, you will begin to see patterns. Once you see patterns, you will be better able to answer the most important question: 

Why do you get distracted?

NIr Eyal, in his timely, highly-readable book Indistractible, suggests that distraction comes from within. It is our boredom and anxiety that we seek reprieve from, and we just happen to live and work in an environment that provides us very easy access to off-ramps. 

Is your trigger a constant, low-simmering doubt in your self-worth? A fear that if you take too long responding to something your boss will fire you? Is your trigger a kind of resentment that your talents aren’t being recognized and utilized, the result being constant boredom at work?

If we refer once again to the work of Csikszentmihalyi and his work on flow, we see that a sense of fulfillment in our work is never dependent upon ideal external conditions of work (ie to have a job that perfectly suits our temperament, a dream boss, a work schedule perfect for our chronotype), but through the intentionality of how we approach our work. We could always have a more perfectly designed office, a better boss, a more engaging project. Instead of placing blame on external factors, we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our work, transforming what we are working on into a practice of focus, the practice of which is inherently meaningful. 

So trust yourself. If you blocked off your monday morning to finish a specific project, you were probably right to do so, and the likelihood that an email from your boss is actually a more important emergency is quite low. By refusing to give in to your insecurities and remain true to your state of focus, you are not only more likely to produce work that you feel proud of, but you are contributing to a lifelong practice of self-trust, confidence, and awareness. 

None of this is to say choosing focus is easy. Our digital work environments are stressful, chaotic spaces. Most of us have at least a dozen tabs open at any given time, and frequently far more. We have multiple emails, multiple drives, and multiple applications with overlaps in functions. We are constantly being notified and distracted by the very tools that claim to help us be productive.

In fact, even a brief glance at the research around our current work environment is pretty horrifying:

  1. Context switching can eat up to 80% of our focused work time.
  2. The average knowledge worker spends roughly a third of their week managing email.
  3. Studies show that distraction often leads to at least a ten point decrease in IQ.

Throwing out your computer, working off a typewriter, and sending letters isn’t a viable option for the knowledge worker today. For better or worse, technology and the trends of collaboration, remote work, and personal preference for best of breed tool sets is here to stay.

So how can we actually make the leap into a practice of focus, when our digital environment is constantly bombarding us?

  1. Set reasonable expectations around focus. This means disentangling ‘productivity’ from focus, and realizing that focus, while it can’t be easily quantified, it’s qualitatively a valuable state to practice, both for the sake of your work, and your well being. Studies show that we only have 4-5 hours of cognitive calories to use in a focused way each day. So instead of trying to spread it thin over 8 (or more) hours each day, run an experiment. Safeguard your 4-5 hours of work, simply not allowing distractions into your space, and then spend the remaining hours of work taking on the other aspects of your job that don’t require deep focus, like answering emails or having meetings. 
  2. Instead of being frustrated by the fact that focus is a lifelong practice, treat it as an opportunity for self growth. You will never ‘win’ at focus. You will never have mastered it. On the one hand, you could let this depress you. On the other, you could see it as a challenge that offers a chance at constant improvement in your confidence and your sense of meaningful contribution.
  3. It’s not about where you sit, it’s about your screen. While there is a lot of talk about decluttering the external space around our work and work habits — dress right, delete social media off your phone, have a space dedicated to work — there is less constructive, deep discussion about the nature of our real work environment, which isn’t our bedroom or office or coffeeshop, but the screen itself. Let’s face it: where we sit isn’t nearly as important an environment as the digital environment that we, as knowledge workers, are spending forty (or more) hours a week in. It’s critical that we organize our digital work environment in a way the promotes focus and filters out distractions. This leads to:
  4. Don’t buy into flashy solutions. Invest in solutions that will actually make a difference. Just as you need to set reasonable expectations around focus and what it will provide in any given day, you also need to be wary about the things you do use to help safeguard your focus. There’s a bunch of software out there that promises to essentially turn you into an automaton (as if that’s a good thing). Be wary of these solutions. Instead, investigate Unified Digital Workspace platforms that don’t compete for your attention, but protect it.

Whether you are a veteran ‘optimizer’ or a knowledge worker struggling to stay afloat, it’s time to break down the easy answers of productivity and roll up your sleeves for the real, meaningful work of focus.

In the words of Ann Lamont, “how we spend the hours is how we spend our lives.”