How to find your focus

Writing is hard. Unless your deadline is in less than an hour. Then writing can become strangely easier – if not considerably more stressful! Under the right conditions, we can find ourselves in what psychologists call a state of ‘flow’. This is something that we have all experienced at one time or another. You’ll have been there a hundred times before without realising it. You know that feeling when you’re so immersed in something that the time flies by, you are energised and hell bent on whatever you are doing and totally indistractable? That’s a state of flow.

Experts say that to get into flow, you need to have a task that you enjoy that isn’t too hard, but isn’t too easy either. The trouble is, you will often find yourself set pieces of work to complete that you don’t find particularly interesting and are the last thing that you want to spend your time doing! However, there are some other variables that you can play around with to make the process a lot less painful.

But first, let me tell you about Pavlovian conditioning. In this famous accidental discovery, Pavlov was researching dog saliva. He would feed his dogs on meat power (sounds delicious…) and measure their saliva through small tubes in their mouths. Initially, they would produce saliva when they were eating. But, the dogs soon began to associate Pavlov’s approaching footsteps with food, and would begin to salivate when they heard it. Pavlov was so fascinated by this discovery that he changed his entire research focus for the rest of his career. He could make dogs salivate to pretty much any stimulus, most famously a bell.

The reason that I’m telling you this is that I believe that you can condition yourself into finding your flow state. While you might have little to no control over the work you are set, you can control other factors like your environment and the time of day that you work. What you can then do is consistently put yourself in this environment and commit to working without distraction. You will then find that over time, in this setting finding your flow state will become much easier and you will get better work done in less time.

One of the key things that you can control is noise. And I think it’s important that you play around with this one, because most people assume that absolute silence is best for them, but that’s probably just because that’s what was encouraged at school. Here are some other options:

Music

Taste in music is very personal, but there are other factors to consider when choosing music to work to. The key here is that you are trying to condition yourself, so you need to be listening to the same music each time. So you need to choose carefully!

First you need to figure out what type of music suits your flow state best – and it is better to choose something that isn’t what you usually listen to. This is because you would be likely to hear this music when you are doing other activities, and you want to find music that you will only associate with a deep state of working. Test out listening to music with lyrics (which help some people but distract others) and instrumental tracks. Try something with a heavy beat and then something more fluid. Try jazz. Try classical. It doesn’t matter how cool you think the music is – you are going to be listening to it on your headphones and no one will be judging you!

One interesting genre of music is computer game music, particularly music written for games like The Sims. The purpose of this music is precisely to get you into a flow state! That’s because the game designers want you to be totally immersed in the experience and playing for hours at a time! There are YouTube videos containing hours of Sims music – give it a go and see if it works for you.

Once you have found music that helps to you to focus, keep it easily available and only listen to it when you want to be in that state. I would suggest even always listening to the same tracks in the same order. I get into my flow state by listening to The XX’s self-titled debut album. The band has a minimalist style and the singers have a lazy and understated sort of singing that doesn’t distract me. By the time I have worked through the first track, I am in a state of flow.

Background noise

If music isn’t doing it for you, try out background noise. This could mean working in the group study area of your library, or finding a corner of your local coffee shop. However, you can’t guarantee that the noise is going to be the right sort of noise for you, and that there won’t be someone really irritating in your vicinity. What you can do instead, is use an app like Coffivity that plays the noise of a coffee shop without actually being in one! This is great because you get the sound of lots of conversations without actually being able to hear exactly what anyone is saying.

There are other sounds that you might find interesting to experiment with. For example, you could try listening to white noise, which will block other noises around you. Alternatively, you could try long tracks of nature-inspired noises, such as rainfall, distant thunder, whale song or running water. These are available on YouTube, or I have found some excellent examples on the app Calm.

Silence

After trying all of these sounds, you might decide that after all, silence is best for you. But how can you achieve this in noisy student halls? First of all, you could buy yourself a good set of noise cancelling headphones and see if they block out what you don’t want to hear. Alternatively, you could head out to your library and find the silent working section. If you’re still struggling then consider having an early night and setting an equally early alarm – if all of your flatmates don’t get up until at least mid-morning, you could get a good few hours of work done in total silence before they wake up! Another benefit of this is that you can get your work out of the way and then relax and enjoy yourself later in the day.

Time

Time of day of working is something that everyone should consider. We all have slightly different circadian rhythms, with some people waking up easily with the dawn and others being really quite perky after midnight. Pay attention to your energy levels and focus throughout the day, and try to consistently work at the time that suits you best, and avoid working when you are at your most drowsy.

Bringing it all together

Now that you have found your ideal working conditions, organise yourself so that you can create them when you need to. Have apps or playlists downloaded to your phone, keep a pair of headphones on you and have your favourite snacks on hand to keep you going!

Remember that you don’t have to create the perfect environment to get work done, but by making a few simple changes you can make any environment more suited you your needs and preferences. Allow yourself some time to settle into a flow state and try not to get frustrated if it doesn’t seem to be working – it’ll probably come when you stop stressing about it!

Working in a focussed way is an important skill that fewer and fewer people have in the smartphone era. Whenever you try to work with focus you are honing a valuable skill that will serve you for the rest of your life and set you apart from your peers. Who knows what you could do with it!

Which of these tips do you fancy trying? Tell us in the comments below!


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