I’m delighted that you’ve opened my newsletter – honestly. I know how much finds it’s way into your inbox and, if you’ve read this far, I thank you.

I wonder will you make it to the end – in one read or even ever? Our ability to focus is apparently, decreasing year on year. I see in myself how I often lose interest in a newspaper article once I’ve digested the headlines.

Over lockdown I’ve certainly seen a tendency to move on before reading to the end of a longer article, sometimes skimming through the content taking in the subheadings…

I have a Kindle library full of books that are started but not finished. Is this just me or do you move on before things are finished too?

I, we, seem to spend so much of our time looking for something new or at least something different. But that next new thing rarely increases our happiness. Research suggests that it feeds into a low level state of anxiety and distraction that is, simply put, exhausting.

We could blame the world we live in – our phones, our message alerts, even the people we live with. And yes, these devices and the whole news and media industry is designed to get a piece of our attention – and yes, they are pretty good at their job of distracting us from our chosen task!

The deeper truth is that often we crave that distraction. At some level our brains are wired to seek distractions, to look for something new, to be ever vigilant for threat or to seek opportunity. Over the course of evolution that vigilance has kept us safe and well fed and we can’t counter millions of years of evolution in one mighty leap.

But we also need to focus. Our work, our creativity, our relationships require that we learn how to give sustained attention to the things that are important to us – our ability to find meaning, joy and contentment depend on us learning how to focus and avoid distractions.

I recently read of a study where participants were invited to attend a meal at a restaurant, to eat together, get to know each other over lunch. But there were two different conditions – one group was instructed to turn off their phones and leave them at home. The second group was given no such instruction and could bring their phones to the table and the researchers noticed that they did. So throughout the meal participants in the second group intermittently used their phones, took messages, replied to texts. It might be no surprise to you that participants in the first group overwhelmingly agreed that the people they met were interesting and that the food was excellent and overall they’d had a lovely meal. Participants in the second group were completely underwhelmed and slight bored with it all…

Can I check – are you still with me? It will have taken you a minute to get this far – have you been distracted yet?

Distractions are sometimes external, brought via our electronic devices or the people we live or work with. More often internal, fleeting thoughts, memories, reminders of what is still to be done, come unbidden to us and take our focus elsewhere. The question is will they will capture you and carry you away or will you come back to me, to this newsletter, to complete the task you started only two minutes ago?  Will you?

In truth, we both have skin in this matter. I want to write content that you find valuable and engaging. You want to find content that is stimulating and helpful.

If we value learning we need to create and sustain focus. If we desire excellence or mastery, we must first master how to choose to stay with a task.

The first step I think is not to beat yourself up for flitting between tasks but to become more aware. Notice.

Notice when you’ve started a task, notice the pull to move away or move on. That often feels like a stress or tension – I’m doing this and thinking about that… you become aware of a choice to be made.

Become aware that your thoughts have shifted, that your finger has clicked or your mouse is hovering excitedly over that potential distraction.

figure 5If you want to develop your power to focus, as soon as you feel the temptation to move away choose to stay, choose another five – five more lines, five more paragraphs, five more goes, five more minutes.

Choose a five that is relevant to you and stretches your comfort zone a little…

Or maybe it is just me being distracted and tempted by the next article or the new book.

Why not take a moment to let me know – before you get distracted!