Total Focus: A Research-Backed Guide To The Science Of Eliminating Distractions And Enhancing Your Concentration
Are distractions stopping you from making noticeable progress on your career goals?
If so, you aren’t alone. According to research by Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, the average individual is distracted every 11 minutes.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Further research indicates that it takes an average of 25 minutes before you can completely restore focus on your task. 1
This phenomena creates two problems:
First, the total amount of “lost time” per day.
According to Basex 2, the total amount of time the average professional loses to distraction every day 2 hours and 6 minutes.
And secondly, you get trapped in distraction cycles.
If you get distracted from your work every 11 minutes, and it takes you 25 minutes to recover from this distraction, your recovery will be hijacked by a another distraction half way through. The maths is working against you.
Finding Your Focus In A World Of Distraction: The Two Modes
If you want to reach your professional potential, you must learn how to find focus in a world of distraction.
More specifically, you must understand what neuroscientists refer to as the two modes of selective attention 3, and address them accordingly:
- You need to increase ‘top down’ or voluntary focus (defined by its intentional and goal oriented nature), providing you the opportunity to focus on making progress towards your goals
- You need to minimize ‘bottom up’ or stimulus focus (the results of interruptions and attention attacks from external stimulus), eliminating the distractions that threaten to derail your progress
And given our goal at Axon Labs is to take you to your cognitive potential faster and help you stay there longer, we’ve created a two-pronged approach to achieving these two goals.
It might be counterintuitive, but we won’t start by increasing your voluntary focus.
Instead, we’ll flip the approach and begin by can eliminating the avoidable mistakes that are inhibiting your voluntary focus.
This inverted fast-track to success is attributable to Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger.4
Step One: Decreasing The ‘Stimulus Focus’ Mode That Triggers The Distractions Stopping You From Reaching Your Potential
If you want to stay focused, you must first remove those things which cause distraction. These are the triggers that result in stimulus focus.
The most effective approach to this is made up of two phases.
First, Set Up Your Ideal Environment
In 1995, Adrian Leaman published Dissatisfaction And Office Productivity. In it he stated:
"People who are unhappy with temperature, water quality, lighting and noise conditions in their offices are more likely to say that this affects their concentration at work."
Based on Leaman’s research, and those who have followed, it has been discovered that there’s three specific things you must do if you want deep, monk-like focus:
- Adjust your room temperature to approximately 77ºF (25ºC). When the temperature is low (68ºF, or 20ºC), individuals studied made 44% more mistakes than at optimal room temperature (77ºF or 25ºC). 5
- Get control over your lighting. In 2003, Boyce et al discovered that “people with dimming control report higher ratings of lighting quality, overall environmental satisfaction, and self-reported productivity.” 6
- Ensure you are fully hydrated, with water close at hand. Even mild dehydration has been linked to impaired cognitive function in men 7 and both increased perception of task difficulty and lower concentration in women 8.
Second, Eliminate All Distractions Within Your Control
Once you’ve got your lighting, temperature, and hydration right, it’s time to eliminate all distractions within your control.
There’s three steps to this process.
First, address the distractions caused by your computer:
- If you don’t need to use the internet or do research on-the-fly, load up Google Drive Offline, and turn off your wifi or disconnect your internet.
- If you do need to use the internet or do research on-the-fly, put a wall between you and all the dopamine-stimulating sites that threaten to derail your focus. The most foolproof way of doing this is to buy the Freedom App ($129 for lifetime use, or just $29 per year). Set it up in under five minutes, and experience the joys of distraction-free focus.
- Plus, if your internet has to remain on, turn off all non-life-or-death notifications (this includes your email - it can wait) on every app. If you’re feeling particularly bold, quit it completely. It will still be there later.
Then, address the distractions caused by your phone(s):
- If you’ve got a landline take it off the hook, or turn off the ringer. Don’t overlook this. Your goal is to eliminate anything that could surprise you and snap you out of deep focus.
- Turn your smartphone onto airplane mode and put it your drawer, into your bag, or better yet - in another room. This is vital to your focus. Researchers at Texas University discovered that the mere presence of your smartphone reduces cognitive capacity. 9
The lesson is clear - if you want to experience true focus, remove the phone.
Finally, protect yourself from as much unexpected auditory and visual stimulus as possible:
- Thinking of your desk like the cockpit of a high powered fighter jet. This means that the only things you want nearby are the mission-critical tools and data sources that will help you perform to the best of your ability. If it isn’t lifting you up, it’s dragging you down. (Thanks to Zapier for this metaphor 10)
- Remove anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the task at hand. Paper goes into drawers or the bin, excess stationary is stored, and personal items are minimized. (Important aside - minimizing your personal objects doesn’t create a soulless, dystopian future. Instead, it sets you up with a high-focus environment so you can create a utopian future of your own design.)
- Invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Over-ear or in-ear is entirely up to you. This one time investment can cut you off from the world of auditory distractions in seconds, enabling you to unlock deeper levels of focus.
Now if you’ve read this far, you’re in excellent shape.
You’ve set yourself up for success by eliminating the common pitfalls that trigger stimulus focus, and can now start facilitating greater bouts of voluntary focus.
Step Two: Facilitating An Increase In ‘Voluntary Focus’ So That You Can Be More Productive
With distractions addressed, it’s time to focus on the essence of productivity: what you do, and how effectively you do it.
First, Empty Your Head
Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by the volume of tasks on your mental to-do list? Stuck switching between tasks all day long, without anything to show for it?
Then this could be the most important thing you read all day:
You only make progress when you focus on one outcome at a time.
Given the myth of the ultra-high achiever, this might sound counter-intuitive. After all, when we think of the ultra-high achiever, we think of that person who somehow:
- Manages dozens of high value projects, getting everything done on time and under budget... and without a single late night in the office
- Hits the gym every day, losing weight and get stronger
- Heads out every night, indulging in a roaring social life with interesting people
- Finds time to invest in their family, creating deep, fulfilling relationships
And from the outside looking in, it might appear that their success is the result of heavy multi-tasking.
But the truth is that multi-tasking approach simply does not work.
In fact, the American Psychological Association has identified that multi-tasking also destroys productivity by as much as 40%. 11
So if multi-tasking isn't the secret to being more productive, what does science say you should do?
Research by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that simply having a plan for tasks we need to complete is enough to reduce the anxiety around them, increasing our focus on current tasks. 12
And further, their research showed that making notes and planning before executing a task substantially improved performance.
So grab a pen and paper, and map everything out.
Second, Begin By Attacking The High Leverage Tasks
Not all items on your to-do list are created equal. And as such, you shouldn’t waste your attention and energy on low-level tasks when there’s more important ones to do.
So how do you determine what tasks should be done first?
First, there’s the urgent/not-urgent important/not-important matrix:
Simply position each of your task against this matrix, determining where they fall.
Then, cycle work through them beginning with the urgent/important tasks.
The second way is a basic impact matrix:
With your relevant goals in hand, filter each task on your to-do list based on the impact they’ll have on your short and long term goals.
Then start with the HIGH x HIGH tasks, and work your way along.
Remember: the key here is to be clear on what is worth doing right now, and what can wait.
Once you’ve determined what task you should be focusing on right now, it’s time to execute on it as effectively as possible.
Work In Focused Blocks By Using Pomodoro Time
Now that you know what to do, it’s time to get on with it.
The easiest way to do this is by using the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is the process of executing a deeply-focused 25 minute block of defined work, followed by a 5 minute break. You repeat this cycle four times before taking a 15 minute break.
Ever since it was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique has found success with everyone from disruptive Silicon Valley start-up founders to code-crafting programmers at Fortune 500 companies.
Why? Because the underlying principles work.
The Pomodoro Technique is based on three core principles:
- Parkinson’s Law, which states work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. By limiting the work and including hard deadlines, you limit the potential for time expansion.
- Alternating concentration and recovery. Research from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 13 demonstrated that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. According to one of the researchers, the study’s results suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance. By harnessing these diversions in a constructive manner, we avoid the destruction of distraction and reap the benefits.
- Planning in advance. As outlined earlier, note taking and planning increases productivity on the following task. By planning out the work to be done with Pomodoros before you begin executing, you increase your productivity and effectiveness.
If you're ready to start using the Pomodoro Technique, follow these steps:
The Pomodoro Technique
- Pick the top task on your to do list, and guesstimate how long it will take.
- Divide that number into 25 minute chunks. This is how many Pomodoro cycles you will use.
- Set a kitchen timer or the Focus Booster app for 25 minutes, or open up this page in your browser.
- When the timer starts, work for 25 minutes straight without changing task. Stop the moment that the timer goes off.
- Take your 5 minute break. Use this time to stand up and move around, check your email, reply to messages, or handle basic admin.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 three more times, and then reward yourself with a 15 minute break.
Now that you’ve covered eliminating distractions, and boosting your focus, there’s one last thing to cover.
How To Supercharge Your Focus, Boost Your Productivity, And Eliminate Distractions
If you want to get the best results possible at work, these techniques are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, if you want to be as focused and productive as humanly possible possible, there’s three more things you should start doing almost immediately. All are scientifically proven to rapidly enhance your concentration.
Supercharge Step One: Introduce A Consistent Exercise Program
According to Harvard Health 14, research suggests that exercising moderately and regularly stimulates brain regions involved in memory function to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
And while Dr. John Ratey expands on this subject in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, the gist is simple - 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve performance in cognitive function.
Supercharge Step Two: Go Keto
In episode #147 of Smart Drug Smarts, Axon Labs founder Jesse Lawler and Dr. Dominic D’Agostino (Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC)) discussed the impact of the Ketogenic diet and how it impacts your cognition.
Here’s the key points of the interview:
- The Ketogenic diet triggers Ketosis in the body
- Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your brain and body’s energy comes from ketone bodies, instead of from glucose
- Following the Ketogenic diet is often linked with heightened focus, and can trigger other cognitive responses. This has supported by several studies 15
If you want to learn more about following a Ketogenic diet, start by listening to the complete episode.
Supercharge Step Three: Use Aniracetam To Boost Your Brain Performance Immediately
Aniracetam is a type of nootropic, first synthesized in the 1970s by Hoffmann-La Roche.
And while it isn’t the infamous NZT-48 pill from Bradley Cooper’s 2011 film Limitless, Aniracetam has a profound and powerful impact on focus and concentration.
Studied for decades, Aniracetam has been shown to:
- Enhance focus and concentration by boosting cognitive function and performance 16
- Improve both short-term and long term memory, as well as significantly enhance recall 17, 18
Aniracetam users have also anecdotally confirmed that Aniracetam consumption reduces anxiety, improves mood, and enhances attention and awareness.
When it comes to boosting brain performance through ingestibles, Aniracetam alone is just the beginning.
To increase the impact that Aniracetam can have, we worked with the creator of CILTEP (made famous by Tim Ferriss) to design an easily swallowed compound called NEXUS™. It combines Aniracteam with other ingredients to enhance it's affects. You can learn more about NEXUS™ here.
Taken daily, NEXUS™ has been shown to immediately improve cognitive function and focus, while reducing anxiety. Learn how it works here.
To date, it has become a part of daily routine for entrepreneurs, software engineers, IT professionals, ICU nurses, first responders, and other professionals around the world. (See what happened when one software engineer took NEXUS™ daily)
The Final Word On Eliminating Distraction And Channeling Your Focus
If you want to overcome distraction and make progress on your goals, it’s time to stop reading and start executing.
- 1 Workplace Distractions: Here's Why You Won't Finish This Article
- 2 The Cost Of Not Paying Attention by Jonathan B. Spira and Joshua B. Feintuch
- 3 Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up Control of Attention in the Prefrontal and Posterior Parietal Cortices
- 4 “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent” - Charlie Munger, letter to Westco Shareholders
- 5 Linking Environmental Linking Environmental Conditions to Productivity Conditions to Productivity. Professor Alan Hedge by Professor Alan Hedge, PhD, CPE (Cornell University)
- 6 Lighting Quality and Office Work: A Field Simulation Study by Boyce, P.R., Veitch, J.A., Newsham, G.R., Myer, M. and Hunter, C.
- 7 Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men by Ganio, M.S., Armstrong, L.E., Casa, D.J., McDermott, B.P. (British Journal Of Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 10, pp. 1535-1543)
- 8 Mild Dehydration Affects Mood in Healthy Young Women by Armstrong, L.E., Ganio, M.S., Casa, D.J., Lee, E.C., McDermott, B.P., Klau, J.F., Jimenez, L, Le Bellego, L, Chevillotte, E., Lieberman, H.R. (J Nutr. 2012 Feb;142(2):382-8. Epub 2011 Dec 21.)
- 9 Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, And Maarten W. Bos
- 10 Productivity and Ergonomics: The Best Way to Organize Your Desk by Melanie Pinola, Zapier
- 11 Multitasking: Switching costs at American Psychological Association
- 12 Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011, June 20). Consider It Done! Plan Making Can
- 13 Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements by Ariga, A, Lleras, A
- 14 Get your heart pumping in the fight against forgetfulness
- 15 The effects of the ketogenic diet on behavior and cognition by Hallböök, T, Ji, S, Maudsley, S, and Martin, B.
- 16 Anxiolytic effects of aniracetam in three different mouse models of anxiety and the underlying mechanism by Nakamura, K, Kurasawa, M.
- 17 Allosteric potentiation of quisqualate receptors by a nootropic drug aniracetam by Ito I1, Tanabe S, Kohda A, Sugiyama H.
- 18 Effects of the novel compound aniracetam (Ro 13-5057) upon impaired learning and memory in rodents by Cumin R, Bandle EF, Gamzu E, Haefely WE.