Have you seen the movie Limitless?
Bradley Cooper plays struggling author Eddie Morra, who is suffering from serious writer’s block. His life dramatically changes when he runs into his former brother-in-law, who introduces him to NZT, a revolutionary new drug that allows him to instantly focus and tap into his full potential.
Voila! He cleans up years of clutter in his apartment, starts working out, finishes his book in four days, learns to speak Italian and Chinese, outsmarts the stock market and even executes Bruce Lee moves in defending himself against a subway attack.
Ah, the rewards of being focused: a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and — because he looks like Bradley Cooper — lots of attention from women. But just as athletes who use steroids run into serious health risks in trying to accelerate their muscle growth, Eddie soon discovered there were brutal side effects (like death, for example) to taking the “focus” pill.
There are no shortcuts
Popping a pill for instant focus without any side effects is, in fact, too good to be true. Just as you do with a physical muscle, you have to exercise and train your focus if you want it to get stronger.
Some people need external pressure – a looming deadline, last-minute procrastination, all the bases loaded — to force themselves to focus. Without it, however, they feel out of control, meandering around without direction or purpose.
Others simply crumble when the pressure is on. You can’t suddenly lift 300 pounds if you haven’t been consistently building up strength and stamina. Likewise, if you’re used to cutting corners and not paying full attention, it will be almost impossible to galvanize when there’s actually something at stake and you need to perform your best.
With a well-primed focus muscle, however, you can start to deliver the consistent performance that leads to consistently superior results.
SO HOW DO YOU DO THAT
When I was growing up, my mom used to walk by the living room where I was practicing the piano and yell through the door: “Concentrate!” In the years since, I’ve discovered some slightly more effective strategies to step up my focus game. Here are three:
Get in the habit of deliberate practice. The problem with most modern jobs is that they aren’t designed to make us better at anything. Typically, we have an external objective to meet and our focus is on getting it done — that’s it. If we want to improve a particular skill along the way, we have to make a deliberate choice to do so.
As Geoff Colvin points out in his book, Talent Is Overrated, “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities.” This means you have to clearly identify specific criteria and elements of your “performance” that you want to improve – your ability to persuade, for example, or express your ideas — and then work intently on them.
Yes, this requires extreme focus and concentration. That’s what makes it “deliberate” — as distinct from the mindless playing of scales (who, me?) or conversation that most people engage in. But deliberate practice is why I now make more progress in two hours at the piano than I did in the four or five hours everyday when I was a child.
Implement adversity training. Instead of moaning about all the distractions you have to deal with, think of them as extreme training for your focus muscle. Sports psychologist Don Greene suggests: “Try preparing your taxes with your kids running around the room, or with the television going or someone talking on the phone. Layer on distractions—sights, sounds, and sensations—one by one, until you can sustain your focus despite all of them going on at once. You will very rarely be working or performing under ideal conditions. Instead of trying to remove stress, you might as well train for it.
Transport yourself. Not inspired or excited by your immediate environment? Why not imagine a different one. Children do it all the time, transforming the living room into a haunted castle, one minute, or a jungle filled with spies, in the next.
Why tether yourself, in spirit, to a tedious conference call when you can transport yourself to a boardroom, where you’re brokering a record-breaking deal? Or transform your treadmill workout into a training session for a boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather.
This is not about escaping reality via idle fantasy or daydreaming. Rather it’s about igniting your imaginative powers to imbue your ordinary routine with vivid detail and sensation, heightening your experience of reality.