An Experiment in Focus

Myriad studies show that our focus is fragmented much more than is commonly realized and that this is much more damaging than is commonly realized (for a brief account of some of this research, see Worker, Interrupted).

At the beginning of May I devised an experiment to develop greater powers of attention. It began as follows: every day of the week except Sunday was either a ‘thick focus day’ or a ‘thin focus day’. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were thick focus days and Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were thin focus days. Sundays were spent cleaning the house and catching up on chores.

There were several criteria for thick focus days. One, I would meditate during my five-minute Pomodoro breaks. Two, I didn’t access the internet until noon[1]. On really busy days I made an exception by having my phone close in case anyone really needed to get in touch with me, but by and large I abided by this stricture.

Third, I didn’t listen to music or podcasts while on short commutes, using the time instead to either reflect on my day or to run through mantras. At first I intended to spend all driving time in silence but after a couple of days I eased this rule so that it only applied to trips of less than fifteen minutes. Driving for an entire hour and not listening to an audiobook seemed a touch extravagant.

I also wanted to exercise without distractions on thick focus days but I workout at a public gym and can’t control the radio. Since I have to listen to some music I figured that it may as well be my own.

On thin focus days I would stretch or do calisthenics during my Pomodoro breaks[2]. For the most part I used some variant of a quick exercise circuit I’ve used in the past: fifty jumping jacks, forty situps, thirty pushups, and twenty bodyweight squats. I allowed myself to listen to music on any commute, but I still didn’t access the internet until noon.

This was only supposed to last two weeks but I liked my results and so extended it to fill out the rest of the month. I switched from alternating thick and thin focus days to having thick and thin focus time periods in the same day. Occasionally, when I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, meditating during a thick focus day was miserable and I needed to move around a little. Likewise there were times when I was scatter-brained and just wanted to reorient with meditation instead of doing situps.

So I decided to just use my discretion. If I felt tired breaks would be spent getting my blood moving, and if I couldn’t focus I’d meditate instead. I still didn’t use the internet until late in the morning, and even though I could’ve listened to anything I wanted to while driving, on most days I chose instead to simply think.

This experiment produced several interesting results. After a few days I felt increasingly reluctant to go back to thin focus days, wanting instead to spend my time working deeply on The STEMpunk Project. While I felt the odd pang of desire to hop on Facebook in the beginning these faded after a day or two, and I eventually started to feel a little disgusted with myself when I gave into this desire, even when it was well into evening.

It consequently became easier to maintain focus while I was washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom, and I would find myself stopping to meditate for the span of a single breath at random times throughout the day. I smiled more often, was generally less stressed, and was less tempted to drive really fast or listen to really loud music.

In the future I’m going to try to maintain this habit of not using the internet until later in the day, instead utilizing my periodic breaks for meditation, calisthenics, or tidying up around my workspace. I have also begun to utilize forty-five minute work periods and fifteen-minute breaks, which means that I’ll likely be able to do small workouts or even longer meditation sessions when I’m not actively focusing on something important. One change I’d like to make is to see if I can’t get into the habit of thinking about my work while I’m doing small chores on my breaks.

We’ll see how it goes!


[1] It’s not totally true that I never accessed the internet. I have to have my wifi on to save to Evernote and sync my Anki spaced-repetition software with its internet database. Plus I’d occasionally Google words I didn’t know or images to add to flashcards. But I wasn’t on social media or checking my email.

[2] If you don’t know, the Pomodoro technique usually has you work for twenty-five minutes and then take a five minute break. After two or three hours you take a longer fifteen minute break. It’s possible to divide your time up differently by, say, working for fifty minutes and then taking a ten minute break.

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