The ABC of Focusing – Why Did I Lose Focus?

The ability to focus is the most common brain challenge in working life. Once you master this, you’ll achieve what’s important.

End-user: Helmi Hämäläinen, Trainer: Ville Ojanen

I step to the edge of a shaking springboard. I have been practicing diving for a month to learn a new skill. Committing to something has always been challenging for me as I am not a natural planner. Despite everything, I have been at the pool every week and committed time to learn how to dive. I slept exceptionally well last night and have focused my energy on this goal.

Imagine that you have achieved an important goal. You did a successful somersault or finally saw results after working hard for months at your job. What led you to achieving this personally important goal?

Fragmented working life and continuous change is a great challenge to the brain when we should be focusing on achieving an objective.

‘The ability to focus is the most common brain challenge in working life. It is the most common complaint,’ knows the ABC training psychologist Ville Ojanen.

When I focus, I direct my energy towards important things, so they progress and get done. A healthy brain aims for achievement.

This training breaks concentration down to bare bones. While going through this training, I learned to identify the daily factors impacting my ability to focus. Whether we are talking about diving practice or writing a work e-mail, developing focus starts with setting objectives. Focusing requires a flexible definition of objectives. I want to learn how to dive, but in a rush, I must know how to re-evaluate this objective. Maybe I need to take a different path. At the same time, you must practice systematically. Easier said than done, but good objectives give us energy to move forward.

A good objective clarifies necessary actions. Additionally, it steers us to getting things done and supports us moving on. The objectives of the information age are constantly changing. A good objective is clear, measurable, and achievable but also flexible. According to psychologist Ville Ojanen, unclear goals are even more common than setting objectives that are too big. ‘Significant and important objectives always require collaboration.’ According to Ojanen, achieving an objective requires visible actions and evaluations, which mean discussions and sparring.

Invest time like money

A clear objective is not enough on its own – achieving it also requires resources. Physical recovery – sleep, exercise, and nutrition – is the foundation of concentration. Psycho-social recovery processes like the feeling of achievement and interpersonal relations are also meaningful when we need to keep going. If I have enough energy, I can plan the use of my time. Time can be viewed as an investment. Investing time is different from just using it.

Because we learn new skills by doing, we should plan our actions. Ojanen gave us a tip to plan the next day during the previous evening, and I tried this. It gave my brain free time to prepare for the upcoming tasks: preparation is stress-free, and you can jump right in the next morning. I have also enhanced my time use with to-do lists. It’s ok to postpone some things to the next day.

‘Show some self-compassion. Any planning is more likely to help you than no planning at all,’ says Ojanen.

Procrastinating is a separate matter. Sometimes it’s better to leave an idea to marinate and handle it when ready. However, procrastination is often just an excuse. Smashing chest first into water is just not nice. Pointless procrastination depletes your energy and stresses you until you get the mandatory task done. It’s important to differentiate between procrastination and flexibility. Procrastination costs you energy and leads nowhere, whereas long-term flexibility is a precondition for focusing.

According to Ojanen, efficient time use can be practiced as a cure. ‘I allow myself to drift into chaos before starting to use time management methods. If I repeat this often enough, the skills will become commonplace.’

Identify personality and challenges

People have different habits and methods for time management. However, in the information age, we are all in a similar situation where we are constantly interrupted. Luckily we can also learn to manage interruptions. If I identify an interruption, I can accept the situation and take a time-out. Instead of answering a new e-mail immediately, I can think about the situation I am in. It makes continuing after the interruption easy.

The extent of disturbance caused by interruption links to my personality; it is one of the elements impacting my ability to focus. It’s often thought that some personality traits are either good or bad. While this is not true, personality does affect the challenges I meet when trying to focus.

One of the personality traits affecting my ability to focus is my habit of seeking out interaction. Extroverts may find it hard to concentrate if colleagues are heading out for a coffee. I want to join them! Introverts would stay focused and finish the task but might miss out on some important coffee table discussions. According to Ville Ojanen, people don’t know their personality very well.

‘When a personality trait is highlighted, they recognize themselves easily and can develop their behavior.’

By nature, I’m not skilled at pushing myself, but luckily focusing is also based on motivation.  My brain has trouble focusing on tasks that don’t interest me. I usually get excited about tasks that serve my central values and objectives. I want to learn to dive, as it’s a new skill that would develop my physical ability. I’d stay healthy and live longer.

But what happens if the objective seems boring, like answering e-mails. If I don’t have the inner motivation, can I motivate myself with a reward?

‘Rewards often help us finish simple tasks that we really don’t want to get to. The more complex the task, the worse the rewards work.’ According to Ojanen, in that case, we would be fixated on the carrot, and our abilities deteriorate.