I got this question from “MBE” the other day.
Bismillah I write, Assalamu alaykum…Nabeel, that was a great lesson, jazak Allah khair. What is your advice to help increase the ability to focus on routine tasks inshallah? Aside from [the] basmala, that is.
When I ask you guys for feedback in my emails this and, “How do I beat procrastination?” are the most frequent.
Now, MBE’s question is better for three reasons. Here’s why:
- One, they carefully read the e-mail lesson I sent them and implemented it immediately
- Two, they understand the implications of the lesson
- Three, they realize that part of Allah accepting our supplications involves us taking action
PRO-TIP: if you want to guarantee a response from the person you are emailing, show them you’ve put some thought and effort into it.
After sending MBE a pretty detailed response, I realized I can stretch it out into a full blog post so we can all benefit.
Before we dig in, though, I want to point out one thing. You are not alone. Our ability to focus has been deteriorating at the societal level for many years now.
I think the #1 reason is we’re online ALL. THE TIME.
One study found just knowing a smartphone is there makes us dumber, even if it’s turned off.
Imagine how much less is available when you are constantly distracted by notifications from social media and instant messaging apps?
You know, the other day I was out with my family on our weekly grocery shopping trip. We use my wife’s SUV and she drives. Now, I usually buy mobile data on pay-as-you-go for my phone and in this instance I was empty.
I remember thinking to myself, “OK, I’m going to sit here, be present in the moment, and not pull out my phone. Besides, I’m out of data so I don’t have internet access.”
You know what happened less than 2 minutes after that thought crossed my mind?
I pulled out my phone, bought a data package, and was happily scrolling Twitter and Facebook in 30 seconds flat.
IT WAS A TEN MINUTE RIDE TO THE SUPERMARKET.
This is just one small manifestation of my own diminished ability to focus. So, believe me when I tell you, “You are not alone”.
A side-effect of being plugged into the matrix 24/7 is everyone wants a piece of you. They want their emails responded to ASAP, their Whatsapp messages replied to instantly, and their calls answered on the first ring.
You are being pulled in a hundred different directions by insidious technology and entitled, asshole-ish people.
What is Focus?
Focus is a muscle. It has strength and endurance, and both are finite. The more you use it, the more it gets drained. Because of this, you must carefully choose what you focus on.
With practice, your focus can be made stronger and its endurance increased over time. But the best eliminate the need to rely on focus by using systems to take it out of the equation.
This post will give you both solutions.
As you read through, you’ll notice many of the suggestions may seem a little, “DUH! Tell me something I don’t know.” That’s because even though you want the latest hack or tool, what you really need is to master the fundamentals of productivity.
By the way, if you’re wondering why I call them “fists”, it’s because:
- I needed a more interesting title than “X tips to learn how to focus…”
- I like kung-fu movies and in dubs and subtitles “fighting style” is translated as “fist”(tiger fist, dragon fist, etc.)
So, here are the 15 fists of ruthless focus.
1. Bismillah as an affirmation
When you say “Bismillah” you are asking Allah to help you perform your task and asking for His blessing while you do it.
What does it say about you if you perform the task in a half-assed way? No. Instead, say “Bismillah” with deliberate intent and act in accordance with your intent.
2. You need a life vision
Who do you want to be? What do you want your life to look like? Do your daily actions and the people you spend your time with reflect this vision?
In Gorilla Mindset, mindset expert Mike Cernovich says ask yourself these 4 questions:
- What do I want more of?
- What do I want less of?
- Does X [person or activity] bring you more of what you want?
- Does X [person or activity] bring you less of what you want?
Answering these questions with brutal honesty will eliminate useless activities and people from your life so you can focus on the activities and people that matter.
3. Learn how to say “NO”
Beyond your religious obligations, no one is entitled to your time or attention. Save your energy and saying “YES” to the people in your life who truly matter.
You’ll notice something interesting as you learn how to focus and to say “no” more often. People will directly or indirectly call you “selfish”.
But your life belongs to you, not them. If people want to associate with you, it must be on your terms. – Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich
The only thing I would change about this quote is that your life belongs to Allah.
The more you learn to focus, the more you will learn some of your “friends” aren’t really friends at all. If they were truly your friends, wouldn’t they want the best for you and for you to succeed?
You who have iman! Safeguard yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is people and stones… – [Quran, Al-Tahrim 66:6]
How will you save your families when you can’t even save yourselves?
4. When are you at your best?
Figure what time of the day you are at your best mentally, and structure your most important work around that time. Some people are morning people – they work best in the mornings. Others get more done later in the day.
When your mind is at its best, you will be able to focus more.
5. How long can you concentrate?
Figure out how long you are able to put in a concentrated effort towards your activities. For example, you can only manage about 4 hours of mentally taxing work. Some people might be able to do less, some more.
I think you can get better with practice.
In any case, however long this time is, don’t work beyond it. Once that time is up, switch to tasks that don’t require as much focus. By putting a limit on how long you will work, you will trick your brain into focusing.
One, you will think, “OK, I just need to focus for 4 hours, then I can relax”.
Two, you will think, “I only have 4 hours to do what I need to get done, so I need to focus.”
6. “Physicality is mentality” Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes
Exercise, because it helps your brain work better. It’s scientifically proven. Do strength-training and cardio both. Don’t do one or the other.
Going to a gym is best. If you can’t, then buy some equipment second-hand on Craigslist and train at home.
You only need three things at a bare minimum – a set of adjustable dumbbells, an inflatable exercise ball (sometimes called a Swiss ball), and a jump rope. A bonus would be a doorway pull up bar. You can also use bodyweight training.
But seriously guys. Get your asses to the gym.
7. Don’t fall into the Social Media abyss
Eliminate distractions like social media while you work. This is easy to say but so hard to do. It takes discipline and practice. Turn off all notifications on your phone and set it to silent mode.
Better yet, turn it off. The world won’t end if you are off the grid for a few hours.
8. Brainwave music
If you listen to music there is a website called Brain.fm that plays AI-generated music to affect your brain waves and can help you focus, relax, or go to sleep.
You can try it for free for 5 sessions and then you’ll have to pay to continue using it. It’s quite affordable. They also have an iPhone app.
I use it regularly and believe it does work.
9. Guided meditation
Hold off on the takfir for 30 seconds and let me explain.
Guided meditation is when you practice focusing your thoughts and emotions while someone tells you what to do. It can teach you how to bring your mind back to a task if it wanders.
You can find guided meditation recordings in audio and video format with zero references to other religions.
I use an app called Headspace after Tim Ferriss recommended it on his podcast. The free trial version is all you really need. It’s a 10-day program where you can meditate for 3, 5, or 10 minutes a day.
10. Salah is focus
We do this 5 times a day or more. It’s the perfect way to learn how to focus. You have to start small and work your way up.
Try to first focus while reciting Al-Fatiha – recite each ayah slowly, and multiple times, reflecting on the meaning.
Maybe you can only manage it for the istiadhah and basmala at first. That’s ok. As you continue to practice, you will get better.
When we change positions and say takbir, that’s another opportunity to focus if we were distracted. “Allah is greater” than whatever we are thinking about, so our mind should come back to him.
11. Give your subconscious time and space
Try not to mindlessly listen to things while you are working. An example from my own life, I listen to a lot of podcasts while driving or doing chores.
We are uncomfortable with silence. Why is that?
So, I think it’s healthy to give ourselves pockets of time where we are alone with our thoughts. Our subconscious has a way of working through our problems and to-do list, organizing our thoughts and coming up with solutions.
Maybe doing some dhikr or salawat is a better use of the time, and listening to podcasts can be a more deliberate action where we set aside time to be active listeners.
12. Do less to do more
Don’t put too much on your plate. Shorten your to-do list. Some people say just have a goal to get 3 things done in a day. If you get them done the day is a win.
What most of us tend to do is we list 10 things and become overwhelmed, thinking, “How am I going to get all this stuff done?”
Compare this to, “OK, all I have to do is this, this, and this, and I’m done.”
Imagine how much more focused you will be? And imagine the feeling of satisfaction when you finish? MUCH BETTER.
13. Get rid of your to-do list and use a calendar
Remember when I spoke about the Best using systems to eliminate the need to focus? Using a calendar is a level-up above to-do lists.
If it’s not on your calendar, it doesn’t exist. Once it’s on your calendar, you honor the calendar.
Committing to this system will help you focus because you know exactly what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it. Nothing else matters and nothing else gets done, except for this one thing you have on your calendar.
14. When distracted, check in
Now, we’re all human and won’t be able to maintain 100% focus all the time. We are going to get distracted and that’s OK. Because we do have the ability to recognize when we get distracted and bring ourselves back.
When distracted, Cernovich recommends you engage in self-talk. Ask yourself, “What am I focusing on? What do I need to get done?” Talk to yourself, mentioning where you are and what you are doing.
I am sitting on a chair. My laptop is front of me. My fingers are hitting the keys on the keyboard and words are appearing on the screen. One sentence at a time. I will finish my blog post.
In the Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane recommends another technique when distracted. To be more present, focus on the physical sensations in your toes.
15. Embrace the suck
If you are serious about achieving your goals, you will do what it takes to achieve them.
You may dislike some of these tasks but your feelings are irrelevant. You may find some of them difficult but if they are essential skipping them is not an option.
In Eat that Frog, productivity guru Brian Tracy’s premise is you should find the task with the biggest impact on achieving your goal (the “frog”), do it first and don’t stop working until it’s finished.
You must learn to handle a level of stress that would break most people. In Not Caring What Other People Think is a Superpower, heavyweight boxer Ed Latimore talks about the running he has to do as part of his training. When it becomes unpleasant, he focuses on the unpleasantness.
The Navy Seals have a mantra to help them get through the 24-week physical and mental torture of BUD/S training:
Embrace the Suck.
Did I miss anything?
Ok, these are 15 tips on how to focus off the top of my head. Hopefully, they’ve got your juices flowing.
Can you think of any others? Leave a comment below and let me know.
I’m learning from you just like you are learning from me.
as salamu `alaykum
I wholeheartedly recommend Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work,” in this regard.
I also recommend the software called “Focus Me” that allows you to block out all distractions while working on a computer. Though, I must add that their Windows version is much better than their Mac version.
I personally got rid of ALL my devices, and now use a cheap flip phone. The only time I use a computer is at work. It has done WONDERS for my focus. During dead time, I constantly find myself in a trance thinking about things that need thinking about rather than worrying about what Mr. XYZ said on topic ABC (such are the internal triggers that take you into the Social Media abyss).
Last year, I even got rid of my Social Media accounts (FB & Twitter).
Once you go on a permanent media/device diet, your internal triggers go down automatically over time. And you naturally gravitate towards things that need to be done rather than some random social media nonsense.
Wa alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.
Excellent book suggestion and you’re at the level I want to be, subhanallah.
The only difference is I have to use social media to promote my work. I’d say I could eliminate about 80-90% of the time I spend on social media frivolously.
I have one of those old Nokia phones as a backup – I call it my sufi phone, haha.
Good comment, Ahsan.
as salamu `alaykum
Try FocusMe to help you limit your SM time (there’s a free trial). It works wonders for all sorts of things. Since I’m the middle of building my own business at the moment, I’m worried about the SM part myself. When the time comes, I’ll try to use FocusMe myself to help me with that, insha Allah.
LOL @ the Nokia. I’m a 3310 man myself. I used it to death during my high school days. Fun times.