Self-Awareness: The Modern Guide To Better Focus At Work

The key that brings it all together...
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November 23, 2022

Our minds are in chaos.

Only 10% of the times you check your phone are due to stimuli like notifications. According to Nir Eyal, the other 90% are internal impulses from within your own brain. While they’re technically distractions (Ingredient #2), we believe they’re so important they should be talked about in their own right.

Why do we get these impulses? Throughout the day we experience unpleasant feelings like boredom, sadness, despair, hopelessness and uncertainty. These often spark an impulse to do something different in order to ease the unpleasant feeling in question (in other words, a distraction). Our brains learn these bad habits so deeply over time they become a subconscious reflex.

Dealing with them requires the most skill and thought out of all the ingredients we've mentioned in the Focuspedia. Do not let that deter you though, as being self-aware may make you happier and also improve your ability to recognise when you need some of the other tools discussed in this Focuspedia, affording you much more resilience to maintain effective focus no matter what life throws at you.

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness, also known as mindfulness, is the art of being conscious of your own internal thoughts, emotions and urges.

Why is self-awareness important at work?

The most productive workers know how to master their internal urges and impulses through carefully crafted self-awareness. Being in control of your mind allows you to master your time and the work you produce.

3 ways to become more self-aware

1. Beware of unconscious attentional shifts

This is much easier said than done. Keeping aware of all your thoughts and all potential distractions is not really feasible given how much attention it would require.

Instead, it’s much more efficient to pay attention to what you’re doing when you change between one particular behaviour and another. Ask yourself what you really need to be doing. You might even be able to feel those uncomfortable emotions we mentioned before.

Bored and finding yourself opening a new tab in YouTube? Faced with a daunting task ahead and feel the need to check if you’ve got new emails in your inbox? First of all — don’t be harsh on yourself as these are perfectly natural human responses to these uncomfortable feelings. Simply dive deep into why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Over time you will build up more awareness of the internal situations that typically distract you, arming you with extra knowledge that can help you avoid these impulses.

You can speed up this process by methodically journalling these  moments, a form of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Simply note down:

  1. When you got distracted
  2. The distraction
  3. The uncomfortable feeling preceding it

2. Learn to surf the urge

Trying to focus but suddenly get the urge to do something you shouldn’t be doing? These scenarios are the perfect application of the ‘surfing the urge 10-minute rule’. It goes like this:

  1. Write down what you want to do so you don’t forget it
  2. Wait just 10 minutes
  3. If you still want to do it after the 10 minutes is up, feel free to do it, but that’s often not the case anymore

The surprising effectiveness of this technique highlights that our urges are not good indicators of what we really want, despite how they feel in the present. The behavioural psychologists' explanation of what is going on when ‘surfing the urge’, according to Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable, is:

“When an urge takes hold, noticing the sensations and riding them like a wave — neither pushing them away nor acting on them — helps us cope until the feelings subside.”

3. Practice meditation and interoception

Meditation can feel like a big effort and it’s often difficult to keep up the habit. The good news is you don’t have to do it every day to get some of the benefits. One study found that just a single 17-minute meditation can provide a significant, near-permanent improvement to a characteristic of the brain that partly determines how distractable you are.

The scientific community currently doesn’t actually know why this is the case, however, that doesn’t discount how beneficial the simple exercise is. The meditation in the study was an open monitoring or interoception exercise, where participants close their eyes and focus on how their body feels and they register their breathing.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more regular mediation has also been linked to impressive improvements in the ability to focus and cognition, among many other things.

That’s quite a comprehensive list of strategies, and it’s a lot of information to take in. If you’ve made it this far, well done! Put a note in your calendar to come back here in 2 days from now to check how well you’re implementing these strategies.

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