8 tips for FOCUS – The modern day superpower

Results, incoming telephone calls, scripts to sign, screen messages, electronic tasks, supporting clinical staff, scanned mail, interruptions from reception, paper inbox… Let alone a new patient every 10 minutes….

Now add… email, online news, text messages, app notifications, eConsultations. Twitter is now a useful source of news and opinion. GP only groups such as Resilient GP and Tiko’s GP Group have even made facebook a (several times) daily work related destination for many GPs….

No wonder I find it so hard to stay on top of everything.

Dr Puddle has been using focus to unlock frightening new abilities...
Dr Puddle has been using focus to unlock frightening new abilities…

There is such pressure facing the modern GP to stay on top of multiple work streams. To be responsive. To stay connected. To be up to date with the latest news and developments. It can sometimes feel like we are drowning in work and information.

We know that if we just had some time and energy we could improve our practice systems. We could find better, smarter ways to work. But, life is just too busy. There are too many plates to keep spinning.

This week I stumbled across a useful concept which resonated with my feelings of information and action overload. Cal Newport is an academic Computer Scientist and writes about the impact of technology and how to learn successfully. I listened to a fascinating interview with Cal on James Altucher’s podcast.

Cal describes two types of work:

  • Deep Work: Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work is rewarding, generates real value and multiplies the return on invested time.
  • Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding repetitive tasks often performed while distracted. Shallow work is procrastination at worst and fighting fires at best and generaly mundane.
“Shallow work stops you getting fired. Deep work gets you promoted” – Cal Newport

Do you remember that essay you left until the last minute and the intense rush to complete it? The grade was as good, if not better than the essay you spent much more time on. How did that happen?

You did deep work and focussed hard. You were selective about sources, prioritised and worked efficiently.

High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

We need to tame shallow work. We need to do more deep work… This much is obvious… But how?

The popular solution is to see these distractions and interruptions, the “shallow work”, as the “bad guys”. To focus on these and seek eliminate or control them.

“the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – Ancient proverb

Cal Newport suggests that we shift the emphasis to focus.

In a world of increasing interruptions, intrusions and distractions. To get ahead, it is vital to develop and train our ability to focus.

Focus is the new superpower.

The modern world is becoming designed to diminish focus. Our attention is a valuable resource and we are not the only people looking to control and profit from it. Advertisers, articles, entertainment, news providers and the products and services we use, they all want us to focus on them. These experiences are now designed to undermine our focus and are crafted to reward us for straying from our important tasks. Other people too, our colleagues and staff want to use our attention to solve their own immediate problems. Like any skill, focus will atrophy if we are not able to use it.

Fortunately focus can be trained and strengthened.


How to improve focus and get more deep work done – According to Cal Newport and James Altucher

1. Don’t rely on your willpower – Self control is weak. Control your environment to reduce distraction. Keep your phone in your bag. Put offending apps in a folder labeled “distractions”. Get out of the practice to do your deep work.

2. Use routines – Schedule batches of shallow work. Every time we switch from one task to another, we lose our focus and it takes time to regain it. Information and ideas are lost as we switch. Multitasking and switching tasks is inefficient and risky. Most interruptions and shallow work can be tackled in batches once a day.

3. Value deep work. If it will improve the practice and lead to further time savings, then consider paying for people to spend hours/sessions to do deep work on practice improvement.

4. Train your focus – Staying on task and ignoring distraction is hard at first. Set artificial deadlines and learn to work intensely. Focus gets easier with time and practice.

5. Use the pareto principle – Not all distractions are equal. The pareto principle states that 80% of results come from 20% of actions. Do you really need to check Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pulse, GPOnline, BMJ, BJGP, BBC Health, eGuidelines… Select the best one fifth of your information sources and cull the rest. There might also be “real work” activities on which you spend too much time.

6. Empower others to do your shallow work – Your frustrating and repetitive shallow work could be rewarding, deep work for others in the team.

7. Idleness is essential – When you are done working – Stop. Down time helps us form insights as the subconscious mind sorts and reorganises information. Squeezing more work out of evenings will make you less effective the next day.

8. Embrace boredom. To simply be bored has become an alien experience. People used to get bored all the time. Waiting in a queue, when there was nothing interesting on the 4 TV channels and no new gadgets, apps or news. Simply sitting and tolerating being bored is a great way to build the focus muscle.

Check out Cal’s new book here.

Thanks for reading and good luck rediscovering your focus.

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