The influence of habits on focus

Pepijn Lochtenberg

Habits: do they improve or ruin your focus?

Mighty beautiful, our human mind. Always looking for the most efficient way to do things, so that it will cost you the least amount of energy. Certain behaviors recur daily and as a matter of course habits form: behaviors you perform on autopilot. 

Especially when certain behavior immediately gives you a nice feeling, then it is not difficult to repeat the behavior very often and a habit can quickly form. If that jar of candy is within arm's length and the sweets tastes good, the habit of reaching into the jar will be there in no time ;) 

The technology in our lives has the same characteristics as that jar of candy: little effort, immediate enjoyment. Technology generally provides great ease of use and quick results, with the consequence that it quickly becomes part of our daily habits. One click on your phone and a load of new messages, likes and information arrives. So, it's no wonder that checking your phone is rapidly developing into habitual behavior and for many a behavioral addiction. 

The influence of habits on focus

Your daily life is largely determined by the habits you have throughout the day. Those habits can contribute to good focus, but bad habits will guarantee a life full of distractions.

I will reflect on some of my own habits. Which things I’m doing on autopilot help me focus? And which habits structurally lead to distraction?

Good focus habits

The start of the work day

On a day when I work from home, the day actually always starts the same:

Waking up by the alarm clock (music & wake-up light), going to the bathroom, showering, getting dressed, checking my phone for new messages, eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, taking a walk around the block, making tea and then starting the first task of the day.

While showering, I practice consciously smelling the scent of the shower gel, feeling the water on my shoulders and noticing what thoughts are already spinning around first thing in the morning. When I go upstairs to get to work, I leave my phone downstairs. Upstairs I start a task that requires full attention and my mailbox remains unopened.

This start to the workday helps me start the day with focus on one task, without the distraction of all the incoming messages and emails. I start with a task that requires a high level of concentration, such as writing an article or reading a book. That way I use the sharpness I have in the morning in the most effective way.

Preparing for a beach volleyball match

The same fixed structure can be found in the preparation for my beach volleyball matches:

Filling the bottle with water, going to the toilet, placing my bag near the court, stretching, warming up, putting on the game jersey and then starting the match.

My brain knows what’s coming if I start this preparation 35 minutes beforehand and thus gets the opportunity to work towards the focus needed at the start of the match.

The rituals of Rafael Nadal

Tennis player Rafael Nadal - one of the most successful tennis players of all time - has a hefty load of habits (also called rituals) during his matches. Before serving, you can witness a whole zipper: pushing his hair behind the ears, pulling his pants out of the buttocks, bouncing the ball and then serving.

He prepares himself thoroughly for an action that he wants to perform with full focus, to make sure he’s able to focus his attention on the right things at all possible times. Even when he is tired, tense or frustrated.

Habits can be a fantastic tool in achieving good focus. You are training your brain to be focused on the right things in a situation. That doesn't mean that from today on, you have to pull your pants out of your buttocks before you start a report, but it does mean that you consciously reflect on your habits in preparation for an important task.

Do your habits in your preparation help you focus better?

Bad Focusing Habits

Some habits are very effective for better concentration, but other habits are disastrous for focus. 

Checking your email just before the start of a meeting? A guarantee for a stream of distracting thoughts at the very moment when you want to be completely sharp. Checking your messages at the moment you get stuck in a difficult task? You leave the state of concentration and chances are that you just put off that difficult task again.

Time to take a critical look at my own bad focus habits:

Checking email & phone after completing a task

The moment I become more tired or there is little time pressure to get things done, then bad habits come to the surface more quickly. One such habit is to check my email and phone for messages after completing a task. Without really consciously choosing that I do that, my hand goes to my phone and I open my screen.

At some point, I decided to put my phone on airplane mode for certain periods of time, to create the opportunity to reach a deeper state of concentration. As an experiment, I decided to leave my phone within my reach.

It was confronting how often my arm unconsciously reached for my phone, upon which the airplane mode icon reminded me of my intention

Fill every 'empty' moment with my phone

Standing in line at the supermarket? Just checking Waiting for help at the town hall? Scrolling through LinkedIn. Waiting five minutes for a late appointment? Checking incoming mail and marking it as unread.

The ability to just do nothing and not seek new stimuli for a while is an ability that we’re losing as human beings. We very often give in to the need for the stimulus and are almost always rewarded by our phone.  

As a result, even in other situations where no new stimuli present themselves - for example, when you want to dive into an important task with full attention - it becomes difficult to stay with it.

I am now aware of my poor focus habits and practice changing them. I’m training to stick to blocks of focus interspersed with blocks in which I answer my mail and phone. I practice letting the emptiness be there in an "empty" moment and in that moment just looking around me. A moment of doing nothing, to teach my brain that that's fine too. 

Your focus habits

Which of the above examples do you recognize in yourself as well? Do your habits help you to focus well, or do they pull you completely into distraction? Awareness is important as a start and then it's all about the action you take.

If, like me, you are convinced that better focus can do you a lot of good, choose one focus habit that you want to practice over the next few weeks.

Choose a new habit with two characteristics:

  • You expect it to bring you much improvement in focus.
  • You expect that you can integrate the new habit into your life relatively easily.

Good luck!

Pepijn Lochtenberg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.