Using Research to Improve Focus

Zachary Walston

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In my profession, all actions should be backed by science. The term ‘Evidence-Based Practice’ (Evidence-Based Medicine is used in healthcare as well) refers to the integration of best available research, clinician experience and expertise, and patient goals, values, and perspective. This framework can be applied to creators as well.

“Research is creating new knowledge.” — Neil Armstrong

Research should be at the foundation of determining the best courses of action. Take creativity and focus as an example. If you are struggling with either, chances are you have Googled ideas, asked a mentor, or picked up a book or two (Indistractable is a solid choice). Whichever route you go will be heavily biased and incomplete.

Instead, start with the research. From there, you can funnel the best approach for you by considering your circumstances, resources, experiences, and the recommendations of others.

What follows are four research-backed ways to improve creativity and focus. There is no universal, best way to apply any of them. I am only providing a broad framework. It is up to you to fill in the details.

#1 — Isolate yourself

Open offices don't work. Productivity tanks, interruptions rise, and exhaustion builds more rapidly when operating in an open environment. Furthermore, the increased noise level and lack of privacy distract, preventing one from completing deep work.

As any content developer knows, deep, focused work is necessary for creativity.

Now take those same issues and apply them to the house, where many content developers operate. Open floor plans are great for hosting parties, keeping an eye on the kids, building HGTV show ratings, but the openness is a disaster for work.

I moved two months ago and left my nice closed-off office. There was a mild distraction with a pair of windows that opened to our deck, providing easy access if I wanted to work outside (saved me walking 20 whole feet to the screened-in porch door). The key was the door. I could close off outside distractions. If the kids were loud, Bose noise-canceling headphones were ready to save the day.

In the new house, I have a closer relationship with my Bose headphones as my office is missing a key component. It has no door.

I have noticed my work suffers when I can’t isolate myself. My wife and I both wake early to write. I have tried sitting with her in the living room, both of us on a couch. It’s not a fruitful exercise. A quick update of the grocery shopping list or sharing a funny Instagram story derails creative flow. Even hearing the other type — especially when she is flying through more content than I am — can pull attention away from the intended target.

the increased noise level and lack of privacy distract, preventing one from completing deep work

An office may have more distractions in terms of volume, but at least it has the culture of work (most places do). When you are home, it can be challenging to separate work from home. There is a level of comfort that is distracting.

Solutions?

Put your desk in an area with few distractions — facing a wall is preferable. Cut the noise or turn on music that can be tuned out. I like the 2Cellos Radio Pandora station. Turn off notifications or put your phone on airplane mode. Pre-emptively eliminate excuses for stopping work (i.e. fill up a jug of water and bring snacks to your desk). Lastly, don’t attempt to multi-task. It will cost you focus and creativity.

Ok, there is one more thing, but it is my next point.

#2 — Block your time, but be flexible with it

When are you most creative? As a morning person — or morning lark — I write best with my morning cup of coffee (black, french press or Chemex), typically at 5:30 am. I will occasionally write in the evening, but only if the mood strikes. In the morning, I can enter deep work with ease. That’s why I protect my mornings.

Time blocking is the practice of allocating specific parts of your day for specific tasks. Depending on your chronotype, you will complete specific tasks better at certain times of the day. Reflect on your days.

When do you produce the best ideas? When are you most engaging in meetings or consultations? When are you most focused on content development?

When we allocate specific times for tasks, we get more work done. One reason is we are more focused, reducing switch-cost from trying to multitask. The other is due to Parkinson’s Law, which states: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Time blocking is both rigid and flexible. I do not offer my morning for meetings. That is a waste of productive time. Meetings are best in the early afternoon. However, I don’t have to exclusively write in the morning. My time blocks will vary depending on the day.

Writing also consists of various tasks, such as generating ideas, research, and editing. These don’t all need to be completed at once.

When I first saw the proposed writing prompt for this article, it was early afternoon. Not an ideal writing time for me, so I brainstormed instead. After brainstorming, I wrote out subtopics and performed some research. In the evening, I read the research and added some snippets to the article. The following morning, with coffee in hand, I breezed through the finish line.

This is known as time chunking. I know roughly how long it will take me to write an article and I allocate the different tasks into times when I am most effective at said task. Note, I didn’t restrict all aspects of writing to the morning.

Track trends and learn when you best complete certain tasks. It may change, either due to circumstances (job or family needs) or your preferences. It’s important to track trends as single blips can be misleading. One bad morning session or one good late-night does not mean your chronotype shifted as you should re-block your whole schedule.

Beware of regression to the mean. Ask yourself, “Was this a bad day or do I need to make a change going forward?” A lot of factors can influence our performance outside the time of day.

Take sleep as an example.

#3 — Personalize your sleep habits

There is a difference between being productive and being your most productive self. If you are successful and operate on five hours of sleep per night with a steady intake of four-hour energies and Skittles, the diet isn’t fueling your creative mind. You aren’t “one of those people” who don’t need much sleep. You are succeeding in spite of your diet and sleep habits.

You are volunteering to wear flip-flops to the track meet. It doesn’t mean you can’t be fast and beat some people, but you handicapping yourself.

Sleep research isn’t perfect. There is no universal recommendation for the amount of sleep we need, time to go to sleep, or type of mattress to use. There is no best anything when it comes to health (diet and exercise included). There are, however, some minimum standards that will boost focus and creativity.

Sleep loss can be broken into two categories. Sleep restriction (SR) is a partial disturbance in the normal sleep-wake cycle (Tuesday after the Superbowl). Sleep deprivation (SD) is a sustained reduction in sleep quality and quantity (the first few weeks after a child is born). Research is clear sleep deprivation tanks cognitive focus and creativity.

Fewer than seven hours of sleep can impair alertness, reaction time, memory, and decision-making. Research shows sleep restriction causes heightened levels of sleepiness, depression, confusion, and poorer overall mood states as well. So if you are planning for a highly creative day where you will crush content, get plenty of quality sleep the night before.

I’m just getting started.

Greater total sleep loss results in decreased vigor and liveliness, heightened depression, and decreases in logical reasoning and decision making. The speed and accuracy of cognitive, auditory, and memory tasks all suffer.

Are any of those things useful to creative types? Perhaps.

So, what recommendations can I give?

There is no universal threshold for ideal sleep duration. Research shows the typical accepted range for adults is 7–9 hours, for adolescents 8–10 hours, and for young children 10–12 hours. Sleep duration varies depending on genetics, age, and stressors, such as your activity level, job demands, and stress levels. The best way to know how much sleep you need is to allow your body to wake up on its own. Yes, I mean without an alarm clock. An alarm clock should serve as a backup. Ideally, your circadian rhythm and routine will lead you to wake around the same time every day.

For the planners out there, you can’t bank sleep or make up for sleep debt with one solid night of sleep. Sleeping in on Saturday does not erase days of poor sleep. According to research, if you are in chronic sleep debt, it takes up to nine consecutive days of adequate quality and duration of sleep to recover.

Sleep deprivation tanks cognitive focus and creativity

Sleep duration is not the only factor to focus on. Do you wake up multiple times and feel exhausted when you wake in the morning? The quality was poor and your creativity will suffer. Again, no universal fixes, but here are a few tips that may help your sleep quality:

  • A dark room
  • No noise or noise that can be canceled out (e.g. white noise machine or a fan)
  • No screens at least an hour before bed (if you are keeping score, that means no TV with a sleep timer)
  • Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before bed
  • Stop eating a few hours before bedtime.

Lastly, sleep in a bed that is comfortable for you. Ignore the nonsense about how firm your mattress is ‘supposed’ to be. Posture doesn’t matter, whether you are sitting or sleeping. Adopt the position that is comfortable for you.

#4— Read Fiction

Read, write, repeat.

This is the recommendation you will find in nearly every article that offers advice on how to be a better writer. I stand by the advice, but it is too generic and restrictive. Writing alone isn’t enough, you need to build your range by writing on a breadth of topics and with varying styles. Editing the work of others is a great way to temporarily remove your bias blinders and spot errors you may miss in your own work.

Reading should be treated the same way. Research shows that reading fiction is one of the best ways to expand your creativity. Reading fiction improves your ability to empathize with and understand the thoughts and feelings of the people you interact with — important qualities for content creators. The same benefits are not found in people who primarily read non-fiction.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

Reading fiction expands your perspective and creativity by stimulating new experiences. Research shows reading fiction helps people “experience realities outside of the ‘here-and-now’, including hypothetical events, distant worlds, and other people’s subjective experience.”

Craving more science? Studies show fiction reading recruits our default network, which consists of many regions of our brain responsible for focus and creativity.

Non-fiction carries great value — it provides a more direct path to growth by sharing specific strategies — but it cannot offer the same experience as fiction.

I love High Fantasy and Space Operas. I am in the middle of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series and I am floored by Erikson’s mind. I can barely comprehend developing one of his books, let alone 10, which span a few hundred thousand years and multiple continents. The breadth and depth of characters expand my experience with different types of people.

Reading fiction expands your perspective and creativity by stimulating new experiences

On the sci-fi side, I love the Expeditionary Force Series. I have read all 12 books and they are the 12 funniest and most entertaining books I have read to date. Again, I have a larger library of character types and experiences to draw on thanks to the books. Fiction authors use stories to teach life lessons they have learned as well.

Aside from the lessons and experiences gained, fiction allows the mind to wander and relax. Albert Einstein took a job at the patent office to free his mind. I use books. I am no Einstein, but I can learn more than hard science from him.

I love reading fiction and my creativity soared once I started including a fiction book in my rotation at all times two years ago.

These four strategies I have shared are not the only science-backed methods to boost creativity and focus, but they are the four that have worked best for me. I’m always looking for more insights and look forward to reading articles from other writers related to this prompt.

What strategies have worked well for you?

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I am a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge health misinformation. You will find articles about health, fitness, medical care, psychology, and professional development on my site. As the husband of a real estate agent, you will also find real estate and housing tips.

Atlanta, GA
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