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How to Get Focused



The average person’s mind wanders 47 percent of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard study, so nearly half the time you’re doing one thing, you’re thinking about something else. Add the 24-hour news cycle, the barrage of social media and the countless distractions for those working from their bedrooms, backyards and walk-in closets — a number that has more than quadrupled from 8.2 percent in February 2020 to 35.2 percent in May 2020, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas — and it’s no surprise that people are struggling to focus.

“Some would argue that human attention, not money, is the most valuable commodity there is,” said Angela Duckworth, the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” and the founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a nonprofit that connects researchers with educators. “It’s the ultimate scarce resource.”

The good news, however, is that focus is a skill you can cultivate and improve. And your brain can learn to ignore distractions. Here are some techniques to try, aimed at increasing both your attention and productivity amid the pandemic.

For at-home workers struggling with distraction, a recent survey revealed that social media is the leading cause — many reported wasting up to two hours a day — with children coming in second.

You can reduce those distracting dings, tweets and rings coming from your social media feeds, emails and text messages by simply turning off the notifications. That’s right, just turn them off.

If that feels radical, you can attempt turning away from technology using self-control, but as Dr. Duckworth said, “willpower is a limiting resource, it’s unpleasant and we’re not willing to do it for very long, so the best thing to do is create a situation where it’s just harder to be distracted.” In her research on self-control in teenagers, data showed that the farther away students placed their phone while studying, the higher their grades. “If you’re trying to control your attention, don’t just try to do it with willpower,” she said. “You literally need to hack your physical space.”

When your focus wanes and you feel the urge to online shop or grab a game of 2048, there are tech tools to prevent your giving in. The Freedom app blocks websites from your computer and smartphone; Forest has you set a timer encircling the image of a tree; if you pick up your phone before the time is completed, the tree withers and dies.

Having children at home when you’re working remotely poses its own challenges to staying focused. Nir Eyal, the author of the book, “Indistractable,” recommends setting up clear signs so young children understand when not to interrupt. Mr. Eyal suggests finding the craziest hat you can find — he calls it his concentration crown. “When my daughter sees me wearing it, I don’t need to interrupt my call and explain that I’m busy, because she knows the hat means that daddy’s working and can’t be distracted,” he said.

Distractions can make it impossible to find your flow, that state when you are deeply engaged and merged with the object of your focus. “For parents with children at home, creating the environment in which flow can actually happen may mean clearly articulating boundaries of your time,” said Sasha Heinz, a developmental psychologist and life coach. “Instead of two parents half working and half taking care of the kids, you need to communicate with your partner and block off time for each of you when no interruption is allowed.”

Increasing your focus nowadays means planning your workday thoughtfully, having set start and stop times and specific blocks for just about everything in between. That includes meetings and tasks like writing, reading, editing or researching, as well as breaks to eat, exercise and read emails. “The way to bring structure is by making a schedule that constrains our time,” Mr. Eyal said. “We perform at our best when we know what our day is going to look like.”

Rather than keeping a to-do list, with tasks that often go unfinished and get recycled onto the next day’s list, Mr. Eyal suggests using a timebox calendar. “Because there are only 24 hours in a day, a calendar forces you to prioritize, to make a choice — do I want to do this or that?” he said. “With a timebox calendar, the goal is not to finish anything; the goal is to work on that task for as long as you said you would without distraction.”

Meetings Make an agenda for each meeting so that you and other attendees have an idea of how much time it will take and what you hope to accomplish.

Connections and social media Rather than read every email the moment it lands in your inbox, schedule two or three specific time slots during the day to batch them. Similarly, you can allocate a time to make personal phone calls and another to scroll through social media.

Quiet time With days of back-to-back meetings, it’s hard to fit in time to think and write, often the part of the job that gets relegated to early mornings or late nights. Mr. Eyal likes to use the “do-not-disturb-while-driving” function on his iPhone no matter what task he’s involved in, knowing that if the sender types urgent, the message will come through. “There’s so much we can do to get the best out of these products without letting them get the best of us,” Mr. Eyal said.

Refuel After a period of focused concentration, it’s important to take a brief micro-break to recharge — like a battery — according to a study in the International Journal of Stress Management. Schedule breaks for short unfocused activities, such as a quick walk or some stretching, as well as time to eat lunch.

Exercise Allotting time for exercise is a proven way to improve focus, memory and productivity. A British study found that workers experienced a 21 percent increase in concentration and a 41 percent increase in motivation on the days they worked out.

The state of the world is enough to fog anyone’s brain. “The reason we lose focus most of the time is because we are looking to escape some kind of discomfort, such as stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom,” Mr. Eyal said. If watching or reading the news increases your anxiety, limit the time you spend doing it. If you feel lonely or disconnected, schedule time in your day to speak with family or friends. If you’re bored, take a break and pursue a new hobby.

Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment — your thoughts, emotions and sensations — whatever is happening. Research has shown that mindfulness practices improve working memory and focus, training the mind to let go of distractions. “The digital world has been engineered for distraction, and with quick hits from social media, we don’t see how unrewarding these distractions are,” said Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the university’s medical school. Dr. Brewer suggests experimenting by leaving on all your phone’s dings and tweets for 20 minutes and asking yourself: “How focused can I get? What does it feel like?” Then turn off all the notification sounds for 20 minutes and ask the same questions.

“Compare those two, and the brain will make the obvious choice — being focused feels better,” Dr. Brewer said. “If we can see that focus is rewarding, we can lay that down to memory.”

There are many apps with guided meditations to help you learn and develop mindfulness. The Headspace app recently introduced a Focus mode, aiming to help people focus on “what matters most to them.” It offers meditation exercises like “preparing for a presentation” and “unlocking creativity,” “exam prep” and “ending your day.” Focus music is curated by John Legend, the musician and Headspace’s chief music officer, and includes a variety of playlists. The songs are all instrumentals so as not to distract listeners with lyrics.


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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