There are so many things vying for our time! When we really want to focus on something, it’s easy to get pulled off of course by things that are more entertaining or immediately satisfying or seemingly more important. But if you truly want something, you need to focus to achieve it… to the exclusion of all other things! To help you achieve focus, I’ve compiled a list of 24 steps you can take to have more focus.
This list should ideally be done in order. And although I’ve written this list with a focus on work-related tasks, it will certainly apply to other things as well. (I use several of these steps for my workout, for example).
STEP 1: WORK ON YOUR ABILITY TO FOCUS
Our ability to focus is a skill. And just like any other skill, it becomes better through usage and exercise, and it becomes fat and lazy if not used. If you want to achieve more, developing the skill of focus can help. Since there are a few synonyms to the word “focus”, you can find exercises related to concentration, self-discipline, and mental focus will all help. There are a few focus and concentration exercises here to get you started.
This is an interesting exercise to try:
STEP 2: CREATE FOCUS RITUALS
Thanks to Leo Babauta for this one. Rituals are a series of actions you repeat habitually. In this chapter of his ebook on focus, he writes about the importance of focus rituals to help you stay on track or get back on track to the things that are most important to you. I have a morning ritual and on days where I write 10,000 words, I have a ritual that gets me through the day. I particularly like Babauta’s idea of a refocusing ritual.
STEP 3: FIND THE BEST TIME WORK
We all have different times when we can focus the best… and the worst. I write the most in the morning (but not too early!). I do okay in the early afternoon. And I usually have a kick of productivity around midnight (if I’m near my computer or even just a piece of paper). I used to just do my work whenever but I’m way better off if I do my work when I’m at my best. I try to write content for my own business in the morning, then content for clients in the late morning and early afternoon. And the times that I’m not at my best is when I reserve for other stuff that needs to happen — administration, phone calls, meetings, etc.
Aside from these fixed times of productivity, I also find that I can get a lot done for about an hour (or so) after I workout. So I’ve been timing my workouts to go from 2pm to 3pm (approximately) and then I have a burst of focus afterward until it’s time to make supper.
I’m sure you have your own biorhythms (or whatever they’re called). Understanding when those are and building your schedule around them will help you to focus.
STEP 4: GET ORGANIZED
Disorganization can easily cause you to lose focus. If you can’t find what you need, you end up adding time and disrupting your focus by searching for those lost things. Or even just knowing that there’s a pile of papers or an overflowing email inbox can be disruptive. I really like David Allen’s GTD and the whole Inbox Zero movement. Cleaning up my schedule and my inbox is so freeing! You can handle one thing at a time, very decisively, which leaves you with the mental freedom to focus entirely on the things you need to focus on.
STEP 5: IDENTIFY JUST ONE THING TO FOCUS ON
When it’s time to get to work, identify just one thing to focus on. And work on it. In today’s highly connected environment, it’s easy to get pulled off track by phone calls, emails Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any of the other ways that we connect with people.
Just pick a thing to work on and work on it. It sounds simple — almost too simple — and yet it works.
STEP 6: STATE WHAT YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE
Before working on something, decide what you need to achieve to consider it successful. Here are some of the things I consider to be markers of success in my work:
- Number of words (or pages or chapters or blog posts or articles) written
- Number of proposals written
- Number of emails handled
Identify the measure and set what you want to achieve. Make it big enough to be a stretch for the time you have, but not so impossible that you can’t do it.
For example, nearly every day I have the following goal: “Write 2,000 words this hour”. For me, that’s a great goal because I can EASILY write 1,000 words in an hour. And with some half-assed effort, I can do 1,500 words in an hour. So 2,000 words is a stretch but not so much of a stretch that I can’t do it.
Sometimes it’s tempting to build your measure of achievement around the amount of time you need to spend on something. For example, I sometimes forget and fall into the lazy trap of saying: “I’m going to spend an hour working on my book” but that’s not helpful because I might write only 100 words and not focus at all but still fool myself into thinking I focused.
STEP 7: STATE WHAT YOU WANT TO AVOID
After naming what you want to achieve, it’s important to figure out what you want to avoid. Otherwise, it’s easy to let this stuff creep into your schedule. This is an important step but often overlooked. Be as specific as possible. “I want to avoid being distracted” is okay but “I want to avoid being distracted by emails” is better.
In a way, these become a measure of your success because if you achieve what you wanted to achieve (from the last step) but you still lost focus by doing these things then you know that you could focus even more successfully next time if you increase your goals and eliminate these distractions.
STEP 8: ACKNOWLEDGE INTRINSIC REWARDS
There are intrinsic rewards in achieving the tasks you want to do. For example, the good feeling of achievement is its own reward. But if you are trying to get fit then having higher fitness level, feeling more attractive, or enjoying better health is also an intrinsic word — it’s the rewarding result of focusing on your workout. There are other related rewards too, such as: Being able to keep up with your kids.
For entrepreneurs, the intrinsic rewards of focusing on your work include the feeling of achievement as well as a happy client and the money you get for completing the work. I would also add that by focusing (and not procrastinating) you end up with more free time.
Every task or goal will have some intrinsic rewards. Don’t forget that those mundane tasks you’ve been avoiding for a long time will have an intrinsic reward of crossing them off of your list! (I love that feeling and it often gets me motivated on those days when I would love to procrastinate on the boring drudgery).
STEP 9: CREATE ADDITIONAL REWARDS
Along with the intrinsic rewards but there are other rewards you can create as well. These are incentives — something above and beyond the regular rewards you get. I used to do a workout that graded me based on what I could achieve during each workout, so I was incenitivized to push beyond mediocrity to get a higher grade.
There was also a while when I had several less-than-thrilling projects to work on so I rewarded myself with “points” that I could later redeem. For example, if I wrote 500 words, I’d award myself a point. Each point was a worth dollar I could spend Amazon. It helped me get through a particularly boring project.
To create rewards, think of something that truly motivates you. It might not always be money (although that’s often a good motivator). It might be time spent on something more enjoyable. It might be as simple as “I won’t go on Facebook until I’m done this project. Once I’m done the project, I can go on Facebook for up to 15 minutes”. Or here’s an example I’ve recently incorporated into my business: I have a ton of ideas and joint ventures that I’m in the process of brainstorming and developing. And I could spend all day doing that creative, business-building work — I love it! So I’ve been using it as a reward. If I complete some specific projects, I’m allowed to brainstorm and develop one idea.
STEP 9: CREATE PUNISHMENTS
Yeah, I know you’re supposed to focus on the positive but sometimes punishments help. It doesn’t have to be a major punishment but something “costly” to you. Maybe you have to give up an hour of television or you can’t eat candy for a day. I like trying different kinds of microbrewery beers but I only allow myself to drink beer if I’m doing a regular workout, at least 3 times a week. Anything less than that and the beer stays in my fridge.
As a bonus idea, consider creating punishments that contribute to another goal. If you have a productivity goal and a jogging goal, then I would do this: If you fail your productivity goal, you have to add another 15 minutes onto your jogging routine (or something similar). It’s a punishment… but you’re contributing to another goal.
STEP 10: LIST POTENTIAL OBSTACLES AND OVERCOME
That feeling of achievement is only possible when you can cross off the task after you’ve finished it. But there are many obstacles that could get in your way: There might be additional steps that take longer or other tasks that keep you from starting or finishing. There might be completely unrelated obstacles that keep you from achievement. For example, if you get sick. Or in my case: I recently got an opportunity to achieve a business goal that I’ve been working on for over a year. I had to put things aside to get some traction on that goal. Technically, my focus shifted (although I was still being productive, just on a different goal… but it was an obstacle to focusing on the things I had committed to).
Once you’ve identified a list of potential obstacles (think of the most likely ones, although you obviously can’t plan for everything), do what you can to overcome them. A list of your current priorities is helpful. Sometimes the obstacle can’t be helped (like if you suddenly get sick) but knowing that sickness could be an obstacle might mean that you up your dosage of vitamin C and you make sure you get plenty of rest.
STEP 11: DEAL PROACTIVELY WITH POTENTIAL DISTRACTIONS
We all have obstacles to achievement and, I suspect, that we are all susceptible to different obstacles. I get distracted by talking about business and pursuing new business ideas that never go anywhere. I know other people who are distracted by sports or television. I also get distracted by socializing with people — in person or through social media, or on the phone.
Take some time to list the potential distractions you might face and do what you can to eliminate them. If you’re like me, turn off the phone and email and all social media connections. If you get distracted by television, put a sticky note on the TV screen that says “Are you done your work yet? No TV until you’re finished!”
STEP 12: CREATE A DISTRACTION SINKHOLE
Although you have dealt proactively with the distractions you expect to face, you also need to anticipate unexpected distractions. Things like: “Oh, I need to call that person” or “I should check out that stock” or “I need to buy milk when I’m at the store”.
Rather than picking up the phone or clicking over to your investment portfolio or running out to the store, you should create a distraction sinkhole. A distraction sinkhole is just a piece of paper (or similar information-gathering device) where you write down the distractions you have to deal with later. Once it’s on the paper, it’s off of your mind and you can get back to the work you were doing.
STEP 13: STATE YOUR OBJECTIVE OUT LOUD TO OTHERS
Our internal goals are easier to drop because no one knows the measuring stick that we’re using to measure accomplishment. So if we state our goals clearly to others, it’s harder to slip up because our pride is now on the line. Not only do we fail… but we have to admit our failure.
In my 30 days of focus challenge, this is something I’m going to have to face in the coming days. As the challenge winds to a close, I realize that I won’t achieve everything I said I wanted to achieve this month.
STEP 14: SET A TIME LIMIT
A time limit to achieve your goals will help to keep you on track. Limit it hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, (or a combination of all of them). And if you try to create an aggressive time limit, you’ll make sure that the work you have doesn’t expand to fit the time allotted.
Of course, the downside is what I end up doing: Committing to too much work in too short a time. It’s a balance I’m learning.
STEP 15: SET UP A PERIODIC REMINDER
This is something I just implemented this month and I’ve been very happy with the results. A periodic reminder to get you back into the game is extremely helpful. Before now, I would review my goals in the morning and then jump into my day. But my focus and attention can easily be pulled to other things throughout the day and my ability to achieve can be worn down by these obstacles and distractions. Before I know it, I’m stuck on the dark side of YouTube watching videos of crazy Russian car accidents or something.
A periodic reminder (I just use the reminder function in the calendar of my mobile device) is a simple way to check my head part way through the day.
STEP 16: GATHER WHAT YOU NEED
Just before starting, make sure you have what you need. Otherwise, you can be pulled off of your game by searching for a vital tool or piece of information. Earlier this year, I took a day and filed everything and moved a bunch of stuff to Evernote, which totally transformed the “downtime” I usually had between projects.
STEP 17: CREATE A REFOCUSING TOTEM
Did you ever see the movie Inception? In that movie, the characters were instructed to carry around an item with them that would help them know if they were dreaming or not. Those “totems” would indicate whether they were actually living the event or just dreaming about it.
A refocusing totem is a similar thing — something strange or unique — that you can put in front of you as a subliminal signal that this is focusing time. Don’t use a pen or your mobile device because those things are always nearby. Instead, use something else. I have a bright yellow plastic chess piece that I found in my games closet. I have no idea what happened to the gameboard and the other pieces so this lonely guy became my refocusing totem. When I need to focus on a huge project, he sits on my laptop, just inside my peripheral vision, to remind me that it’s focusing time. When I’m done with him, he gets tucked away.
STEP 18: ENVISION SUCCESS
Think about the task you’re about to do and envision what a successful outcome is going to be like. When people first hear this idea, it sounds almost too ridiculous to do… but it’s fun and it’s positive and it works. Take 2 minutes before you do something and think about how good it will feel to complete the task successfully. Really live it in your mind.
STEP 19: GET PHYSICALLY READY
No matter what you want to focus on, you need to be present — mentally and physically. Some external distractions are manageable but other distractions (like being thirsty or needing to use the washroom) can keep you from achieving your goal. Even a quick trip to the fridge for a snack is enough to pull you off of your game. So get ready physically: Make sure you’re fed and watered; make sure you’ve visited the bathroom; stretch a little before starting.
STEP 20: USE A FOCUS WHEEL
Okay, I’m always a little skeptical of things that feel a little too metaphysical for me. I don’t fully buy into the “Attraction” and “Manifestation” methods of wealth generation because I think success is something you should work for.
However, there are uses of something called the “Focus Wheel” that I think are really helpful for focusing and eliminating distractions and obstacles. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there about the Focus Wheel but this YouTube video is, in my opinion, the best video on the topic.
STEP 21: GET EMOTIONALLY READY
Get pumped up. Get excited about what you’re going to do. Make it fun. Anticipate the work. Get energized. Think of this as the time in the locker room before the big game. A video like this is so powerful:
STEP 22: GET STARTED!
Get started. Yeah, it’s step 22. And it’s probably the hardest step because it feels like once you start, you’re committed. But if you’ve done everything else correctly then this is a natural state that you are looking forward to jumping into.
I like to hit the ground running. At this step, I want to dive in and fully immerse myself in whatever I’m working on. It might seem like a lot of the preliminary steps but it helps me to get amped up.
STEP 23: DON’T LOOK AT THE TIME
When you’re working, I don’t think it’s a good idea to look at the time. Assuming you have an alarm already set to alert you when it’s time to be done (or you’ve set some other indicator that your task is complete) then looking at the time does nothing except pull your focus away from the task.
STEP 24: FINISH IT
Get the project done. Do the work as hard as you can until you’ve achieved the measurement of completion (either an period of time spent or a certain amount of work completed or whatever). Work until it’s done. Accept no excuses to finish before your pre-determined completion.
It’s tempting to do the work you want to do and then celebrate when you wrap up. But the winners — the champions, the Olympians — don’t stop when they’re expected to stop. They’re the ones pushing past their goals. They’re moving beyond what they thought they were capable of doing. And like weightlifting, they are tearing up the “muscle” of their willpower to create an even stronger sense of achievement next time.