Proven Practices for Improving Focus
“I don’t care how much power, brilliance or energy you have, if you don’t harness it and focus it on a specific target, and hold it there you’re never going to accomplish as much as your ability warrants.” — Zig Ziglar
I created these focus guidelines to give everyone I know the upper hand in directing their focus and attention with skill. It’s a synthesis of everything we’ve learned from Edward de Bono to Stephen Covey to Tony Robbins to Brian Tracy and more.
It’s more than a synthesis though. It reflects lessons learned from trying and applying many techniques in some of the toughest situations, as well as mentoring individuals, teams, and leaders on how to improve their focus.
Let me start by saying that a lot of people struggle with focus. If you struggle, you’re not alone.
This article provides guidelines and proven practices for improving your mental focus.
By improving your mental focus, you can finish what you start, align what you do with meaningful results, and achieve better, faster, simpler results from the time you already spend.
You can use the insights and techniques in this article to tune and improve your ability to focus with skill.
Interestingly, I created these guidelines over a two-day period, in two, two-hour sessions. To put it another way, I focused on focus. And, what you focus on expands. So what happened is my list of proven practices for focus, expanded into a deep collection of mini-practices for focus, all with the goal of helping you exponentially improve your ability to focus and direct your attention.
How effective are these guidelines? It’s worth noting that the practices here are industrial strength. Some folks with ADD and ADHD have used these practices to get off their meds. They retrained their brain and learned to focus and direct their attention with skill. Now they enjoy the process of focusing their mind on either achieving meaningful results or being fully engaged in the experience and finding their flow.
- Learn proven practices to focus and direct your attention with skill
- Improve your ability to stay focused and concentrate despite distractions
- Expand your attention span
- Learn how to do less, while achieving more
- Narrow your focus to the vital few things that make the most impact
One of my mentors, a seasoned manager at Microsoft, once told me that the difference that makes the difference – why some people succeed and others do not – is focus.
Those that lack focus spread themselves too thin, or never finish what they start.
They have a lot of dreams and ideas that they never spend enough time working on to make any progress.
On the flip side, those with focus, know what they want to accomplish, and they apply concentrated effort, and see it through to completion.
They also focus on less to achieve more.
I’ve learned that focus is one of the most important keys to results. It’s where you put your energy and attention. Choosing the right focus or the right scope can dramatically amplify your impact. Choosing the wrong focus can dramatically reduce your impact. Switching focus is one of the worst problems when it comes to results, especially if you don’t apply enough focus in a given area to produce a meaningful result. Working on your focus as a skill is a great way to get effective results.
The first part of this article paints the broad strokes in terms of key threats and strategies. The second part of this article presents fine-grained, actionable guidelines. While some of the guidelines might seem repetitive, they are ways to articulate and put a fine point on a distinction. By having multiple distinctions, and seeing the same thing from multiple angles, you create a constellation of strategies and tactics that will help you better address any situation.
Rather than a hammer looking for a nail, you create a very rich mental toolbox to draw from.
8 Things That Work Against Our Focus
- Lack of vision or clarity. Maybe you don’t need to know exactly where you are going, but knowing what you are looking for and when you are making progess helps you to focus. Know what good looks like so you know if your focus is getting you closer.
- Conflict, confusion, and chaos. This is a quick way to sum up what makes it difficult to focus. When you have internal conflict, it’s tough to focus. For example, wake up at 5:00 am or stay up until 3:00 a.m.? Trade-offs are everywhere. When you’re not acting in a way that’s aligned with your values, this tension creates conflict, and the conflict is an internal distraction. Confusion or a lack of clarity on what you want to accomplish also makes it difficult to focus because there is no clear picture to hold in your mind. Chaos comes in the form of competing priorities, clutter in your workspace, clutter in your mind, and the daily distractions that compete for your attention.
- Internal distractions. Internal distractions come in the form of little “tugs” that say there’s something else you’d rather be doing. Self-talk is another example of an internal distraction that can work against your efforts to focus. A simple example is the questions that you ask yourself. Worrying is another perfect example of an internal distraction.
- External distractions. There are plenty of external distractions that can work against your ability to focus: alerts, pop-ups, noise, clutter … and bright shiny objects.
- Mental chatter. Your mental chatter and self-talk can be your biggest distraction, even more so than external distractions. It’s the ideas that pop up in your head. It’s the tasks that you keep reminding yourself that you need to do. It’s the questions that you ask yourself, while you’re trying to focus.
- Lack of discipline. Having a vision gives you direction. Reducing distractions and chatter lowers the barriers that can channel you off course. However, there will always be some level of distraction, especially when first starting the process. Having the discipline to say no to that distraction allows you to continue to focus. This is like training a pet. No matter how many times the pet wants to run away, you have to bring them back to the task at hand. You can use treats and vision to refocus. You are both the pet and trainer in this analogy. You must be aware of when you are off track and put yourself back on track.
- Lack of structure. If you don’t create a time and place for things, they won’t happen. For example, if you don’t schedule things, then you won’t have time for them. Similarly, a lack of visual cues or reminders can make it easy to lose focus.
- Lack of progress. If you can’t see progress from your results, you’re less likely to continue. It’s unlikely that you’ll put your heart into the effort if you don’t see some fruits from your effort.
10 Key Strategies for Focus
- Get clear on what you want. The simplest way to focus and stay engaged is to have clarity on what you want. Make it vivid and visual. Keep your goals simple and clear. Test yourself to state your goals as one-line statements. By having clarity on what you really want, you improve your engagement. When you are engaged in what you do, your energy and attention will automatically flow with your focus.
- Start with your “why.”’ This is the key to making your focus compelling and sustainable.’ Make why you want to do something explicit and connect it to your values in some way.
- Align your focus and your values.’ Once you get clarity on what you want, you need to reduce your internal conflict and deal with competing priorities.’ For example, you might value spending time with friends and family, but your focus might require that you spend a lot of time alone. By aligning your values, you improve your engagement and, as a result, you automatically improve your concentration and focus. At the same time, you automatically, reduce distractions.
- Use time frames to scope your focus. One of the best ways to focus is to close the loop on things, by finishing what you started. The key here it to bite off things that fit within a specific timebox or chunk of time. You can choose to focus on something for specific time frames. For example, some common time frames are 5 minutes, 20 minutes, a day, a week, a month, and a year. By using time frames for focus, you can chip away at a stone for an extended duration, or you can nail your short bursts of work with skill.
- Expand your attention span. It’s easy to focus when you’re fully engaged. The trick is to train your focus to deal with any situation, including very distracting scenarios. The other trick is to expand the duration you can focus your attention. Work your attention span like a muscle through practice. Start with 30 seconds. Focus for five minutes. Focus for 10 minutes. Focus for 20 minutes. By having a range under your belt, whether you have a short block of time or a longer block of time, you can get results. When you have a much longer block of time, you can simply chunk it up.
- Use 20-minute intervals to focus with skill. A 20-minute chunk of time is a very useful slice of time and the productive possibilities are endless, if you can sustain your focus. The key is to know that sustained thinking takes energy, and it burns out. To address this, take breaks to recharge and renew. Five minute breaks are a great way to stay focused.
- Reduce distractions. Distractions can come from in you (internal distractions), such as your thoughts, or outside of you (external distractions), such as your chair. External distractions include visual distractions, physical distractions, noise, and interruptions. Internal distractions include nagging thoughts, interesting ideas, internal conflict, and mental chatter. The key in all cases is to either address the distractions or let them go. For example, if worrying is distracting you, then address it by having a time and place for it. You can use the practices throughout this article to address distractions.
- Spend your attention with skill. This includes allocating the right time for the right things. Another key is to reduce the things that distract you in your life from what you want to achieve. Another key is asking yourself simple questions to refocus, such as, “What’s the goal?” or “What’s my next best action?”
- Structure for success. One of the best ways to structure your success is to make it easy to pick up from where you left off. You can also structure your success by structuring your information – have one place to look and one place to write things down, including your goals, tasks, and actions.’ You can also structure your environment for to improve focus. For example, you can add visual cues and reminders. You can also optimize your workspace to support your focus. You can also structure your time to improve your focus. Your schedule is your most powerful tool. Use it to “design your time.” For example, you can adjust your schedule to account for your most productive time, your least productive time, the best time to interrupt you, etc.
- Chart your progress. Use meaningful milestones, as well as little and big indicators along the way. It’s been said that feeling a sense of progress is one of the most important ways to stay engaged. You can think of a milestone as a numbered marker along the road. It helps answer the questions, “Am I on track?”, “Am I moving in the right direction?”, “Am I making progress?”, “Have I reached a significant chunk of achievement on the journey?”, “Now that I achieved this, should I continue or should I explore another path?” You can think of your little and big indicators as the feedback you get along the way, as well as your little and big wins.
Guidelines at a Glance for Improving Focus
The following guidelines are time-tested strategies and tactics for improving your focus. The key with any guideline is to evaluate whether it makes sense for you, and whether it makes sense for your specific situation or scenario. Simply add the guidelines to your mental toolbox so you can draw from them when you need them.
- Carry the good forward. Every failure or setback is another lesson. Treat it like feedback,. Find the lesson, and carry the good forward. Use this forward momentum to stay focused, and not get hung up or dwell on things going wrong. Every blip in the plan is your trigger to find the insight, and turn that insight into action and experience to catapult yourself forward.
- Create routines to help you focus. By creating routines, you don’t have to spend as much time thinking about when or where or how to do something. Instead, you can just do it. This means you can put spend your time, energy, and more thinking on your actual focus. This is how you move up the stack. Some common routines include having a startup routine for your day, fixing time for eating, sleeping, and exercise, as well as having a routine for dealing with your routine and mundane tasks. One of the most powerful routines is to focus on finishing off your three most important results for the day, in the morning. An equally powerful routine is to do “worst things first” and get over your biggest hurdle in the day, when you feel your strongest. This makes the rest of the day a glide path.
- Focus in batches. If you consolidate and batch your tasks, you can find efficiencies that you wouldn’t find any other way. It’s easy to over-engineer or over-invest a task at a time. When you know you’re doing to do the same thing or something similar 10, 20, 100 or 1000 times, you approach it differently. Maybe you simply attack the challenge with more passion and energy. Maybe you find a way to make it a game. Maybe you find short-cuts that by themselves don’t seem like much, but when applied in batches, pay off like compound interest.
- Make it work, then make it right. Get it working as fast as possible. Then repeat the loop and improve it each time. Treat perfection as a path, not a destination. Having results to show right away, will build your own momentum, help you avoid all the attractive distractions, and will help you stay focused on what’s important. You can tune and improve your results, by having results. If you never finish, then it’s more than a buzz killer. You create a frame of reference that you never finish what you start. Instead, always finish fast, then finish strong. Work your way through the loop, like a dry run, then loop through faster and better each time. Or once you have something working, use feedback and a look from the balcony to choose what to improve or what your next best thing to do really is.
- Pair up. Sometimes the best way to stay focused is to pair up or team up with somebody. If you’re both committed to the same goal, then you can help each other stay focused on reaching it.
- Change your focus by asking a new question. When you find yourself focusing on the wrong things, change your focus. You can change your focus by asking yourself different questions. For example, one way to quickly reset your focus is to ask yourself, “What do you want to accomplish?”
- Choose one project or one thing to focus on. While this might sound easier said than done, the key here is focusing on “the finish.” The better you get at finishing, the better you will get at picking off meaningful things, and focusing on one thing at a time. By reducing your open work, you’ll thrash less, and you’ll do less task switching, and you’ll have more concentrated energy and effort to not only finish what you start, but do a better job on what you choose to focus on.
- Direct your attention with skill. Choose what to focus on. The past, the present, the future. Problems. Opportunities. How you can or how you can’t. Why you will or why you won’t.
- Find a way to refocus. Assume and accept the fact that you’ll get off track or somehow end up off path. Don’t get hung up on it. Instead, have a simple way that gets you back on track and focused again.
- Focus on what you control and let the rest go. This is simple and effective timeless advice. It’s all too easy to fork your focus while you worry about things beyond your control. One way to get a handle on this is to simply get clarity on what you do control and act on that.
- Hold a clear picture in your mind of what you want to accomplish. Think of this as a simple flash card. Use it to summon your powers of concentration and direct your attention to the end in mind. Having clarity on this compelling picture will literally “pull” you toward it, and help you focus automatically while staying engaged and excited about what’s possible.
- Use mantras and one-liner reminders. Use mantras and one-liner reminders to get on track, stay on track, and get back on track. Find the mantras and one-liner reminders that work for you. Here are a few that work for me: “What’s the goal?,” “What’s my next best thing to do?”, “What do I want to accomplish?”, “Does it matter?”, “What am I rushing through for?”, “What am I trading up for?”, etc.
- Keep it simple. Keep your focus simple and precise. One-liner goals are one way to do that. If it’s something ongoing, then make it compelling, such as, “The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence.”
- Know the tests for success. How do you know when you are done? How do you know what good looks like? By identifying a small but critical set of “tests for success,” you give yourself a very simple way to stay focused and achieve the right results. Your tests for success help you stay on track. The key here is to remember that “value is in the eye of the beholder,” so be sure to get the tests for success from whoever you are delivering value for. This way, they help you set a target to focus on, and these test cases help you focus your scope, and avoid scope creep. It’s a lot easier to stay focused when you can clearly articulate the target.
- Know what’s on your plate. Be able to quickly list the top 3-5 things on your plate. You’ll have more than that, life can be messy and complicated, but bubble everything up to 3-5 key projects or things that you are spending your most important energy on. If you know what’s on your plate, you can make better trade-offs. You can be more deliberate about what you let go. You can also push back more effectively when people want you to take on more things.
- See it, do it. See it in your mind, then make it happen. If you can’t see it in your mind, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. Imagine how you can successfully achieve your goal, and use that as a focal point.
- Delay gratification. The ability to delay gratification is a key to improving your focus and staying power. In general, your ability to choose and make choices based on how much this will support you in the future, you’ll exponentially improve your results. If you remember the mantra that “sacrifice is the price of success” or the saying, “pay me now or pay me later – 10 times worse”, these will help you to delay your gratification. Develop sayings that help you trade short- term pain for long-term gain. For example, Stephen Covey uses the saying, “Thinner tastes better” to stay focused on his eating habits and delay his gratification. He also trades up for the ability to enjoy running for distance, as an expression of his value for freedom.
- Clear away external distractions. Sometimes the best way to deal with external distractions is to disconnect. You don’t have to be “always on.” You can reduce external distractions by dealing with noise, interruptions, visual distractions, and physical distractions. For example, one way to deal with noise is to get noise cancellation headphones, or play music to add “white noise.” To deal with interruptions, you can change your location, or create a time and place for distractions. To reduce visual distractions, reduce clutter. Get rid of clutter, especially in your workspace or areas that you control. You know its clutter when the site of it bothers you and it tugs at you throughout the day, or gets in the way of your simple activities. To reduce physical distractions, address the things that create discomfort, such as your chair, desk, or lighting.
- Clear away internal distractions. You can reduce internal distractions, such as nagging thoughts, by having a place to write things down. You can reduce internal distractions by aligning to your values, and reducing internal conflict.
- Don’t chase every interesting idea. If you chase all your ideas, you won’t catch any of them. Focus on your top priorities. Let things go. Say no to the lesser things to say yes to the better things. Trade-up. Part of letting your ideas go is having a place to dump them that you can go through at a later point. Another key is treating ideas like a flowing stream of possibilities.
- Have a place to dump distractions. Everybody needs a virtual dumping ground. You need a place to dump distractions. You need a place to dump and store your “state.” All the ideas, reminders, distracting thoughts, etc. floating around your head, need a place to go. It needs to be simple. It needs to be accessible. One simple way is to use a sheet of paper if pen and paper is your thing. If digital systems are your way, the key is to simply have a place where you can quickly write things without having to look for it. A simple practice is to start a new list or dumping ground each day, and give it today’s date as the title. This way you can easily flip back through it.
- Shelve things you aren’t actively working on. Put it on the backburner, but make it easy to pick up from where you left off.
- Take care of the basics. Take care of your fundamental needs first. If you don’t take care of the basics, they will distract you, either through little “tugs” or background mental chatter. This could mean simple things like going to the bathroom, having water handy, having snacks, etc. Or it could mean taking care of your bigger and more pressing needs, such as financial security or health. This goes back to priorities and the key is to focus where it really counts, and take action where you can.
- Write down your thoughts. Dump your thoughts down on paper. I think of my notepad as a “thought catcher” and I simply jot down a line or two as thoughts go by. This helps me stay focused and avoid chasing every thought, like a wandering butterfly. That said, I also bake “think time” and “creative time” into my schedule so that I have time to explore my thoughts, in a free form way, as well as go back through my notebook of thoughts. By having a place to write your thoughts, whether with pen and paper, or in a digital way, you create space for your thinking about your task at hand, and you make it easier to stay focused and engaged without getting distracted.
- Apply concentrated effort. If you spread your effort across too many things you can water down your impact. Concentrating your effort is a way to improve your results. You can concentrate your effort by consolidating the time you spend on a particular challenge. You can spend more time on it. You can increase the frequency. The most important thing is to apply enough effort in a concentrated form to get over whatever the hurdle or hump that’s in your way.
- Batch and focus. Use focus as your weapon for results. Focus is your friend. A batched and focused effort can produce amazing results. Few problems withstand sustained thinking or effort.
- Make it relentless. Make it the relentless pursuit of something worthwhile. Use this as a single, clarifying focus. Use this to drive your action and stay on track.
- Reduce friction. Avoid the “death of a 1000 paper cuts.” Get rid of the little things that get in your way each day, that slowly kill your energy and momentum. Instead, find ways to create glide paths and create more friction-free results. By reducing the friction, you make it easier and simpler to focus on your goal or task at hand, and less time getting dragged down, nicked or sliced by little “attention thieves” throughout your day.
Energy, Enjoyment, and Inspiration
- Enjoy the journey and the destination. Don’t tie all your success, enjoyment, and fulfillment to the end goal. Instead, find a way to enjoy the journey. This can be as simple as rewarding yourself along the way. Rewards don’t have to be external. You can reward yourself internally, by acknowledging and appreciating yourself for taking action, doing your best along the way, learning and growing. Connect the journey to your values and make the journey itself rewarding. You know the sayings, “A job well done is the reward“ and “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Did you reward yourself for a job well done today?
- Keep your energy up. Keep your mental, emotional, and physical energy up. One of the most important patterns here is setting boundaries, such as “down time.” Schedule your free time so that you know you don’t have to be “always on” and so you can recharge and renew. Another key pattern for keeping your energy strong is to fix time for eating, sleeping, and exercise. If you can count on these routines, this is also part of structuring your success. One of the most powerful things to keep your energy going through thick and through thin is to have a simple and compelling one-liner reminder … the relentless pursuit of something worthwhile.
- Link it to good feelings. If you want to sustain your pace or keep going for the long-haul, then link it to good feelings. Change your approach to be more enjoyable. For example, do your work with your favorite music in the background. Or, if you like learning, change your approach so that you can learn something as you go. If having fun is your priority then find a way to make it a game.
- Music everywhere. You can use music to stay motivated and focused. You can also use music to add “white noise” if other sounds or people are distracting you. If lyrics distract you, then consider listening to music without lyrics.
- Put the focus on something bigger than yourself – for the greater good. When you put the focus on something bigger than yourself, it’s easier to rise above your day to day challenges and chaos, and fight the good fight. When it’s just for you, your focus might wax and wane, but when you think of the larger impact, you might find inspiration where you never knew you had any.
- Reward yourself along the way. “Have your thing. “ Have your little rewards you can use along the way, rather than some giant pay off in the end. This will improve your journey, but also help you stay focused because rewards are within your reach.
- Start with why. Ask yourself, “Why are you doing it?” You need a compelling reason to stay on track
- Take breaks. If you don’t take breaks, then chances are you’re pace or intensity is more like one long break. Instead, when you focus, focus with full force. Focus instensely. Then take breaks. When you’re on you’re on, and when you’re off, you’re off. You may find that just by switching to this cycle, your ability to focus deeply and intensely dramatically improves. You can also start to find the most effective ways to take breaks that work for you. For some, it’s a trip to the water cooler. For others, it’s a brisk walk. For others, it’s switching to a game. Experiment and test your results.
- Use metaphors. Metaphors are simply emotional picture words. Make them meaningful for you. For example, when I have tedious, long-running task, I remind myself that I’m like a diamond cutter and it will take time. When I have a challenge or a hump I have to get over, I tell myself to scale the wall as fast as possible. When I don’t have enough clarity on my focal point, I remind myself to aim for the bull’s-eye. After all, it’s tough to hit a target or focus on a goal, if you can’t really see it.
- Use milestones for checkpoints and progress. Milestones are a great way to plot out a path, in terms of incremental chunks. For example, if you are writing a book, each chapter you write can be a milestone. You can also use split phases into key milestones. For example, creating the outline, or writing the rough draft, or editing, etc. could all be used as milestones along the way. At each milestone, you can use it as a checkpoint and as a sign of progress.
- Use mini-goals. Slice your big goals down to size. Small is the new big, and you can use size to your advantage. By slicing goals down to size, you can build a series of small wins to build momentum. You can also slice a challenge down so that you can divide and conquer it. This is especially helpful when you get stuck. You can also use mini-goals to create a sense of progress. One of my colleagues uses mini-goals to get over procrastination. Rather than have a goal of working out, they have a goal of getting to the gym and getting changed. He said he can choose whether or not to workout once he’s gotten that far, but the goal of getting to the gym and getting ready is non-optional. This little goal helps him complete more workouts than the bigger goal of working out or getting in shape itself. If your goals aren’t working for you, then chunk them down to create laser-like focus.
- Write down your goals. List your goals. Having your goals down in writing, makes it easy to keep reminding yourself, “What’s the goal?” This little mantra and your list of goals will re-enforce each other.
- Write down your steps. List your steps. Write down your list of actions. Having a list of the actions or steps will help you execute the task. It’s a way of making it easier to pick up from where you left off.
- Write down your tasks. List your tasks. Having a simple “To Do” list of tasks makes it easy both to see what’s on your plate, and to remind you of what you choose to do. Rather than fill your head and have it become a distraction, you can use your list to free up your mind for better focus.
- Limit your starts and stops. Nothing breaks focus like perpetual interruptions, false starts, or hopping back and forth between your continuum of priorities. This is another reason to consolidate and batch your tasks. This is also another reason to clear away your distractions and have a time and place for things, so that you keep your distractions to a minimum. A less obvious thing to also address is to limit how much you analyze or think about something. Don’t intersperse thinking and doing to the point where can’t execute or you think your way into analysis paralysis. Instead, block off chunks of time to stay focused on executing, then you can analyze the results. You can always adjust the loops. If you want faster feedback, use shorter loops to test your results.
- Limit your task switching. You limit your task switching by batching, and by reducing your open work, and by getting clarity on your priorities.
- Set hard deadline goals. Sometimes the best way to stay focused is to just set hard deadline goals, such as “Done by 12:00pm” or “done by end of day” or “I will finish this by Friday.” Putting a hardline on it means you can put your heart and soul into it to pull it off, without it turning into an endless death march with no clear end in mind. It’s also a way to pick the pace up and to create a sense of urgency that will serve you and tap your energy in more powerful ways.
- Set time limits. Timeboxing and time budgets are you friend. How well can you focus for 30 seconds? What about 5 minutes? By using time limits, you can set the pace and sustain your focus, while giving yourself a break. Play with time limits both to make focus fun, and to create a rhythm of intense focus, then taking a break. This is a way to improve your engagement for short-bursts, as well as to chunk up your focus for the long haul, using little time limits along the way.
- Set quantity limits. Use quantities to help you deal with overwhelm or overload, and to help you stay focused. For example, come up with three simple ways to use these guidelines into your every day routine.
- Stop starting new projects. Before you start something new, finish what you started. This will help you focus, because you will have less things to juggle. If you have less things to juggle, you’ll do less task switching. With less task-switching and more focus on what you are working on, you’ll finish it faster.
- Use the Rule of Three. You can use the Rule of Three to always escape from overload and overwhelm, and to improve your focus. You can also use it to zoom in and zoom out. Simply identify three goals for the day, three goals for the week, three goals for the month, and three goals for the year. When you read a book, to stay focused, simply look for three take aways you can turn into action. If you’re in a meeting, look for three take aways. If you’re at a movie, look for three take aways. If you’re in training, look for three take aways. The Rule of Three can help you focus in just about any scenario.
- Know your priorities. Prioritize your goals and make sure you know the most important things you want to accomplish, and what your trade-offs are. By knowing your priorities, you can use them to focus and to make trade-offs. You can also use your priorities to help deal with internal conflict when you have multiple, competing priorities. You can evaluate your priorities against what you want to accomplish and what you value the most, or against the experiences you want to create. Sometimes it’s about enjoying the journey more than the end result.
- Learn to say no – to yourself and others. Don’t set yourself up for a bunch of let downs and failures or spread yourself too thin to be effective. You can’t do it all and you don’t want to “boil the ocean.” Know when you don’t have bandwidth. Know when you don’t have the capacity. This means closing the flood gates from yourself and others. Saying no will help you finish what you start, reduce your open work, and create powerful focus and momentum. The key to saying no with skill is the ability to easily see and share what’s on your plate. How easily can you enumerate the balls you are juggling?
- Bite off what you can chew. This comes from knowing your capacity and throughput. If you keep not finishing what you start, try biting off smaller things and bringing them to closure. This success will improve your focus because you’ll have a mental flip book of your successes. These successes will inspire you to new heights.
- Do less, focus more. You’ve heard the saying, “Less is more” and there is a lot of truth to that. Sometimes the best way to focus is simply to close the floodgates, and close down what you have in flight, and simply focus on one or two key things that will pay off the most.
- Narrow your focus. Narrowing your focus is a way to improve your results, especially if you need to get unstuck. It’s easy to bite off too much and churn or spin your wheels. To narrow your focus, simply find a smaller slice of the problem to focus on, and overwhelm the problem with your focus and energy. Keep narrowing the problem down until your focus and energy produce effective results, which in turn, helps build momentum. As you build momentum, you can expand your focus.
- Know your personal patterns. Your most powerful tool is your own self-awareness. The best tricks of the trade don’t mean anything if they don’t work for you, or if you don’t know how to adapt, apply, or tailor them to you or your situation. Pay attention to your own patterns of distraction. If you know that opening your browser is the fastest way to get off track, then don’t do it. You know the old joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” … and the doctor replies, “Then don’t do that.”
- Master your mindset. This is about getting your head in the game. Your mindset is the mental model you have, the expectations, beliefs, and attitudes you have. One simple way to change your mindset to a more supportive one is to put on a metaphorical hat, or to model from a role model, or to play a persona. For example, if you are normally not very productive or focused, then give yourself a chance to wear the hat of a highly focused, highly effective role model, and use that to shape your mind to see yourself as a more effective and focused individual. This will get stronger over time as your results support your beliefs. The key is to use your beliefs to reshape your results, not the other way around. As the saying goes, “If you believe it, you can achieve it” and “Seeing is believing.” And sometimes seeing means simply seeing it in your mind’s eye first.
- Finish what you started. A lot of people start things they’ll never finish. I have a lot more to say on this …
- Make it easy to pick back up where you left off. By writing things down, you can make it easy to pick up where you left off. You can also keep your workspace clean or find ways to reduce friction or tee yourself up for success so that picking up where you left off is friction-free.
- Multi-Task with skill. You can multi-task with skill by having one main thing you are working on at any given time, and one thing to switch to when you need a break or when you get blocked. This will help you keep your energy going, while limiting task switching.
- Pick up where you left off. If you have a place to look for things, this will make it easy. One of the best tips here is to leave yourself a few notes on what your next actions or steps are, even if it’s simply writing down the question or line-of-thinking, where you left off. When you start back up, this little note will jog your memory and make it easier to move the ball forward each time.
- Reduce open work. The more work you have “in flight” the more you are task switching. The more you are forking your focus. The more you are dealing with competing priorities. The more you are spreading your energy to the point where it’s little more than a gentle nudge or push of the ball, if that. Consolidate your focus and knock the ball out of the park.
- Single Task. Do one thing at a time. If you want to achieve more, then speed up your cycle or loop from start to finish. If you want to improve quality, then loop through multiple times and iterate towards “perfection.”
- Use lists to avoid getting overwhelmed or overloaded. The Air Force uses checklists as a way to transfer tribal knowledge, and to reduce overload and overwhelm. Checklists are the simplest way to automate your mind. Rather than try to remember routine things, just write them down. This helps avoid simple and silly mistakes, while freeing up your mind to worry about higher level things. Additionally, by organizing your information into lists, you make it possible to slice and dice your information and to think about It in more powerful ways.
- Ask yourself, “What are you rushing through for?” If you find yourself in a hurry, stop and ask yourself, what are you rushing through for. If you can’t take the time to focus on what you are doing, then is it worth even doing? Or is there a better time to come back to it. Or did you simply just forget how to stop and smell the roses and be fully in the moment. If now is the perfect time to be doing exactly what you’re doing, then act like it. Otherwise, just jump to whatever you were rushing through for. This is how you reduce internal conflict, and train yourself to one again be fully in the moment and to do what you do well, without running around like a chicken with its head cut off, or frantically joining the hamsters on the wheel. A key part of slowing down to speed up is making a time and place for things.
- Find the best time to do your routine tasks. Don’t let the burden of your mundane tasks get in the way of your focus. At the same time, don’t let interesting ideas and compelling projects, get in the way of the tasks you have to complete. Set aside time to get them out of the way. Don’t use your most creative, most productive time for the mundane. Also, find a way to batch your mundane tasks so you can nail them in one fell swoop. A common pattern is to use a short-timebox in the morning to deal with common or boring tasks. Another common pattern is to do them later in the day, when you don’t feel like your best and brightest,like 3:00pm, which is a common “siesta time” for a lot of people. Save your best and brightest hours to focus on your best results. Another common pattern is to actually use a fraction or a small portion of your best and brightest hours to plow through their mundane and routine tasks in record speed. The key is to avoid letting routine and boring tasks overshadow your day or wear you down or distract you from your focus.
- Give it the time and attention it deserves. “Right-size” your time-frame for your focus. It takes more than a day to train for a marathon. It takes more than a year to become a doctor. Don’t get distracted or disheartened because the path is stretches over time. At the same time, don’t expect miracles and short-cuts, unless you know the miracles and short-cuts. Instead, use metaphors, milestones, and set your expectations based on more accurate time estimates. If you don’t know how long things should take, talk to people who have “been there, and done that.” This will help you maintain your focus for the long-haul.
- Have a time and place for things. This applies to both physical and virtual. Your calendar or weekly schedule is one of the best ways to make time for things. The saying, “everything has a place, and everything in its place,” is a simple way to remember to declutter and organize your workspace. Having a place for things also means choosing the best place to execute whatever you are focused on. For example, you might need a different context or environment to do your most creative work. Make a time and place for your most important things. Just structuring your time and place is a powerful way to stack the deck in your favor and improve your focus. This also applies to worrying. For example, if worries are distracting you, then have a time and place to do your worrying, and consolidate it as much as possible.
- Set a time frame for focus. Be deliberate in how long your focus will be in effect. If you’re working on something all month, then set a theme for the month. If this is just your focus for the day, then be clear that today is all you are putting into it and give it your all. If this is your focus all week, then have a reminder each day, and a checkpoint mid-week to stay on track. If this is a focus for the year, then aside from a daily reminder, have a checkpoint at the end of each month, and a deeper quarterly review. By being explicit about your focus and the timeframe, you can adjust your levels of focus and intensity, and you can get the time frame on your side and working with you, instead of against you.
- Use reminders and visual cues. There’s a saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” This tends to be true. Use a simple system of reminders and visual cues to help remind you of your focus. From an audio perspective, you can use your mantra and one-liner reminders. From a visual perspective, use sticky notes, vision boards, checklists, etc. Use anything that helps tickle your mind back to your focus.
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Image by Keith Ellwood.