How To - Focus

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-- J.D. Meier


Summary

This How To is a step-by-step article to show you how to improve your focus and direct your attention with skill. By using proven practices you can improve how you spend your attention span, and you can improve your focus to achieve better, faster, simpler results.


Contents

  • Objectives
  • Overview
  • Summary of Steps
  • Step 1. Identify Your Objective.
  • Step 2. Identify Your Reward System.
  • Step 3. Set a Time Limit.
  • Step 4. Identify Your Approach.
  • Step 5. Dump Your Distractions
  • 3 Ways to Refocus
  • Common Scenarios and Solutions
  • Troubleshooting Your Focus
  • Additional Resources


Objectives

  • Hold a clear picture in your mind of what you want to accomplish.
  • Narrow your focus to your top priority.
  • Improve your ability to direct your attention.
  • Improve your ability to focus for a day, a week, a month, or more.


Overview

Your ability to focus is your ability to direct your attention. To improve your focus, you need to get your mind, body, and emotions on your side.


Your mind can be distracted by wandering thoughts or by spreading your attention across too many things. Your body can be distracted because it’s uncomfortable or you haven’t taken care of your basic needs. Your emotions can distract you because your heart is not in it, or you have a conflict in what you want to spend time on, or you have emotional issues that are distracting your mind.


To improve your focus, it helps to decide on what you want to accomplish, set a time limit, eliminate any distractions, and focus on what you want to accomplish during that time frame. Additionally, it helps to create a comfortable workspace, and to anticipate your body’s needs, whether that means dealing with thirst, dealing with hunger, or going to the bathroom.


Summary of Steps

  • Step 1. Identify Your Objective.
  • Step 2. Identify Your Reward System.
  • Step 3. Set a Time Limit.
  • Step 4. Identify Your Approach.
  • Step 5. Dump Your Distractions


Step 1. Identify Your Objective.

Get clear on what you want to focus on and why. This is the most important step. This is where you choose what to focus on. This is where you ask yourself, “What do I want to achieve?” This helps you form a clear picture in your mind of what you want to accomplish. This picture will remind you of your focus. The key is to identify both “what” you want to accomplish and “why” it matters. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. The key to keeping it simple and clear is to state the goal in one line, and see a simple picture of success that you can hold in your mind.


Get a Good Mental Picture

To create a simple mental picture to focus on:

  1. Say what you want as a one-line goal – “I want to finish this book,” “I want to get in the best shape of my life,” “I want to create a clutter-free workspace,” “I want to finish my presentation,” etc.
  2. Visualize what success will look like. See it as a simple picture. This is the picture you’ll hold in your mind and use to remind you of your focus.
  3. Imagine how you’ll feel when you achieve your results. Will you simply feel good or will you feel great?
  4. Identify why you want to achieve this. Keep it simple, but keep it compelling. It can be for you, or it can be for someone else.
  5. Connect it to your values. One way to make your focus is meaningful is to connect what you’re doing to your values. For example, you might value excellence, or learning, or growth, or fun. If you value fun, make it a game. If you value learning, find a way to learn something new while you go. If you value excellence, find a way to improve your approach.


By having a simple way to state your goal, you can remind yourself of your focus. By having a simple picture, you can work backwards from the goal. You can use this picture to inspire yourself to action. You can also use this picture to guide you on your path, and this picture also gives you a simple way to refocus when you fall off track.


Note -- One way to empower yourself with more focus and inspiration is to focus on something bigger than yourself – for the greater good. This is especially powerful if you value contribution or helping lift others up or giving back.


Write it Down

Write down your objective and the action steps to get there is a simple way to focus. It’s a quick reminder, and it helps free up your mind to improve your focus. Use simple lists and bullets both as a way to map out your path, and as reminders. You can use lists and writing things down to help you focus, whether it’s for a simple task, or to plan your day, week ,month or year.


To use writing to improve your focus:

  1. Write down your goals. List them as simple bullet points. Having a simple list will remind you of what you want to accomplish.
  2. Write down action steps or tasks for your goals. This will make it easy for you to always know your next action or task, without having to work too hard trying to remember what comes next. This will help you stay focused, especially when you are overloaded or overwhelmed.


Step 2. Identify Your Reward System

Identify a reward system that that makes it satisfying to retain your focus. People that are best at focusing have an internal reward system. It is the reward or satisfaction that makes focus work. Here are ways to develop an internal reward system:

  1. Focus on personal effectiveness. Gain satisfaction from the focusing itself, build a mental model of yourself as a focused person and act that out.
  2. Focus on a job well done. In this case, the result is the reward. Focus on something that you know will be very satisfying to complete. Once you are done, that result is your reward.
  3. Link it to good feelings. Find a way to feel good as you are focusing. If you feel good while you focus, you will naturally do so more often. This might mean reminding yourself *why* you are doing it. This might mean simply acknowledging yourself for making the effort. This might mean changing “how” you are doing it. Remind yourself little wins can go a long way for full engagement.


You can also use external rewards. Give yourself a reward once you are successful, something external that will be satisfying to you. Make sure it is something you control.


The benefit of the internal reward is that you control it, and it’s with you wherever you go. Additionally, focusing on internal rewards helps you avoid negative patterns. Some negative patterns include:

  1. Negative thinking about yourself, such as thinking of yourself as scatterbrained, or unable to focus. Instead, you focus on the opportunity to improve your ability. You can simply focus on the practice, or the performance of the task.
  2. Negative thinking about the activity, such as thinking about how much you don’t enjoy the activity. Instead, you focus on the *why* that makes it meaningful, or the *how* that makes it enjoyable.


Step 3. Set a Time Limit

Set a time limit to stay focused. Setting a time limit will help you stay focused. For example spend 20 minutes working on your goal. It’s easier to stay focused when you know it’s not forever. Also, having a time frame will help you pace yourself. Most importantly, you can use different strategies for staying focused for different time frames.


There are a variety of different time frames and you have to choose the most appropriate one for what you want to accomplish for your goal. Your time frame may not complete the goal, but it will get you further along. Then you can choose another time frame.


Here are some example time frames for focus:

  • You can focus for 5 minutes.
  • You can focus for 20 minute intervals
  • You can focus for the day.
  • You can focus for the week.
  • You can focus on something for the month.
  • You can focus on something for the year.


The more focused the time frame, the greater power you have to truly dedicate your focus to that one task.


If you have a hard time focusing, the trick is to start with a small time frame and gradually increase your attention span. Focus is like a muscle – the more you work at it, the stronger it gets. By practicing in intervals, you can learn to focus for 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute intervals. If you can focus without distractions for 20 minutes at a clip, you can dramatically improve your productivity, while reducing your task switching. In fact, a common success pattern is to focus for 20 minutes, then take a five minute break, especially when studying or doing knowledge-intensive work. Taking breaks will help you recharge and refocus.


Note – Using a metaphor can help you stay focused. For example, if you have a challenge and it feels like you’re hitting a wall, use a metaphor like “blasting through the wall” or “scaling the wall.” This will help you pace yourself as well as stay in the right mindset. If your mindset is working for you, then change the metaphor you are using to represent the challenge.


Step 4. Identify Your Approach

Identify your approach or strategy for focus. Having a strategy that works for you will help you improve over time. If your current approach is not working, then you can explore and test other approaches. One of the simplest approaches to test is to see how much you can do within your time limit. This makes it a game and frees you from analysis paralysis and perfectionism.


Here are some examples of common approaches:

  • Focus on just getting something done within the time limit. Stay focused until your time limit is up. Focus on spending the time on it until your time runs out.
  • Focus on quantity. Do as many or as much as you can until the time runs out.
  • Focus on quality. Focus on doing a great job within the time limit.
  • Make a fast pass through and then go back and drill down in more detail. This is a focus on speed, but not necessarily quantity. It’s more about going across before diving down.
  • Make a game of it. Find a way to have fun.
  • Test yourself. Challenge yourself to beat your record.
  • Improve your skill. Use the time you are already spending to get better at what you do.


You can combine strategies. The trick is to pick a strategy and run with it. If it’s not working, then change your approach.


Step 5. Dump Your Distractions.

Make a time and place for things Clear away internal and external distractions. If you have a time and place for things, this will help you quickly eliminate common distractions.


Clear Away Internal Distractions

  1. Address your body. Deal with any thirst, hunger, or bathroom needs.
  2. Clear your mind. Dump what’s on your mind down on paper. Create a simple parking lot for thoughts, ideas, and distractions. This will free up your mind to focus on the task at hand. Simply write everything that is on your mind down on paper so that you can go back to it later. If something else pops up on your mind, simply add it to this list.
  3. Respond to your self-talk. If your self-talk or mental chatter or internal questions are distracting you, then simply write them down. Remind yourself that now is not the time. Write it down and deal with it later. Remind yourself that you carved out this time to focus on the task at hand. When you have a time and place for things, it’s easier to focus and to refocus.


Clear Away External Distractions

You know what distracts you. Structure yourself for success. Here are some reminders of things that can be distractions:

  1. Clear your workspace. If you declutter your workspace, you’ll have less things in your way to tug at your attention.
  2. Shut down any communication distractions. This includes phones, email, social media, etc.
  3. Address any people distractions. Let others know you don’t want to be disturbed. One simple way to make this easier is to let people know when you are available and when it’s a better time to interrupt you. What’s not effective is when people have to keep guessing at when they can interact with you.
  4. Address any site, smell, or sound distractions. For example, if there is noise you can’t eliminate, then find your favorite music or find a way to add white noise. If there are shiny objects that keep calling your name, then get them out of your site.
  5. Address any comfort distractions. This includes making sure that temperate is not an issue. Makes sure you can find a comfortable position, so that your body is not distracting you.


3 Ways to Refocus

To keep yourself on track, you need a few simple ways to refocus:

  1. Change the Question. You can change your focus by changing your question. If you find yourself focusing on the wrong things, then try changing your question. For example, instead of asking yourself, “Why am I so slow?”, you might ask yourself, “How can I speed up?” You might ask yourself, “What are three things I want out of this exercise?” Whenever you get distracted or lose focus, rather than “tell” yourself to focus, simply refocus by changing the question.
  2. Remind yourself of the goal. If you lose focus, simply remind yourself of what you want to accomplish. Don’t beat yourself up over getting off track. Instead, use that same energy to focus and make progress on your goal.
  3. Find a way to chart your progress. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It could be crossing off items on a list, or writing marks down on a board. By charting your progress, you’ll remind yourself to refocus on the goal.


Common Scenarios and Solutions

Here are some common scenarios and how to address them:


  • How To Focus Now. Ask yourself, what do you want out of this moment? Ask yourself, how can you get more XYZ out of this moment?
  • How To Focus for 20 Minute Intervals. Set a goal. Use a timer.
  • How To Focus for a Day. Identify three outcomes or wins that you want for the day. Set a mid-day checkpoint, and a checkpoint at the end of the day, to check your results.
  • How To Focus for a Week. On Mondays, identify three outcomes or wins that you want for the week. Set a time on Fridays, to review your results. Set a checkpoint mid-week to evaluate your progress. Review your three goals for the week each day.
  • How To Focus for Month. At the start of the month, identify three outcomes that you want for the month. On Mondays, review your three goals for the month. Each Friday, review your progress towards your three outcomes for the month. Set a checkpoint mid-month to re-evaluate your three outcomes for the month. Consider making your focus a 30 Day Improvement Sprint, where each day you invest a small amount of time or go for little wins that add up over the month.
  • How To Focus for a Year. Identify three wins for the year. Assign deadlines for your wins for the year to specific months on the calendar. Review your progress towards your wins each month. If your focus requires significant investment, then consider making one of your items a theme for a given month, and add extra focus to your goal for 30 days.
  • How To Focus for a Lifetime. Identify three wins that you want for your life. Periodically invest a month, such as a 30 Day Improvement Sprint, to focus on one of these achievements.


Troubleshooting Your Focus

We all have our days. Sometimes it will be easier to focus than others. Don’t get discouraged. Instead, take action. Here are some things you can try to address your issues with focus:


  1. Change the questions you are using. If you are using questions to change your focus, but they aren’t working, then try some new questions. This is the simplest way to really hone in on which questions help you achieve the best focus, and the best part is they should be highly reusable, every time you need them. You will get better over time.
  2. Change the time frame. If 20 minutes is too long, then try 5 minutes. If 30 minutes is too short, then try 40. Experiment to find your sweet spot. For example, for many people, their sweet spot is 20 minutes of intense focus, and then take a 5 or 10 minute break.
  3. Change your approach. If a time limit isn’t working, then try a quantity limit, such as “identify five items.” If a quantity limit isn’t working, then try a quality limit, and see how good you can do. Find a way to connect it to your values. For example, if you like adventure, than make it an adventure. If you like to learn, then make it a learning exercise. If you like excellence, then make it about excellence.
  4. Change your pace. Try speeding up or slowing down. If you can create a sense of urgency, then you may find it easier to stay fully engaged. If you find that creating a sense of urgency stresses you out, then slow down you r pace and focus on skill and quality.
  5. Change the time or change the place. When all else fails, one of the best ways to change your results is to change the time or change the place. Maybe you can focus better at night or vice-versa. Maybe you need to try another room, or try another place entirely. The key is to find what works for you, and then to understand *why* it works for you.


One thing to keep in mind is that stress can work against your focus. If you keep finding yourself in stressful scenarios, than remind yourself to focus on what you control and let the rest go. One of the best ways to deal with stress is to take action, and if you take focused action, using the steps above, then you can help cope with any stressful situations that you face.


Additional Resources


Contributors and Reviewers

  • Alik Levin, Jason Taylor


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