In a recent article I made a case for Focus and Consistency as being the two most powerful metaskills that can be applied anywhere in life to increase your results. This was followed by an article on Consistency and today I want to focus on Focus (see what I did there?)
The key takeaway here is nothing new; apply undistracted attention to a task in order to achieve better results in less time. Multi-tasking doesn’t work. But how do we create the conditions for this kind of extreme focus? What are some actionable tactics that can be applied?
I’ve created the following list based on lessons learned during my 21 Days of Digital Minimalism experiment conducted earlier this year. That was a great start down this path and I’ve been working towards refining these ideas ever since, with noticeable results.
Build Your Walls
Focus requires solitude. It takes very little to break your concentration when you are in the thick of things, so the best thing to do is build a metaphorical island to work from.
If you have an office, this can simply mean closing the door. In a shared environment you can put in earplugs, or put on noise cancelling headphones. Either will send a powerful Do Not Disturb message. Working from home can be a bit trickier and will likely require boundaries to be discussed with your family and put in place.
In rare cases I’ve even heard of people renting a hotel room (Maya Angelou), or taking a round trip intercontinental flight in order to finish a project. Extreme no doubt, but desperate times and all that…
As Stephen King says, your workspace really only needs one thing: a door you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.
Firmly entrenched in your fortress of solitude you should have a clear barrier against external distractions. Next come the distractions from within the room.
Device notifications should be the first thing to go. Whether from your phone, your computer, or your smart watch (which I still can’t believe is a thing), every beep or flashing light will pull you away from the task at hand with the promise of solving a perceived urgent task, yielding instant gratification.
The trick is to differentiate between what is Urgent and what is Important. The work in front of you is important, the email that just came through is most likely not. Personally, I only leave my phone ringer active. If it requires immediate attention then somebody will pick up a phone and call.
Taking this a step further, consider removing the time-wasting apps from your phone entirely. Completely eliminate the distraction. It doesn’t mean that you can’t check social media, it just means that you empower yourself to do so on your own terms. Set a time and do it then; during your lunchbreak or on Facebook Friday. You won’t miss as much as you think, and you’ll gain so much more.
Finally, you can go fully analogue. Enter the room with nothing but a pad and a pen. Work entirely from paper, then transfer to digital later as required. I’ve begun to do this with much of my writing and am finding that it offers two distinct benefits:
- I think more carefully about what I’m going to commit to the page. Writing is harder than typing and more permanent. This helps you to be more mindful about what you write.
- It offers the chance to truly complete a full edit, while transferring those notes to digital. Most (all) work I’ve completed using a computer gets a spell check at best. Having a built in requirement to retype everything allows a fresh look at the entire work.
There are many studies that show handwriting taps into the creative side of your brain better. And it allows you to develop your handwriting at the same time, which is a prime example of layering projects; getting two things accomplished with minimal additional effort. Try it, you just might like it.
Prime the Pump
This part is a little more esoteric, but I’ve found is truly one of the keys to success.
Before starting the work I stop a moment, straighten up, take a deep breath, and set my intention towards that task.
This may involve a time frame, word count, or some other marker that I plan to achieve before stopping, or it may not. The important thing is that you are sending a message into your subconscious that this is what we are doing right now. By verbalizing what you intend to do, even if only internally, you set the stakes of the moment. Your self-talk is like your operating system. It can influence you negatively or positively, the choice is yours to make.
The Pomodoro technique is a well-known task completion method where set a timer for 25 minutes, then take five to regroup when it rings. This is a different way of achieving that same thing. You set the intention and a pre-defined stopping point. Failure to hit your mark is not an option.
Whether you set a stopwatch, develop a mantra, or spin around three times, take a moment where you make a conscious decision to do the work. You’ll be amazed how effective this is.
Prioritize and Execute
Figure out what is the most important thing that you need to be doing right now, then do it. This approach comes directly from Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babbin. If you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend you pick up a copy.
Every minute of every day we are pulled in multiple directions. Things pop up and they seem important enough that you drop everything and focus on that. But when you jump from one task to the next you are left with nothing but a bunch of unfinished tasks. The key is to always be asking “What is the most important thing I can be doing right now that, once completed, will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”
Having a strong daily routine helps ensure that you hit all of your marks for the day. I know that exercise is important. But if I leave it “until I have time/energy/motivation” then I’ll never do it. But by making it the very first thing that I do every day then I never miss a workout. I’ve identified it as a major priority and I execute every morning. Six weeks in on my latest training program and I have not missed a single session.
This strategy allows you to be proactive; setting up your dominoes then knocking them down. The alternative is allowing your day to run your actions, always reacting to the newest inputs and information.
The tactics mentioned above are easy to implement and, more than that, are freeing. Turn your phone off all weekend and see if you don’t feel a little bit better, and get a little bit more done.
Identify what you want to accomplish, keep coming back to those tasks consistently, and perform them with focus. This is the simple formula for great results.