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I interact with a lot of entrepreneurs, executives and otherwise busy people. And the number one obstacle I hear when it comes to achieving goals is lack of focus.
Consider this: how many of us are one person on January 1 and another person by January 31? The research is staggering. Overwhelmingly, we shift focus onto other things, lose track of our goals and our enthusiasm is gone. Regardless of how good your intentions are, without the ability to focus over a sustained period of time, you will have to rely solely on luck to achieve your goals.
Not a good game plan for success.
Even worse: there is a concerted effort that goes on behind the scenes directed at stealing your attention with an ad. Or a highlight reel of cats falling off dressers.
The advertising industry is well over $190 billion strong now and growing. Every one of those dollars is spent with the design, intention and hope that you will take your eyes off of whatever you are doing and divert your precious attention to their new offer, product or service.
Add to that the ongoing barrage of other interruptions: notifications, phone calls, emails waiting to be answered and any other annoyance that may blow in uninvited. It’s been estimated that interruptions can account for up to six hours of our workday.
How can you possibly stand up to that kind of force?
Perhaps an even more important question: why would you want to? At a minimum, why not play the odds of success in your favor.
The reality is you are not a superhero and you don’t have unlimited reserves of willpower. You are a product of your environment and a creature of habit. Who you are today is a result of your brain’s belief in who you have been up until this point. And it has nothing to do with who you are becoming (but that’s another topic for another day).
While there are certainly benefits to allowing your mind the freedom to wander and become distracted, disciplining yourself to turn off that mental switch is an increasingly valuable skill. Here are some tools and tips to help you stay focused when you need your mind in your corner.
Change your mind
Starting today, introduce a small change in the way you think: add a simple, “yet” at the end of a negative phrase.
“I’m not good at focusing…yet.”
“I don’t know how to avoid distractions…yet.”
“I can’t stop multitasking…yet.”
This positive spin will begin to open up new neuropathways to consider a new you in the making. Don’t be embarrassed or judge yourself harshly. You are where you are because of a million and one factors that are not your fault. But what you do or don’t do moving forward from this point is your responsibility.
One of the most powerful weapons to combat lack of focus is removing whatever it is that is causing the distraction in the first place. As logical as it sounds, it’s very effective. If you’re at a computer and need to do deep work, close down the 47 tabs you have open. Put your phone on silent and in the other room. Place the pile of mail in the drawer. Turn off notifications.
If you’re at work, announce to your co-workers the amount of uninterrupted time you need.
Before you sit down to work, take a look around and identify your enemies. What has derailed your train of thought in the past? Evict anything that is not in alignment with what you are doing or that could become a potential distraction. This takes a little time and effort but the return on your time investment (ROTI) is well worth it.
Focus your energy on one task at a time
Multitasking is perhaps the biggest scam of our time. You can see it in job offerings and on the faces of candidates who proudly boast of their multitasking skills as if it were a badge of honor. If you are involved in any kind of meaningful work, your brain can only focus on one thing at a time.
So why not work with your physiology, not against it? Rather than watching a YouTube video in one window while typing an important email in another, imagine your tasks standing in a single-file line, waiting to be served. “Next!” Line them up and give full attention to each one.
Developing your ability to focus is a skill that can be learned. If you have not yet learned it, don’t worry- as long as you’re still alive, you have hope. Approach it as any other skill you are trying to develop: one small step at a time. If you can only focus on a single task for five minutes, do that and take a short break. Slowly increase it. Set a goal for 10. Then 20 and longer.
Remember that everyone starts out small. The first time you rode a bike, you didn’t just hop on and race down the road. Same thing learning to walk. You cannot expect to simply snap your fingers and magically transform yourself into a laser-focused machine.
Eat the elephant one step at a time. The ultimate goal is progress.
Remember when you were little and your mom made you practice your piano? Or maybe it was a sport. Regardless, anything worth doing is worth doing over and over again until you get good at it. It’s the only way you can become an expert.
I like to incorporate “focus practice” into my daily routine. Visualization and meditation are great little sessions to get your brain warmed up for the day. They also help set your intention, generate a pleasant mood and bring a plethora of other side benefits.
A great deal of research supports the idea that praise will release a chemical in your brain called dopamine, the chemical released in your brain when you fall in love, meditate or eat ice cream. This jolt of feel-good chemicals encourages the same behavior in the future.
So why not get good at rewarding yourself with a little self-praise? Pause to acknowledge the achievement and give yourself a mini fist bump, either mentally or out loud in front of the bathroom mirror.
Get to know yourself
We become so used to ourselves that sometimes we don’t pay attention to little things that can make a big difference. Like, your energy cycle. When are you the most focused? What times of day are ideal for deep work and when should you schedule more shallow tasks?
By merely paying attention to how you are wired, you can plan the tasks that require the most focus for the times they are most likely to get your focus. If you feel yourself getting foggy, take a break and walk around. Learn your limits and work with them rather than imposing an impossible standard.
Remember the downside
When you lack focus, there’s a list of yucky consequences. Among them:
- Studies have shown that it can take up 20 minutes or more to fully recover from a single distraction
- After only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people experience significantly higher levels of stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure
- You double your odds of making a mistake with a small, three-second distraction
A healthy dose of fear can do you well here. Fear of bogging down your productivity because of a lack of focus. Train your mind to view distractions as the nasty little creatures they are.
Remember how unimportant most distractions are
The vast majority of things that pull away our attention have no true significance in our lives. If what you are doing is important, you’re literally trading your most valuable asset (time) for a mess of pottage.
With that perspective, why fall prey to the world’s “plan” for your life rather than staying on track to your own? There will always be something new, shiny, funny, interesting or clever. But will it get you closer to your dreams?
Get plenty of sleep, water and exercise
I don’t need to go into detail here as I’m sure you’ve already heard it a million times (starting when you were still in kindergarten)- take care of yourself. It’s mind-boggling how many benefits come from proper self-care.
Bottom line: if you plan to get very far along the road to success, you are going to have to learn how to focus in an increasingly “shiny object syndrome” world.