This week’s Wisdom Wednesday post is about focus. There’s a lot these days vying for your attention. Our phones are always within arms reach, and there’s always something to be scrolling through. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or who knows what else, there are always more posts to look at. There’s shopping to be done. Likes to be liked.
I went to set a timer this morning. It’s a simple task, right? Open the clock widget, set the timer, and go back to work, right? Wrong. Before I knew it, I had opened Facebook and ten minutes had flown by. What I needed to time was over and done with.
If it’s not the internet or social media trying to rob us of our time, it’s house work. Or family obligations. Or day job stuff, or a hundred other things that get in the way of you following your passion and doing what you love doing.
There’s really only one solution, and that solution is to focus.
There’s no easy way to do this. You can turn off your wifi (which I’ve done). You can hide your phone in another room. You can tell your family not to bother you. But at the end of the day, even after you remove all those other distractions, if you’re not focused and here for whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish, it’s not going to get done. So here are five tips or tricks that I use to help me focus on what needs to get done.
Set an attainable goal. Whether you’re trying to write your next ebook, or just cleaning the bathroom, establishing an attainable end point for that task will help you tremendously when it comes to the point of knuckling down to do it. If you can say to yourself “OK, self. We just have to put down five hundred words right now, and then we’re done,” you’ll find doing it is much easier to accomplish than leaving it open-ended.
Give yourself permission to take breaks. Neuroscientists suggest that we human beings are really only good for about 25 minutes or so of unbroken concentration at a stretch. If you are chained to your desk, trying to power through hours of work, you’re going to find yourself falling down a Twitter hole pretty readily. But, if you work for 25 minutes, and then get up, stretch and take a turn around the office for five minutes, you’ll come back to your desk refreshed and ready to handle the next task.
Enlist aide. So, I know the goal is to put our phones away, but we can actually use them instead of them using us. There’s a profusion of apps in the app store these days designed, specifically, to aide in keeping you focused. I like one called Forest. You set a timer in the app and it grows a virtual tree for you by the time the timer is up. Grow enough little fake trees, and the makers of the app will plant a real tree somewhere in the world. What I especially like about this app is that it yells at you if you spend more than a few seconds messing with your phone after you started the timer. You don’t have to use this, specific app if you don’t want to, but having something tracking the amount of time you’ve spent focusing on your work in turn helps keep you focused even more.
Make sure you have what you need to work. Did you go to the bathroom? Are your feet cold? Do you have water and a little snack, in case you get hungry? Solve all these little problems before you start working and guess what - they won’t end up as excuses to wander off and spend half an hour doing something, anything other than what you’re supposed to be doing.
Clean up your space. Some people like to say that they thrive in chaos. Those people are being overly generous with that assessment. What I would say is probably more accurate is that they’ve gotten comfortable enough to tolerate chaos. Don’t get comfortable with it. The second you start thinking that being surrounded by a mess is conducive to a productive work flow is the same moment in which you find yourself looking for a piece of paper with that random note you scrawled on it three weeks ago, and you really need, but you can’t find it. 25 minutes later, you’ll discover that you had slapped that post-it note on the inside cover of a notebook, buried under a pile of papers that you haven’t looked at in a month. Your flow has totally abandoned you, and you’re not even really sure anymore why you were looking for that paper in the first place. Clean and organize your work space so that you can find what you need, when you need it, rather than holding an impromptu archaeological dig in your office to sift through the sediment of paper piles and desk debris.
Bonus tip: Work in a quiet environment. It turns out that your mother was right when she told you not to listen to music while you were studying. If you really need to knuckle down and get something done, do it in as close to silence as you can manage. Music and podcasts are great for the lower-function tasks, like washing dishes or filing. But if you really need to devote your brain to something, background noise isn’t going to stay in the background for very long. Our brains are not wired for multi-tasking. I don’t care what that perky type-A woman at work says, they simply aren’t. We’re wired to do one task at a time. Try to do too much, like tackling your work with headphones on, in an already noisy work environment with phones and other people demanding your attention, and pretty soon, you’ll find that your whole day has been spent asking yourself what you were working on before whatever or whoever it was interrupted you. If you can work in a quiet environment that minimizes outside distractions, you’ll get a lot more done and you won’t be so stressed while you do it.
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.”