We’ve all been there: procrastinating on social media instead of working on an important project; getting sidelined by trivial emails, text messages or phonecalls – not to mention a world of distraction and entertainment is only a mouse click away…
What’s a person to do? Developing a strong habit of laser focus and concentration will be your best defense against distraction – allowing you to become super productive and make progress on your most important goals.
Follow the 7 steps below to forming this valuable habit.
1. Know thine enemy!
What distracting websites or interruptions do you regularly fall prey to? Spend a day or more, noting when you get interrupted or distracted from tasks. Record the distraction, time of day etc, how you were feeling & whether other people were involved.
If websites are a major distraction for you, download free software such as Rescue Time which will run in the background of your computer and track how long you’re spending on various sites. This can be a real eye opener!
Monitor how long you can currently stay focused for before getting distracted. This will give you something to improve on!
2. Set a goal for your new behaviour
Once you know where you’re at, set a new behaviour goal. If you can currently focus for 30 minutes before you get distracted, set a goal for 45 minutes and/ or limit the number of times per day you will tolerate distractions. Perhaps you will check facebook or email only twice per day rather than being constantly ‘tuned in’. Often we seek out diversions as we want to escape from the task at hand so scheduling these diversions can ensure you are not constantly tempted by them.
3. Get motivated
Why do you want to build the habit of focus? To achieve your goals of course! Having your goals top of mind will help keep you on track. As well as achieving a specific goal, building the habit of laser focus will help you better achieve ALL your goals. So when you’re tempted to stray from your tasks, remind yourself why developing this habit is important to you.
Know ‘why’ you are doing something. Finding meaning, purpose and enjoyment in your work can help keep you focused and motivated to stick with it.
4. Planning & strategy
Essential for success! There are lots of strategies you can put in place to eliminate or minimise distractions and maximise productivity. Some ideas are below.
– Block distracting websites. StayFocusd is a great free add-on for Chrome which allows you to block distracting websites or limit the time spent on them. .
– Put your phone on silent mode when working. Let your calls go to message bank and call people back when you need a break from high concentration tasks.
– Shut your email client down when not in use or at the very least TURN OFF desktop notifications.
– Close your office door, put up a ‘do not disturb sign’ or wear earphones to deter potential distractors and to block out distracting noise.
– Make a plan and ‘to do’ list for what you want to get done during the day/ week etc. ‘Deciding’ what to do next will leave you fair game for distractions and opting for easy tasks rather than taking goal-achieving actions. Prioritise in advance so you have a clear idea of what needs to be done.
– Keep water and snacks on hand so you can stay hydrated and avoid your blood sugars getting too low and losing concentration.
– Take regular (planned) breaks to avoid losing steam when in the middle of an important task.
– Set a timer to keep you on track with tasks.
– Productivity techniques combining several of these ideas can be a great habit to build. You can try the Pomodoro technique which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes then taking a short break (3-5 minutes) and every fourth Pomodoro taking a longer (15-30 minute) break. The key is to be very focused during the 25 minute intervals. Focus Booster is a free desktop app you can use for this.
I learnt a similar method from Eben Pagan called the 60-60-30 method. Here you focus for 50 minutes then take a 10 minute break, focus for another 50 minutes then take a 30-40 minute break and eat a small meal during this time. I use this method to write books. By having short breaks we recharge our brain and are therefore better able to focus during the longer ‘work’ periods. Having a small meal also ensures we have fuel for working. Having a set period for focused work can be a great help as you know you can check social media or email when your timer is up. As with any new habit, don’t expect to do it perfectly first time. Build up gradually until you can focus for extended periods.
– We are more prone to distractions when we are tired. Schedule your most important tasks for the start of the day and save emails and meetings for the afternoon. Ideally you would do one or several Pomodoro or 60-60-30 sets in the morning when you are fresh.
– Set up your physical environment for success. Is your current chair and desk comfortable or are they making you feel tired & sore? I prefer to stand while working and it helps keep me alert and focused (harder to doze off right? ;-). Standing while working has many health and productivity benefits so I would recommend you look at setting up a standing work station. You don’t need anything elaborate or expensive. I simply have a high desk (which is the right height for me when I stand), then I have a high (comfortable) bar-type stool when I want a break from standing. Get a cushion to stand on as it can be hard on your feet. I alternate between standing & sitting and find it much more comfortable than staying in one position all day. Sitting is the new smoking after all!
– Music or other relaxing sounds may help you focus. Jazz and Classical music works for many people. I use Holothink as a brainwave altering audio for enhancing focus. It stimulates your brainwaves for the optimal state for productivity. Whilst their sales page is a tad over-exaggerated, I do recommend it as a hack for staying focused.
5. Mental preparation
Making progress on your focusing and productivity strategies will be difficult if you have limiting beliefs around this. Banish any thoughts that staying focused is hard or impossible. Replace these with “I stay focused and on task at all times” and commit to the process of learning a new skill – which you won’t do perfectly on the first attempt!
Before you start a difficult or unpleasant task, think about why it is important and the benefits of working on it. This will put you in the right frame of mind for warding off distractions.
Be alert for any thoughts such as “I’ll just ‘quickly’ check on [insert distraction]” as before you know it you may have ventured down a black hole that is difficult to get out of.
6. Taking action
Sometimes we want to be distracted! Our brain’s reward centres light up at new messages and alerts. You need to take proactive action to build your new habit of focus and concentration. Set a reminder for yourself to put in place distraction blocking strategies first thing in the morning before you get sucked in and derailed from productive work.
Start small if you need to, with 5-10 minutes of planned distraction free work and build up from there. Building this as a new habit is the most important goal rather than the work achieved! By doing a small amount consistently you will help to build a strong habit. Doing focused work at a set time and in a set environment will also train your brain to ‘switch on’ and focus when necessary.
This is also a great trick to get started on difficult work. Set yourself a goal of just 5 or 10 minutes of productive work on the task. Once you have started, there’s a good chance you will keep going as you’ve overcome inertia.
7. Record refine & review
Track your progress on a daily and weekly basis to see how your levels of concentration and focus are progressing against your habit goals for this area. Note if there are certain distractions you are still vulnerable to and brainstorm ways to mitigate these.
If you are running software on your PC, check the reports for where you’re spending your time and take corrective action if necessary.
Building the habit of focus and concentration can take time but like any habit but the more you practise it the better you will get. Do you have any other tips for staying focused and productive?