How to stay focused

Focus drives productivity and gets results; and in our crazy age of multi-tasking, busyness and mass distraction, the ability to focus is the killer app that sets the best apart.

But focus needs to be learned and practiced. You can’t just wake up one day and discover you have incredible focus. Instead you need to gradually change your habits, values and thinking processes to develop this indispensable skill.

Staying focused

To help discover and refine a keen sense of focus, here are ten practical things you can start doing today:

1 – Define your purpose

Like focus, a sense of purpose doesn’t come naturally to all of us, but knowing our purpose helps us enormously when deciding the activities that will make the best use of our time and energy.

Like I say, most of us (me included!) tend to drift through large chunks of our lives without any real sense of purpose, which is a major shame given our limited time here.

Whilst it can potentially take years for someone to gain a sense of purpose, you can be proactive in your purpose discovery and the sooner you start doing this, the sooner you can make decisions to drive your own agenda and not be driven by someone else’s.

2 – Keep a focus journal

This probably sounds fancier than it is, but you don’t need an expensive leather bound tomb to begin writing about your purpose and goals, and tracking your progress towards them – a plain notebook or digital tool will do just fine.

Why write about these things? Well the act of writing things down helps make them more tangible and much easier to commit to than vague ideas floating around in our heads. Writing also provides a way for us to reflect and process things better, so journaling your progress towards your goals helps you to understand what is and isn’t working.

3 – Build your own productivity system

A good productivity system is a way of capturing all the things we’ve got to do and the things we want to do in one place, where they can be prioritised and planned for implementation.

Keeping tasks in a paper or digital system means we don’t need to remember them, which given our short term memory’s limited capacity is really useful, as we can use that mental capacity for solving big problems and not clutter it up with nagging thoughts about booking the car in for a service or picking up the dry cleaning.

Popular productivity systems include Getting Things Done and Bullet Journaling, but there are plenty more. The most important thing to me is keeping the system as simple as possible, so that you don’t become a slave to it. My own Focus Done productivity method is very much ‘bare-bones’, which means it can be set up and adapted for individual use very quickly.

4 – Set yourself goals

Even if you don’t want to set up a productivity system, it is still important to set yourself goals for things you want to achieve within a particular timeframe.

Goals are essentially milestones that keep you on track towards your overall destination and knowing that you want to achieve a particular goal by the end of the month helps ensure you dedicate sufficient time and energy towards it.

Bigger goals (monthly or quarterly) can be broken down into small weekly or even daily goals, so that you can see a clear link between the day-to-day work you are doing and the bigger picture.

5 – Learn how to prioritise between Urgent, Important tasks and Non-Urgent, Important tasks

Prioritisation is another vital skill to learn. Essentially when you are prioritising, you are going through a decision making process to determine where to spend your limited time and energy resources, so you’ll want to ensure you get maximum bang for your buck.

Prioritisation matrix tools are useful for making these decisions, but be careful not to let urgent tasks get in the way of non-urgent tasks that will deliver more impact in the long-term, otherwise you will find you are constantly firefighting, without making any significant structural improvements.

6 – Learn to say ‘no’ to almost everything

Saying no to people is hard, particularly when you want to be helpful and professional; but politely saying no to the majority of opportunities and commitments that come your way ensures you avoid diluting your attention with too many things.

One way I get around the problem of saying no without offending my stakeholders at work is to agree to add their request to the product backlog for future investigation, so it is not a flat-out ‘no’, but a ‘maybe in the future’.

In other situations you need to be more decisive and let people know as early a possible that you won’t be able to work / drink / play with them, so that they know where they stand and can make alternative arrangements.

7 – Learn how to delegate

It can be really hard to learn to delegate to other people. Most of us have this natural tendency to try and do everything ourselves, because if we can’t do everything then we must be ‘weedy little weaklings’ right?

It also takes time and effort to coach other people to take on work for you and deliver it to a standard that you would be happy with, which is another factor that can deter us from delegating.

But once you get over the feeling of ‘losing control’ and delegate tasks to other people who have more capacity and expertise, you not only benefit from freeing up your own mental space to work on bigger issues, you are also able to 10 x your reach and achieve more goals, so it really is worth getting into the habit of delegation.

8 – Schedule time for deep work, admin work and teamwork

Throughout our working days our energy flows in waves, rather than a constant stream; so it is important to ride a big wave of energy when you are trying to get your most important work done.

I’m pretty typical in that my energy levels are at their highest first thing in the morning, then slowly ebb away towards lunchtime, followed by a second wave of energy about an hour after lunch.

With this in mind, I try to reserve the mornings for deep work and the afternoons for admin and teamwork.

9 – Keep an ideas log

I read a lot, which is great, but I often find myself getting so excited and inspired by an idea I have just read about that I found myself sidetracked into looking up domain names and drawing wireframes, before I even realise it!

To avoid going off on these wild tangents I started keeping an ideas log, with the sole purpose of exorcising the idea from my mind, so that I can get back to my original focus.

I actually use a gmail account that I set up specifically for this purpose and each new idea gets captured in an email, which I send to my gmail account.

Not only does this approach help me maintain focus, but it also has the side benefit of providing a mini-database of interesting (and sometimes slightly weird) ideas that I can review when I need some creative inspiration.

10 – Become a minimalist

No don’t worry, I’m not talking about becoming one of those creepy, dark glasses and polo neck wearing types! I’m just suggesting that taking a more selective approach to the things you own and do, means you have less to worry about.

Take stuff around the house for example. It is very easy for our homes to start feeling crowded and claustrophobic, because we have too many things. Those with children will know how quickly the pace of proliferation increases when the little ones arrive (I genuinely think our kid’s cuddly toys breed with each other overnight!).

To me, nothing feels better than having a good clear out of the clutter; whether this is physical clutter in the house, in the garden, in my working environment; or mental clutter, such even trimming back the features on an overly cluttered product. Once the clutter is gone, I’m feeling calm and re-energised and ready to focus again. I talk about this more in the pruning habit.

Over to you

Let’s be honest, maintaining focus is hard work and it is always easier to slip back into old habits and be led by other people’s priorities.

So to remain resilient and focused, you also need to look after yourself. You need to feel good, you need to feel energetic and you need to feel strong.

This is why it is important to leave the office on time, to spend quality time with family and friends, to sleep well every night, to exercise regularly, to find a peaceful place for doing deep work, to stop consuming crappy social media and to switch off annoying notifications.

Combine this with the ideas above and you’ll be certain to see big results.

Good luck 🙂