Three things stop people from doing something they want to do.
- It’s too hard.
- It takes too much time.
- It costs too much money.
If you want to focus, this solution is easy, takes 5 minutes, and is free. It’s an excuse killer. 🙂
Previously, I wrote about how to get focused in 5 steps. That article was meant as a longer term life system to organize your days around. But what if it’s already 1:30 PM and you’re off to a bad start? In that case, you need a quick and easy mid-day solution to help you get focused and salvage the day.
If it’s already mid-day, you don’t want to invest a lot of time setting a system up, you just want to get going. The list is meant to take 5 minutes to execute, but the explanations are not proportionally short. This isn’t a “cheap list.” I’ll explain how and why it works.
1. Drop worry and guilt, pick up courage
It might be surprising to see dropping worry and guilt as the number one step to getting focused, but you’ll find this intuitive when you consider your experience. Guilt and worry freeze us because they “take over” the mind. They must leave because focus requires our full mental arsenal.
Think about a time when you were worried about something. Got it? Ok, now imagine if you tried to focus on something unrelated to the worry; even paying attention to television (a relatively easy task) is nearly impossible. When you’re worried, there’s no room for other thoughts.
You may have thought about a short term worry in that exercise, like someone not being home when they were supposed to, but worry can be long term as well. Here are the most common long term worries:
Any excessive worry in these 4 categories can devastate your ability to focus, and they can do it over the long term. You might be thinking, “Wait, so I’m supposed to dismantle my greatest worries in step one? We haven’t even come to guilt yet! I thought this would take 5 minutes!”
The secret is that you’re not going to be “dealing with” your worries (or guilts) here, you’re going to suspend them. Focus is well suited for blocks of time – it’s not a 24/7 superpower. As such, we are going to hold off these emotional beasts for a block of time (even a full day) so that we can focus. If we need to do it again the next day, we’ll do it again!
For suspending worry, the best strategy is to accept what you can and cannot control, and to decide to worry later. If you have poor health, finances, or relationships, there are aspects you can control and aspects you can’t. Worry tends to blanket the whole issue, which doesn’t accomplish much besides making you feel bad.
When you want to get focused, promise yourself that you’ll worry about the issue extra hard later (or now). Pick a time block to worry about it. Seriously. If you do this, you’ll probably “get” how worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. Worrying is doing nothing in a way that makes you feel like you’re doing something (tweet this).
Don’t worry. Postpone it for a few hours or a day. Lie to yourself if you have to.
Guilt is deadly to focus, but in a different way than worry. If worry is a mental resource hog that fills up your brain, guilt is an aggressive boar that gores your brain. Think about something you feel really guilty about, either now or in the past. For me, a massive source of guilt was from sleeping in. I would feel guilty every time I slept in late (and boy did I do that like a pro).
Do you know how guilt gores our brains and kills our focus?
Guilt is an emotional injury that draws our attention toward it like a sprained ankle – we wish it would go away, but it damages our self-image in a way that can’t easily be ignored.
Most of you have probably seen a guilty dog with its tail between its legs, right? Now, imagine you have to bet on this dog or another dog to complete an obstacle course the fastest. Their times are very similar, with the guilty dog having a slight edge time-wise on the other dog. The non-guilty dog has just been given a treat. Which do you bet on?
I’m all-in the non-guilty dog. He is motivated, focused, and ready to go, while the other dog is preoccupied with his owner being upset at him.
To suspend guilt requires forgiveness, understanding, and hope. You’re human. Take comfort in that there are people who have made worse mistakes than what you feel guilty about AND recovered from them. Maybe you feel guilty because you haven’t been productive all day – forgive yourself, understand that nobody gets through life with perfect days, and have hope that you can do something with your day that will make you smile as you lie in bed tonight.
But guilt’s ultimate weak point is a forward-looking mind. Since guilt is 100% past-based, if you’re focused on present and future opportunities, you’ll find it easy to drop guilt. You won’t feel guilty about not working out earlier when you’re breaking a sweat at the gym.
In step one, we’re replacing guilt and worry with courage – courage that you can redirect your path from your usual missteps, and courage that you can do something great today. It takes courage to believe you will have an impressive day because it will hurt you if you fall short. That’s why half-hearted courage is a poison pill – it gives you hope for a good day, but then fails you when you need that “war cry” boost.
Don’t just consider having a focused, great rest of the day. Decide.
Step 1 Summary
Guilt, worry, and courage are all decisions. Decide not to worry about what you can’t control, decide to focus on the present instead of your guilt-inducing past (whether recent or long term), and decide to believe in yourself. The combination of these three things puts people “in the zone.”
The goal of focusing is to obsess with the current focal point and block out everything else (think of the cheetah chasing his prey). If you’re eating cereal right now, nothing else matters unless it’s an emergency. If you’re writing, then that’s it, you’re not concerned with your mild food poisoning problem or your new text message. Those will both be there when you’re done. You’ve set aside 20 minutes to do your current task, and made the decision to focus.
While step one has turned into a blog post by itself, in real world thinking, you can complete this step in seconds. Your brain is fast, but it needs the right instructions in order to make that speed useful.
The right instructions are to eliminate the fogginess in your mind caused by concerns of worry and guilt and believe that you can do exactly what you want to do with your time, instead of drifting through another day like a drone.
Focus is a performance-based skill, like completing an obstacle course, juggling, playing sports, and dancing. When someone says, “I wish I could juggle,” they correctly understand it won’t happen without practice. It bothers me to hear people say, “I wish I could focus,” and proceed to hope that it happens.
Skills are developed through practice, not hope. (tweet this)
2. Grab pen/paper
I don’t like to copy common wisdom and advice unless it works well. This is one of those things you hear everywhere, but the difference it makes blows my mind. Of the studies I’ve poured over, they all show that writing your thoughts or intentions down causes your brain to give them more attention and importance (I remember one study on goals found people had 33% more success with their goals when they wrote down their intentions and shared them with a friend).
According to UCLA, the average person has 70,000 thoughts per day. Think about that. You just had several thoughts fire off in rapid succession.
But when you have so many thoughts, and some of them are things like, “I hope I’m not gassy tonight at the party,” then it’s a logical conclusion that we should find a way to give the important thoughts VIP treatment. Writing them down accomplishes this very well. It separates “study for my MCAT” from “Why do people still eat at McDonald’s? I’m hungry. Do we have potatoes? How many types of potatoes are still farmed?”
3. Start writing down important tasks in mind, one by one, until they don’t come easily
I know. This is looking like the How To Get Focused Today In 5 Steps article. But this is a different view, and a slightly different method. While that article was a long term strategy for focusing daily, this is a short-term strategy for when you want to focus in a foreign place or don’t have many materials, or don’t have the time or energy to do anything fancy. You might be scribbling on a napkin with a crayon at a restaurant. You might not have anything and have to do it in your head.
If you don’t have access to pen and paper and want to get focused. You can try to skip this step and just select some important tasks that you’d like to complete. Another idea is to assign tasks to small objects around you. The fork represents writing 1000 words today, etc. It sounds stupid, but bringing the tasks outside of your head in any way helps you compare them.
Alternatively, if you’re with people, have a quick discussion with them about what you should do today. Give them a small list of things you could do and why. Other people can help you analyze the importance of tasks by asking questions and giving their opinions. No paper required! And don’t assume they won’t be interested – because they deal with the same question every day, they will likely enjoy the process of helping someone else decide.
This is the mind dump phase, and it will relieve your brain of storage duties. You can write until ideas don’t come easily or until you see tasks that you know are more important than everything else. Maybe you’re working on a huge project that is top priority that you’d like to work on today – in that case, write down several things you can do for that project.
As this is a temporary focus solution, getting a complete life goals list down is not necessary.
4. Look over your list and select 3 (or fewer) to do today
Fewer items is better. It’s because the less you give yourself to do, the higher chance there is for a rewarding feeling of completion at the end of the day, which is needed to reinforce this healthy behavior.
The reason one task may not be enough is because research shows that prioritization is a mentally-taxing, energy-draining process. If you pick one, do it, and then pick the next one, you’re switching from action to prioritization frequently, and it drains your battery like a cell phone looking for a signal.
The balance is found in choosing a small number of important tasks (it can be one if it is a lengthy task) that you can do today. These tasks will not even need to be the most important tasks you have. But you must be fine with doing them instead of everything else.
Focus happens when your current task makes you feel like you’re not wasting your time. If you’re working on the wrong task, your mind is going to drift towards the other work you have to do. If you find yourself doing this, recognize and block out the feeling if it’s unjustified (or a bad habit) or reorder your list to reflect your true priorities.
5. Complete the tasks with a time block strategy
One pitfall of task lists is the feeling that you have to go through them consecutively without a break. This is wrong and harmful to your ability to focus. It works out to making you half-focused for a long amount of time. As I mentioned earlier, focusing needs boundaries. If you focused deeply for a couple of weeks straight, your brain would try to run away. Breaks are necessary and enjoyable components of getting focused, and they help the brain understand what it means to focus.
The time block strategy is relaxed, until you decide to focus. Say your first task is to clean out your car. You know this, but you eat breakfast and watch a TV show while you eat. Then you read an email or two and respond. Uh…what about the car?
It’s ready when you are. Maybe after your email, you decide it’s time to get serious, so you set aside the next 1.5 hours to focus on cleaning the car. After you finish that, the next item on your list is up – reading 3 chapters in your book. You don’t have to jump right into the book, but when you decide to do it, do it. Don’t read 4 pages, watch TV for 30 minutes, read 3 pages, eat lunch, and then read the rest. Wait until you can set aside the full amount of time to complete the task distraction-free.
This technique builds a great habit of focus. If you do this over the long term, your ability to focus in “chosen moments” will be strengthened and separated from “regular living.” You’ll develop the ability to say, “it’s business time” and snap into level of focus most people will never experience in their life. Like everything else, it’s from practice and repetition. A focused lifestyle is the right one to practice and repeat.
Breakdown – How These Steps Take 5 Minutes
- Suspend worry, forgive yourself from guilt, and decide to attack the day with courage. (30 seconds)
- Grab pen/paper (30 seconds)
- Write down important tasks to consider today (3 minutes)
- Select about 3 tasks to do today (1 minute)
- You’re focused at this point; now execute with the time block strategy
Total time – 5 minutes
Total impact – huge
Total cost – free
Right now, why not take 5 minutes and try this out?