There are two problems that prevent people from focusing on a daily basis:
- Having too many options to choose from. This is overwhelming, and focus requires manageability.
- Not understanding which options are most important. This is confusing, and focus requires clarity.
Let’s fix these problems and get focused!
Step One: Remove The Tasks From Your Brain
Write them down. Gather all of the possible actions and projects floating around in your mind. This isn’t just tasks for today, it means big someday projects, desired habits, and small daily chores. You should write down everything that comes to mind, but don’t worry if you can’t remember everything.
I like to use a dry-erase board for this because it provides easy editing, convenience, and high visibility.
Examples: exercising 20 minutes a day, making $100k a year, memorizing an important speech, getting an oil change, deciding on a web host, becoming a better friend/spouse, moving to Fiji with nothing but a suitcase and a smile, and reading a book. You might be surprised when you write down 20+ things and keep going. Stop reading and do this now (but come back when you’re done).
We’re not choosing actions to focus on yet, just listing them.
Done. It feels great, doesn’t it? You may see that your brain was overwhelmed with options. Now your mind should be empty; not inactive, but free from storing information that is stored easily elsewhere. This takes a HUGE burden off of your prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that handles short term thinking, and now it can do what it’s best at (managing information) instead of straining to do what it’s not very good at (storing and managing information at the same time).
When you write things down to get them out of your head, you are literally freeing up resources in your brain to let other thoughts come into the “spotlight.” You’ll probably notice that previously dormant tasks and dreams come to mind as the others leave it. As your tasks exit the mind and attach themselves to your paper, computer, or dry-erase board, your brain becomes more useful!
Recommended: for any multi-step dreams or projects you have, write in parenthesis the best next action(s) you could take to progress them forward.
Step Two: Consider Your Setting And Calculate Urgency
Setting plays a small role when choosing your tasks for the day and a big role in the order you complete them during the day. Setting includes date, time, location, your energy level, and concrete agenda items. It is the rigid framework of life you must work around.
When we have 20+ things we could be doing, it’s a unique form of torture to decide which one to do first, but setting helps us decide. For example, I like to read at night close to bedtime when my energy is waning. I like to exercise 1-2 hours after eating, before 7 PM, and when I have moderate to high energy.
Urgency is a modifier that can override setting. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired when you have an interview in 20 minutes. Every human understands urgency well – when we need to use the restroom, all other activities become secondary. There is a big risk in oversimplifying urgency, and that is ignoring the importance of non-urgent tasks.
The Perils Of Urgency
Don’t make the biggest mistake of your life – redefining urgent as “important.” It’s a problem when urgent becomes important and non-urgent becomes not important. Why?
Your dreams are non-urgent projects of the highest importance! (tweet this quote)
- What is the impetus to sign up and start training for the triathlon you’ve always wanted to do? *crickets chirping*
- Where is the pressure to begin writing the novel you’ve dreamed about writing? *frogs ribbiting*
- Why haven’t I seen you start the vegetable garden you always talk about starting? *snakes hissing*
- You hate your job, but which day were you planning on applying for other jobs? Is there a deadline on that? *cows mooing*
Only animals responded because I’m weird, and also because these projects could be started any time, any day. Heck, you’ve got 50 years to start a garden… and so it never gets started.
This is where (thinking) labor is required. You must manually assign these projects urgency based on what they mean to you. If you’re overflowing with passion for something, make your pursuit of it an urgent part of daily life. If you kind of want to do something if the stars align one day, that’s not so urgent in daily life.
“Don’t let urgency determine importance, let importance determine urgency.” (click to tweet)
~ Stephen Guise (Quoting yourself is considered lame?)
Our dreams are so difficult to accomplish because they are non-urgent someday plans that can be pursued at any time. They must be “converted” into terms we understand in order to happen. Of course, that doesn’t often happen. When it does, it looks like this: “Today, it is important for me to find a triathlon event in my area, mark the date on my calendar, and plan a training schedule around it.”
To easily weigh our options, we have to use the same scale. Convert everything into a daily action. Dreaming of a garden becomes buying “The Gardener’s Bible.” Wanting to be rich becomes brainstorming 10 business ideas per day. Desiring to be in shape becomes researching gym prices and features online.
Write these daily “next actions” in parenthesis beside the project.
At last, you’re not comparing the tiny urgent task of laundry to the huge non-urgent project of starting a garden. They’re on different levels and impossible to compare in different forms. But you can compare the urgency and importance of two small tasks – doing laundry vs. buying “The Gardener’s Bible” (based on the urgency you assigned to its parent project of starting a garden).
Step Three: Trust Your List
The fear of doing the wrong thing is false. I’ve learned this by allowing this fear to push me (too many times) into watching TV, wandering around aimlessly, and mindlessly browsing Facebook to delay making the decision that “could be the wrong one.”
When you fear doing the wrong thing, you’re more likely to do nothing. (click to tweet)
Drop this fear and trust your list. You’ve written out everything you can think of wanting to do. This list is your life’s ongoing treasure map. You’ll complete tasks, find treasures, and think of new treasures to pursue.
A good way to look at it is this: If you were able to complete everything on your list, but didn’t get anything else done in your life for however long it took you to complete the list, would you be satisfied? I would be thrilled! Also keep in mind this is a flexible list that you can modify at any time. I make my list current every morning.
Step Four: Select Today’s Focus List
The important tasks from your list will jump out at you, but make sure you’re calculating the true importance and self-assigned urgency of your dreams! Your list should be a balanced combination of urgent tasks and important tasks. I don’t have a day job, so your list might include doing things at work, or what you want to focus on when you get home from work.
I have three sections of focus
- Daily habits: One at a time until habit, not including the “daily refresh” of my lists. I currently have a special daily task of learning Italian because I’m going to Rome in about a week (!). But this isn’t for habit, I put it there because I erase everything in the next two sections every day, but this one is daily.
- Today’s list: This is your standard to-do list, but it includes projects
- Queue: If I get the first two done, I can do whatever I want – relax or pick an item from this queue if I’m in productive beast mode.
I write these roughly in order of importance, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes I’ll decide to do #3 before #2 after taking my setting into account. The plan is to get everything done anyways. Selecting your tasks should be somewhat easy after converting everything into a daily action and quickly assessing urgency and setting. The human brain is capable of doing this calculation with impressive speed.
If you’re thinking, “he only has about 20 things to do in life?” No, the items you see on the left are more than enough to keep me busy for a long time, and I’ll refill the list as needed or as important things come up. You don’t have to get everything down, just the stuff competing for your attention in the coming days combined with your long term important goals. Writing a pressing responsibility down on the left “calms it down” and prevents it from saying, “Hey! Hey! What about me!” Or if it still says that, you can move it into your “focus zone” and deal with it.
Focus is about choosing. When you have adequate information and the brain power to analyze it, you can choose best with confidence. Moving items out of your head into a simple system like this accomplishes both – showing you the information and freeing up your prefrontal cortex to analyze it.
Step Five: Execute
Do your list one item at a time. Prioritize your daily tasks above today’s tasks, because habits are the framework of your life and they’ll help you eventually do all of your “today tasks” better. My habit of getting up at 7:25 AM has been incredible for everything else.
When you’re ready to tackle a task, set aside a block of time (or set a timer) to focus on it. You don’t need to run through your whole list back-to-back.
The purpose of having a list isn’t to make you focus, it’s to give you a clear guide and focal point when you are ready to focus (tweet this quote).
You can eat breakfast or shower first, but when you decide to tackle a task, get serious about it and time yourself. When you measure the time it takes you to get something done, you gain three amazing benefits.
1. You’ll gain a sense of how long different tasks take you – it’s valuable in business and in life to know this. How long does it take you to write 1000 polished words? How long does it take you to clean up your kitchen? It makes planning your day easier.
2. When you know how long activity X takes you, you’ll know when you’re not focusing well because it will take you longer than usual. You’ll naturally notice certain tactics increase your efficiency too. It’s just a result of measurement. When you measure something, it can be improved. Otherwise, who knows what’s going on? 🙂
3. A time block is like the rim around a magnifying glass that frames the focused area. The specificity and clear boundaries it provides make focus possible. It’s easier to focus on vacuuming from 2:30-3:00 than to focus for who knows how long doing who knows what.
Do It Tomorrow Too
The next day, look over your life list and add/correct/change anything that is not current. Choose your hit list for the day. Execute. This whole process take maybe 20-30 minutes and it supercharges your ability to focus, which supercharges your productivity. Here’s the next day for me. I’ll be checking off the DE post item as soon as I hit publish!
This system works because habits, projects, and tasks account for everything you could ever want to be or do in life. The center section is what you’re focused on progressing today – the only block of time that humans work with. Tomorrow becomes today when it gets here.
If you make it a habit to apply these 5 steps at the start of every day (notice my first daily task is to refresh the lists), your life will improve more profoundly than with any other personal development technique or tip you read about. Focusing is the single best habit and skill you can learn, and I mean that sincerely. It’s easy too. It took me 30 minutes to set up my lists yesterday and about 10 minutes to refresh them today.
In later articles, we’ll cover more in-depth strategies for focusing in the moment. But if you’re here because you want to focus, you may want to bookmark this one as a long term resource/reminder.
The shortfall of the standard to-do list is how you’re blinded to other important tasks, which gnaw at you and say, “what about me!?” You’ll always have more ambition than you can satisfy in one day. They also don’t account for daily habits or bigger projects. But when it’s all written down in a system you trust, you can relax and focus on living one great day at a time.