4 Steps to Increase Your Focus
Catapult your productivity by getting better at focused work sessions
One of the most important skills that sets high achievers apart is their ability to perform focused work for an extended period of time.
By definition, focused work is the ability to work on tasks that require a high level of focus.
If you are a knowledge worker (e.g., a researcher, a software engineer, a writer) or aspiring to become one, getting good at focused work will give you tremendous career benefits such as:
- Increasing your productivity. It makes you get a lot of work done in a short amount of time.
- Helping you overcome technically challenging tasks and finish complex projects.
- Giving you a feeling of pride and confidence due to the amazing progress.
What are the actions you can take to help increase your focus and make you better at performing focused work?
To help you answer this question, let me point out that focus is a skill. Like any other skill, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.
I am going to show you four steps to help you perform focused work on a daily basis and increase your productivity.
1 — Always Plan Your Tasks Ahead
Why is this step so important? Because it helps you avoid procrastination.
Procrastination occurs when you have no prior planning ahead of your daily activities.
Thus, solid planning with detailed tasks helps you kick off the day working immediately.
Here are some great ways to help you plan your tasks.
Plan the next day by the end of the current day
Otherwise, you will waste a precious amount of time planning your day (which is a low focus activity) rather than working on your high focus activities.
Use a task management software
Use Trello for desktop (or equivalent) to plan your tasks.
Create a project board with four columns left to right: Todo, Doing, Done, Issues.
The todo column holds the complete list of all your tasks to complete your project.
The doing column contains the task in progress.
The done column holds all the tasks you have finished.
The issues column gathers the tasks you decided to skip for whatever reason (too complicated, need rethinking, etc.).
Break down your complicated tasks into smaller sub-tasks
Nothing steals focus more than the stress caused by a combination of overwhelming tasks and difficulties to progress in your project.
To ensure you maintain a high level of focus, break every big task into minimal and easy to work on sub-tasks.
Learn more on task breakdown using the ETIP method.
2— Block All Distractions and Interruptions
Distractions and interruptions, whether from direct contact or through digital means (phone, tv, email), kill your focus.
You must stay away from your phone and other digital devices
Before starting your focused work, turn off your smartphone (or turn on the plane mode) and shut down other devices that can grab unnecessary attention. Including but not limited to all digital devices, such as TV, tablets, and gaming consoles.
Important note: Make sure you have an open communication channel for emergencies (family, serious situation, etc.).
Only open the relevant tabs on your laptop
Programmers, for example, must be connected to the internet to perform their focused work.
If the internet is part of your focused work (most probably yes) then make sure to only open the tabs relevant to your focused work. For instance, command-line terminals, documentation tabs, and business planning boards are all fine. Email tabs, social media tabs, and chat application tabs are absolutely not OK. They must stay closed at all times during focused work sessions.
3 — Keep a Clean and Minimal Workspace
Why is this step important? A clean and minimal workspace helps to free you from unnecessary distractions and makes you start work immediately.
Make sure your workspace is situated in a quiet location such as an office room in your house or a not too busy library floor.
Ideally, your workspace should contain four items only: a table, a chair, your laptop, a big glass of water/coffee (to stay hydrated). That’s it.
Any additional items,—such as books, magazines, and food—can cause friction, distraction, and disturbance and make it more difficult to start work straight away.
4 — Turn Focused Work Into a Habit
Practice makes perfect. Focused work is an activity you should seek to perform on a daily basis.
Now that you know of three steps to help you get started with your sessions, Step 4 is the execution phase and builds on top of the previous steps.
Turn focused work into a habit. Here how you can achieve this.
Perform focused work at the same time every day
I personally prefer doing focused work early in the morning before any other activity. I don’t know about you but my focus peaks when I feel fresh (e.g., the early morning after a good night's sleep). In the early morning, your surroundings are most probably quieter (before other household members wake up or before colleagues start arriving in the office).
Work in a series of intervals and breaks
In my case, the best results are obtained when I set aside a 140-minute block every morning for focused work.
If you want to follow the same time amount, I suggest you break the work session into four intervals of 35 minutes. Each interval will have 30 minutes of focused work plus a five-minute break (a la Pomodoro).
Taking these regular breaks of five minutes is super important, otherwise, you will burn out very quickly.
Update your project board at the end of every session
After you finish all your four intervals (i.e., your 140 minutes of focused session), update your project board (back to Step 1) by moving your tasks from left to right in the appropriate columns (todo => doing => done => issues).
Make sure your next focused work session always has a prefilled doing column of tasks. This way, you know exactly what is the plan for the next focused work session. Starting it will be a breeze.
Your current focused work session is now complete.
In a world filled with distractions, it is becoming harder to focus on one task at a time. However, if you want to achieve serious progress in your field, you must learn how to get into the habit of performing focused work longer and often. This will build your confidence, increase your productivity, and help you master whichever skillset you are building.