Do you ever just get in the zone? You attack each task with laser-like focus, flying through your to-do list like a Ninja. Yeah, me neither. I mean, yeah, it happens, but I can’t make it happen. I can’t replicate it. When it comes, it comes. But the rest of the time, my mind flits from one thing to the next, never completing a thought, much less a task.
So, how do you overcome that? How do you stay focused? Like anything else, you need to set up the proper environment and then practice. You know how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? Head up 8th and turn right on 51st. See? I can’t stay focused.
Set Up Your Environment
The first thing you need to do is remove all distractions. Did you ever watch a surgeon work on TV? They aren’t operating on a body in an operating room. Their patient is draped with only the area to be performed on exposed. There are multiple lights focused on that spot, pushing all else into relative darkness. Laser-like focus. They don’t have the ballgame playing on the TV.
Start with your desk. Clean it off. I know, for some of you, this is easier said than done. From my experience, there are two kinds of people: clean desks and dumpsters. You’ve seen them if you’re not one yourself. Mounds of papers piled high, defying gravity. You can’t tell what color the desktop is; it hasn’t been exposed for years. They tell themselves it’s all important stuff they need close by, but it’s really just a manifestation of laziness.
It’s distracting. Get rid of it. On your desk should be the minimum objects required to complete the task at hand, nothing more. And that includes extra screens. Silence your phone and tablet and put them in the drawer. That text from your BFF can wait. Watch cat videos in your free time. Get rid of distracting noises, either by blocking them out or covering them up.
Before the guitar, the one task that always required my undivided attention was programming. In fact, at my last job, I programmed one of the DND messages on the phone system to say In Surgery. If you saw that on my extension and my door was shut, you didn’t disturb me unless the building was on fire. And only then if the fire reached my floor.
When I was in Cobol class, I discovered that, apparently, I was the only one that needed that focus. Everyone else spent the two hours chatting and occasionally writing a line of code. That is when I first learned the benefit of white noise. At that time, it was probably a Walkman and some big-assed headphones, but it got the job done. I played some music, let it fade into the back of my consciousness, and block out all the yapping. Yeah, everybody thought I was weird, but I’m used to that. They also thought I was ‘lucky’ enough to be the only one in the class with a 4.0
When I first tried to learn the guitar, I kept it by my desk. When I got ready to practice, I brought music up on my screen, picked it up, and went to work. But the computer was full of notifications, and my phone and tablet were close by. I could have followed the same advice I gave above, but I went a different route. In the opposite corner of my office, I built a guitar practice studio.
An empty table. Sheet music. An old laptop, with nothing on it but my practice sessions. A comfortable chair. No distractions. Which is critical for my success. I’ve spoken before about one note on one string. The problem with that is, there is always the next note. And you have to know what it is. Let your mind stray for a second, and it’s over. With enough time, repetition, and practice, that may change. But for now, I need a clean environment to accomplish that daily task.
The same with my writing. I’ve split my writing tasks up into small chunks. This rough draft took about thirty minutes. I can focus for thirty minutes. If I close email and social media. And turn off the phone.
Speaking of phones, we have let them control us. I would never want to go back to the days before cellphones, but we have given them total control over every second of our lives. It should be the other way around. For those old enough to remember, there were times when you might go for hours, days even before you heard that critical life-changing bit of news. Like your BFF broke up with her boyfriend. Again.
Let it go. Turn it off. Focus.
I never really thought about practicing focus until I heard about the Pomodoro method. If you are interested enough in productivity to be reading this, I’m sure you know what it is. If not, finish reading this article. Focus, remember? Then Google it. It uses a timer that, for no particular reason I can determine, looks like a tomato, hence the name. But the point of it is, you set the timer and focus on one task until the time is up. Then you can go watch a cat video.
I think the original method called for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes? Doing one thing? OMG! Calm down. Baby steps. Clean your desk. Clean your mind. Set your timer for five minutes. If that’s too long, two minutes.
But here’s the thing. If your attention wavers before the bell rings, you have to start over. Trust me; it won’t take long to nail that first two to five minute period. Then make it longer and longer. I recommend twenty minutes at a maximum. That may not seem like much, but you can get a lot done in twenty minutes of focused attention.
Then take a short break. It can be as short as a minute. I wrote here about a twenty-second break. But take a break. Take a breath. Then get back to it, or move on to the next task. With this method and enough practice, you will focus intuitively and not have to rely on gimmicks.
Doing anything worthwhile requires focus. Apply these principles and watch your to-do list get done.