Multiple browser windows. Many notifications. Instant messaging and email. News. Social media. Twitter and Facebook. And all at once, during the working day.
It was a storm of other people’s priorities, and I was stuck in the epicentre.
Over the years, I gradually learned how to wean myself off these distractions.
I started by turning off as many notifications as I could. And when things got difficult, I leaned heavily on apps like Freedom and Rescue Time, which block distracting sites.
I thought I’d learnt how to focus, but I was just fooling myself. No wonder I felt burn-out, frustrated and unhappy.
I was still taking on way too many projects and juggling them like an amateur clown messing with rotten eggs.
It takes a lot of work to pick one or two important projects and focus only on those for a few months.
There are so many opportunities today. It’s easier than ever to start a business, write a book or share your message online, on platforms like Medium.
It’s easy to say yes to every opportunity, it’s hard to pick just one.
The Power of Deep Focus
Focusing on a single project for an extended period is a skill that requires cultivation. Much like a ray of sunshine through a magnifying glass, this mindset concentrates your time, attention and resources.
In a recent interview, Bob Schafer, head of research at brain-training company Lumos Labs told me:
“If you’re truly trying to do more than one thing, you’re actually going to take a hit at everything that you’re trying to do. You’re going to do each of those things slightly less productively, and the key thing here is a concept called switch cost. It costs you…time and energy to switch your attention from one [task] to the other”
You can develop an ability to focus by giving each work day a theme. Assigning one means concentrating solely on one key area of your work or business, for as long as possible, without switching to another area.
Great Work Demands Focus
Either invest time or intense energy in your work.
- Leonardo daVinci spent four years painting the Sistine Chapel.
- Danny Hill’s concept The Clock of Long Now will last for 10,000 years, if it succeeds (with Jeff Bezos paying the bills, it might).
- Richard Linklater’s Boyhood took thirteen years to film, between 2001 and 2013 (no creepy CGI needed).
A can CEO take their executive team on an off-site retreat to encourage creative thinking away from the daily demands of email, meetings and phone calls. In doing so, they concentrate the mental resources of their leadership team on a single agenda and not on daily business priorities.
A solo-preneuer could spend their entire day interviewing customers because they want to prioritise customer research before they dive into creating their next information product.
Similarly, the business writer could check into a hotel to finish their book without distraction. They concentrate their creative power on a single project.
How To Pick A Theme For Your Day
You don’t need to spend the entire day focused on one task. If you’re working for a company, focusing on only one task is probably impossible, because you have meetings to attend, calls to take, and other people’s priorities to juggle.
Instead, consider the key themes forming your work life. These might include creative work, business development, sales, customer outreach, administration, marketing, design, etc.
Next, identify which themes are most important to you and your business’s goals. Now, while planning your week, map a theme to each day.
During a normal workday, spend two-to-three hours on tasks related to your chosen themes. If you can spend longer or even the entire day (like the CEO above at an offsite), that’s great. If not, adapt accordingly.
Focus Like a Boss
Your new level of focus should reduce the cognitive overload that comes from switching from one task to the next. You’re not spending half an hour reviewing a marketing campaign, an hour on interviewing potential hires and thirty minutes writing an article, all before you complain about feeling overwhelmed over lunch.
Instead, you’re spending Mondays on marketing, Tuesdays on hiring, Wednesdays on creative work, Thursdays on business development and Fridays on administrative tasks. You could even plot these themes in your calendar and hold yourself accountable by tracking how long you focus on each theme.
After you’re comfortable with the concept, extend it by considering your themes for the coming month, quarter or year.
What big project do you want to focus on for the next 30, 60 or 90 days? Break that down into sub-themes that you will work on during a themed day.
Say you want to write a business book this quarter. Creative work represents a theme for the next three months, so break writing the book down into smaller themes like writing, research and editing.
Similarly, if you want to launch a new product in 2020 pick smaller weekly and daily themes. On Tuesdays, review your business’s advertising campaigns. On Wednesdays, gather customer testimonials. On Thursdays, plan an email campaign. And so on.
How I Focus Today
A theme for each day should help you gain momentum on key business in a way that 30 minutes of fragmented work will never achieve.
These days, I pick one or two big projects and focus solely on those for 90 days. Each one has a theme. I set time aside each morning to work on one project related to one theme, for example writing a book chapter or editing sales copy.
I get into a state of deep focus by donning a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and listening to instrumental or ambient electronic music on repeat. Binaural beats work too.
(If you want to try it, check out Brain.FM. or the album Rainfall by Joe Baker)
Deep focus becomes dangerously addictive.
I often loose track of time and am surprised when the buzzer sounds and it’s time to rejoin the real world. In fact, if I don’t set an alarm or buzzer, I’m likely to miss important calls or pick up the kids from a childminder.
My wife once joked, the house would burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice.
She might be right.
But danger is fun.