Keeping Focus While Beating Back Distractions

how to focus
Photo by Stefan Tell

Focus and productivity go hand in hand. Like peas and carrots, or peanut butter and jelly. They’re almost synonymous. Yet, focus is the oft overlooked, redheaded step-child of productivity. And you can be darned sure you won’t be productive without focus.

Really, productivity is just doing things that you’re supposed to do. Staying on task. Etc. However, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that you’ll stay on task if you can’t focus.

Your attention has to be laser sharp if you want to keep that productivity chugging along. The antithesis of productivity is, well… slacking off. And slacking off always, always starts with getting sidetracked.

Example: You’re plowing through your email, and you open a message from a friend who’s been dying to show you a hilarious video on YouTube. So you watch the movie, then watch some of the recommended videos that show up on the page… and before you know it you’ve blown 30 minutes just watching videos. It happens all to quickly.

Diligence is needed to keep your focus sharp. Here’s a few ways to keep your focus laser sharp, and your urge to procrastinate at bay.

Break Down Projects. This is a staple of almost any productivity system. If your project is too large, you’re giving your mind an open invitation to lose focus. If your todo list has “write science fiction novel” at the top of it, odds are you’re going to lose focus before the task is completed. In order to keep this focus, the task must be broken down into bite-sized pieces. Using tasks like “Brainstorm book title”, “Organize first chapter”, etc. makes the project more complete-able, thus staving off urges to goof around.

Focus on Simple Solutions. When trying to find solutions, it helps to try the easiest ones first. Many times we try to find complicated solutions to easy problems, simply because we can. This is a band mindset to have, especially if you’re concerned with shrinking your attention span.

Go ahead, try it. The slacker inside of you will respect that you’re only doing as little as possible. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Take frequent, smaller breaks. Small breaks are good for quickly regaining focus and direction. A quick breather can enable you to step back and say, “Oh yeah… that’s what I was working on before I started playing that game.”

Switch activities constantly. Switching activities helps your mind stay uber sharp. There’s no worse drudgery than having to work solid on the same thing without any change. The most diligent worker will find any excuse to switch the atmosphere, even if that means doing something completely un-productive.

Here’s a little known tip: you can work as long as you want (and stay sharp too), if you’re constantly switching activities.

Don’t let your mind trick you. The mind is a cunning thing. If it wants to procrastinate, it will make you believe that other things are more important than the task at hand. Or it’ll completely confuse your inner timing. When is the last time you got sidetracked by thinking, “It won’t take long to follow this link…” Famous last words.

Slack off when you need it. Sometimes we just have a jonzin for some good, ol’ fashion slacking. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d even encourage it! Every now and then we have to just cut lose and give in to our primal need of doing nothing. So whip on some sweat pants and flip on the tube. Getting it out of your system is much better than trying to ignore it sometimes.

Keeping your focus can be a hard thing to do, and more of a conscious effort than you might believe. But if you can master your focus, you’re well on your way to getting more stuff done.

These are by no means the only way to keep your focus. Feel free to share your anti-slacking tips in the comments. We’d all love to hear them!

Another great resource: Leo’s article on 7 Powerful Steps to Overcoming Resistance and Actually Getting Stuff Done.

Leave a Comment

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Summy January 21, 2008, 7:40 pm

    The simplest way to stay focused is by enjoying what you do. To enjoy your work more following the Success Making Machine’s 2 rules for enjoying success:
    1) Do more of what you like
    2) Do less of what you don’t like

    Read more about it at A Rule of Thumb for Success

    Reply
  • Jeff Pickett January 21, 2008, 8:52 pm

    Glen –
    Thanks for posting. I’m a productivity junkie, but an unfocused one at that, so this is great info to add to my collection and fight the fight another day.

    Reply
  • Al at 7P January 22, 2008, 12:42 am

    This is a great post. I like how you separated the unintentional slacking from purposeful slacking. Resting and unwinding is OK, but only when doing it consciously.

    Bonus points for finding a way to use the word “jonzin'” in your post!

    Reply
  • PlantingOaks January 22, 2008, 2:06 pm

    Do you have any advice for overcoming short waits in the middle of productivity?

    I work with computers, and have trouble maintaining focus during time waiting for code to compile.

    If I try to do other work, I quickly lose track of what I was doing in the first place. If I try to be patient and watch the progress bar inch across the screen I get bored and grouchy quickly.

    the best compromise I’ve found are menial tasks – reading blogs, playing with a stress ball. But even those can quickly devolve into distraction if I’m feeling prone to it.

    Any advice for dealing with mandatory 2 minute breaks like these?

    Reply
  • GrannyGamer January 22, 2008, 3:08 pm

    One productivity technique that’s worked well for me during my 40+ years of self-employment is to take the tip for breaking down a project to the extreme.

    I will break down a project into tiny steps:

    1) write headline
    2) write opening paragraph
    3) write transition paragraph
    etc etc etc

    This way, I can work even in small-time increments and STILL feel and be productive.

    I make a list of each step, with a check box next to each, which I dutifully check off as they are completed.

    Another technique I use is the “reward” system. “When I finish steps 1-5, I can spend half an hour in the garden” or “When the project is compete, I’ll allow myself a piece of chocolate” (which is why I’m very productive but also fat).

    As for PlantingOaks question about waiting time, I fill those moments with short breathing meditations (see Thich Naht Hahn’s “Peace in Every Step” for more info), or exercises routines from my Stretchware program (stretchware.com) none of which takes more than one minute. (I used to have a piece of crochet handy but it took me months to make a scarf this way!)

    Reply
  • Bengt January 23, 2008, 1:52 am

    Is there a piece missing in the text?
    I think this part has a strange ending:

    Switch activities constantly. Switching activities helps your mind stay uber sharp. There’s no worse drudgery than having to work solid on the same thing without any change. The most diligent worker will find any excuse to

    Reply
  • glen January 23, 2008, 10:16 am

    Good catch Bengt. I’ve added it ;)

    Reply
  • m-c January 28, 2008, 10:00 am

    ‘Switch activities constantly’ –

    thanks so much for sharing this, i often thought i had attention disorder since i just cant focus on a thing more than 45 to 60 minutes!

    Reply
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