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How to Focus Long Enough on One Thing to Get It Done

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How to Focus on One Thing and Get it Done

One of the most common complaints I hear amongst my office-working peers nowadays is this: I can’t just focus long enough on one thing to get it done!

They usually follow up with a number of reasons:

  • I really try, but I always get interrupted by (phone, email, boss etc).
  • There just isn’t enough time in the day… and I don’t want to work at home.
  • This used to be so easy when I first started working, why is it so hard now?

The simple truth is that focus is hard in today’s world. We’ve got phones that we carry around everywhere, messages, email, people… and everything that we have to do is tagged with a label of important and urgent and due yesterday. A lot of modern knowledge workers also work as part of project teams – but also have daily responsibilities to take care of. Simply put, there are too many things for everyone to work with, and this makes it hard to focus.

Think about it this way. On a daily, if not hourly, basis, we deal with 100s of things that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago.

Bangkok BTS Skytrain Platform

I’ll give you an example from earlier in my morning. Here is a list of random things I encountered making my way back from my morning workout to home to get started with my day:

  • Lost Chinese tourists trying to work out which way their ticket goes in the skytrain (subway) turnstile.
  • At least 20 different advertisements on the skytrain platform itself. Half of these are billboard-style, half have been recently converted into video.
  • Packed skytrain. 4 televisions playing different commercials at the same time during the entire skytrain ride. I look around and at least 75% of people are on their phone – browsing Facebook, watching TV dramas or reading email. Doesn’t anyone just listen to music anymore?
  • Arrive at destination platform. More ads again.
  • On the way down there are 3 stores trying to sell me bubble tea, coffee or morning snacks.
  • Walking back to my building there are a bunch of street vendors offering everything from grilled pork on skewers to coconut water to freshly-diced mangoes. The government department next door is hosting celebrations for the upcoming public holiday – there are a number of people in army and navy uniforms taking photos of the setup. And let’s not even start on the traffic, the people and everything else going on.

I’m pretty sure that on that short 15 minute trip between gym and home I was bombarded by at least 200-300 individual pieces of stimuli, all vying for my attention.

Now I’ve personally spent a lot of time training myself to block a lot of it out – but I know that a lot of people have not. It’s the fact that there is so much stimuli that it essentially overwhelms our brains and makes them go haywire.

So what does this mean for our focus and productivity?

Well, we know that focus is the net result of our internal resources – things like concentration, willpower, discipline and motivation. And the problem is that every little bit of stimuli chips away at a tiny fragment of these resources… which means that they deplete faster, which means that when we do sit down and try to focus on something that is actually important, we aren’t starting with a full tank – we’re starting at 70%, 50% or sometimes even less.

The good news is this. Focus can be learned. You can learn to tune out distractions, and only let in the things that are useful to you. It’s a skill just like anything else – learning to read, write or how to stir-fry.

And here’s how you get started.

1. Start with yourself.

Do everything in your power right away to get focused. Put away your phone. Turn off notifications. Clear to Neutral by giving yourself a distraction-free environment to work from.

2. Learn to block out others.

Manage auditory interruptions by putting on headphones and selecting some good work music.

Manage physical interruptions by telling people not to disturb you.

Manage visual interruptions by using blocking apps like Self-Control on your computer, or dedicated full-screen apps like WriteRoom to do your work in.

And remember to clear to neutral at the end of every session.

3. Manage Internal Interruptions

These are the hardest and there are just so many different ways to handle them. Here’s a simple one.

Before you start anything, think about what it is you are working on. Take a deep breath, breathe out, then start working on it. Everything else can and will wait – just focus in on the task at hand.

And that is the start of learning how to focus in on one thing. There are many different ways to harness focus in the moment, and even more ways to set up systems, habits, routines, rituals and structures that bring focus TO YOU so you don’t have to worry about it.

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Posted by Susie Lampman  | February 20, 2014 at 1:03AM | Reply

That’s what I do too. I block out the distractions no matter how insistent they are.

Posted by Kosio Angelov  | February 6, 2014 at 5:32PM | Reply

Neat article!

I would also add the concept of “scheduled interruptions”. Pick a time (or a few) where you’ll accept calls, check emails and have meetings. During the other time, let everyone know you are in work mode. Record your voicemail to reflect your “open hours” time so people don’t get offended when you don’t pick up. Log out of email.

This way you don’t have to worry about missing out on things and you can easier concentrate on the task at hand.

Posted by Steffen  | February 20, 2014 at 7:30AM

i totally agree. here are some things i do to concentrade better:

1) i killed the phone. (of course this works only if you phone is not essential for your job) i had it turned off while i worked and called back by noon the next day. a lot of problems solved themselves and people learned that they shouldn’t call because of trivial stuff.

2) i read emails only once each day. or even less often. okay i don’t get a lot of emails to begin with. i got rid of everything that is not important. unsubscribing from everything that is not essential for me.

3) listen to music. this is expained in another article here.

4) keep the door shut. if someone knocks just say “i’m busy” und if it is not urgent the interruption is repelled already. by the time people will learn to not knock if it is not really important aswell.

5) close everything you don’t need. if you have to search for the right tab, then you know that you have too much going on there. but i’m not for blocking stuff. just delete the unproductive favorites in your browser, so you have to type the address manually. this alone will make you check these sites less because more work is involved in.

these are some examples of things that work for me. but everyone is different and has different job description…

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