Every now and then, I have a need to get super-focused. It’s usually when I have an important task to accomplish like preparing a speech, writing a blog post, or solving a complex problem.
Unfortunately, I live in the same distracting world you do, where multiple voices compete for my attention. I’ve gone through days when I didn’t accomplish a single thing on my to-do list. Yet, somehow I was busy the entire time!
Recently, I found myself in this exact situation. My new book, Platform, launched and my daughter, Madeline, got married—both in the same week. (I know, I know, what was I thinking?) I had the need to focus on the task at hand and be super-productive.
This got me thinking. Is it possible to turn focus on and off like a switch?
I am not sure I can say yes one hundred percent of the time. But, over the years, I have found seven practices that enable me to be better focused, especially when I need to get important work done.
- Give yourself a deadline. Though I often dislike them, the truth is I usually perform better when I have a clear deadline. It provides clarity, efficiency, and the ability to persist until I am done—even when it is totally self-imposed.
- Get a good night’s sleep. Don’t you find yourself more unfocused when you are tired? You may have to reread the same paragraph four times to get the meaning. Being fully rested just makes you more productive.
- Eat the right foods. Certain foods hinder focus. In my experience, these include high glycemic carbs (e.g., white bread, potatoes, pasta) and sugars. After the initial burst of energy, I get sleepy—and lose focus. One food that almost always gives me more focus is juiced beets, probably because they stimulate blood flow to the brain.
- Listen to the right music. We all know music can affect our moods. But it can also affect our brain activity. According to several studies, baroque music helps you focus by changing your brain waves. If this kind of music doesn’t appeal to you, try something else. Personally, I do best while listening to native American flute music.
- Eliminate distractions. This is just common sense, but find a quiet, distraction free environment—or one that has consistent background noise that quickly turns to white noise. Turn off the Internet or at least the social parts, like Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail that endlessly ping you. One great tool for this is Anti-Social.
- Focus on one task. Multi-tasking is a myth. In fact, it’s impossible. What you are really doing is serial tasking—shifting from one task to another. The problem is that this actually destroys productivity. It is sometimes necessary but never efficient. When you are trying to focus, you need to work on one task at a time and set everything else aside.
- Take periodic breaks. The key to staying focused is to adopt a rhythm of work and rest or what Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz call “the pulse of high performance” in their book, The Power of Full Engagement. I use the Pomodoro Technique to work for 50 minutes and then break for 10 minutes.
There’s not much we can do to affect our external environment. But we can shape our internal one by following these seven practices.