The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.
The Value of Developing Your Mental Focus
We all no doubt understand the importance of mental focus. While at school it was probably drilled into you that if you want to succeed you must stay focused and mentally alert at all times. And the same is of course true at work. When people get distracted or sidetracked that is when crucial information is missed; when critical mistakes are made.
Given that many people clearly understand this idea, why is it that for the most part they struggle to stay focused? That of course isn’t an easy question to answer. There are more distractions today than probably at any point in human history. And this is why many people struggle to stay focused on the things they know are important, i.e. their goals, tasks, priorities and activities. Given this, have you ever considered what it actually means to maintain an adequate level of focus?
To focus on something means having the ability to concentrate; to involve and immerse yourself (full sensory experience) within a task, activity or goal for an extended period of time without distraction. In other words, to focus on something is by no means a passive act. It’s rather something that requires your full involvement and interaction.
This is a nice definition of what it means to stay focused, but I guess the challenge for most of us these days isn’t so much an inability to stay focused, it’s rather committing ourselves to stay focused on the right things.
Every single person has the ability to stay focused on something for an extended period of time. For some it comes in the form of television, for others it comes in the form of playing video games, for others still it’s all about absorbing themselves within a book. In other words, we all have things that we really enjoy doing that make it easy to stay focused. If only we could harness this focused-attention and direct it onto things that really matter, i.e. achieving our goals and objectives.
Consider for a moment something you do that keeps your focus for an extended period of time. Typically this activity or task is something you are passionate about. Typically it’s something that is probably enjoyable, somewhat challenging and something that allows some form of creative self-expression. In a nutshell those are the ingredients required to help you stay focused. However, this may still vary from person-to-person, so in that regard, take a few moments to ask yourself:
What tasks, activities, hobbies or pastimes do I enjoy focusing on?
What tasks or activities maintain my focused-attention for an extended period of time?
What about these tasks and activities specifically allows me to stay focused?
Do I find them enjoyable? Do I find them challenging? Do they stretch my imagination?
Do they involve many of my senses? What senses specifically?
Is there a social component that allows me to stay focused?
Does the environment I am undertaking this task or activity play a part in maintaining my focus?
Is there something I do specifically during the task or activity that helps me to stay focused?
What exactly about these tasks or activities helps me maintain a focused-attention?
Working through these questions will help you to pinpoint exactly what it is about these tasks, activities, hobbies or pastimes that helps you stay focused. In other words, you are essentially piecing together the unique ingredients required to help you maintain a high level of focus. The key then will be to seed those ingredients into the tasks, activities and goals that matter most. That is the only way you will convince your brain that you have what it takes to stay focused on your highest priorities, i.e. your goals and tasks.
As you continue to read through this article keep the answers to these questions at the forefront of your mind as they will help you to better adapt how you work with your tasks and goals to help you stay focused for longer on the things that matter most.
Given this, within the upcoming sections of this article we will explore how to maintain a high level of mental focus while working on your goals and while working through tasks. Moreover, we will look at adjustments you can make to your environment and daily routine to help you improve your level of focus and attention. Finally, we will explore the mindset that you will need to cultivate in order to stay focused on your highest priorities.
Staying Focused on Your Goals
When it comes to your goals, the key to staying focused of course lies within the answers to the questions you answered in the previous section. In other words, in order to maintain a focused-attention on your goals you must inject as many of those ingredients that help you stay focused on the things you are most passionate about. Only in this way will you develop the focused-attention needed to achieve those goals. However, before getting into this in any more detail, let’s first take into consideration the goals hierarchy, which of course must be aligned with your deepest passions.
The Goals Hierarchy
On top of your goals hierarchy lies your Personal Legend. This is your life’s purpose, mission and vision. Below that sit your long-term goals. These long-term goals must be specific, defined and measurable. They must also align with your Personal Legend.
When outlining your long-term goals, it’s important to specify just one or two goals that you will focus on. Having too many long-term goals will only scatter your focus and attention. Focusing on one major long-term goal will ensure that you assign all your available resources to achieving that one goal. That is clearly the best way to maintain long-term focus and attention.
Below your long-term goals sit your short-term goals. These short-term goals must of course support the attainment of your long-term goals. They therefore must become a natural outcroppings of those biggers goals. In other words, achieving these short-term goals essentially helps you move closer toward attaining your long-term goals.
On the bottom of the hierarchy sit your daily tasks, rituals, habits and routines. All these variables must support the attainment of your short-term goals. Likewise they must also support your long-term goals and the fulfilment of your Personal Legend. Only in this way will all your actions be congruent with your higher vision.
The Five Step Goal Setting Process
With an understanding of this hierarchy in place, let’s now take a look at a five step process for setting goals that will help you maintain a high level of focus.
Before working through these steps, please again keep in mind the answers you gave to the questions within the first section of this article. Your objective here is to inject the ingredients you identified there into each and every one of your goals. Only in this way will you be able to maintain a high level of focus and attention while working on your goals.
Step 1: Define Your Goal
Your first objective is to decide what life areas you will focus on. Will you focus on your career, or maybe on your business? Possibly you might like to focus on your health or relationships. No matter what it is, make a decision on your area of focus and specify one major goal for each of these life areas. Ask yourself:
What’s one major goal I would like to focus on in this area?
What specifically would achieving this goal look like?
How specifically would achieving this goal feel like?
When you can see and feel your goal you will naturally exude more excitement and enthusiasm. And this is of course a key ingredient toward maintaining long-term focus.
Step 2: Identify the Importance of the Goal
Now that you are clear about what it is you want, it’s time to get to the heart of why exactly you want to achieve these goals. Ask yourself:
Why is achieving this goal important to me?
What specifically will I gain by achieving this goal?
What will achieving this goal truly mean to me?
When we get clear about why we want something, it gives as a reason to pursue that goal. And when we have reasons to pursue something there is more motivation behind our actions, and with more motivation it’s easier to focus on what needs to get done to achieve that goal.
Step 3: Prioritize Your Goals
It’s typically fine to be working on several goals within different life areas, however it is important to keep in mind that the more goals you have the less focus and attention you will be able to give to each of them. As such, it’s important to get very clear about which goal will become your highest priority moving forward.
When it comes to prioritizing, it’s important to keep in mind your personal values. Your values essentially help guide your daily choices, decisions and actions. If you prioritize goals that are not in alignment with your core values, then you are not likely to pursue them with the same zest, passion and energy you would then if alignment did exist.
For instance if family is one of your core values and you set a career goal as a top priority, then it’s very likely that you will struggle to focus on and follow through with your actions in order to achieve that goal. You struggle because you are in conflict. You want to achieve this career goal, but your actual priorities (based on your core values) are leading you toward your family. As such it’s important to get very clear about what core values are currently guiding your choices, decisions and actions, and then setting your goals appropriately.
Once you have figured out your core values, ask yourself:
Which of these goals is most important to me?
Which of these goals is aligned with my core values?
Which of these goals am I most passionate about and dedicated to?
Which of these goals do I want to give most of my focus and attention to?
Answering these questions will help you to clarify what’s really most important. This of course doesn’t mean that you are giving up on all your other goals. What it means is that you are simply prioritizing this one single goal over all others. You can still work on your other goals, however your main focus, energy and attention will always be given to this one central goal that will impact your life in an optimal way.
Step 4: Outline Clear Deadlines
One way to ensure that you stay focused on your goals is to specify a very clear start and end date for each goal.
Many people have goals that they would like to achieve, but because they never specify a start and end date for those goals, there simply isn’t enough urgency to pursue them.
When you specify a clear deadline for your goal all of a sudden the goal moves from being a dream to being something real and concrete that you are working toward. Only in this way will you find the focus and motivation you need to work through this goal successfully. Ask yourself:
When will I start working on this goal?
When do I plan to accomplish this goal?
How will I know when this goal has been completed?
What specifically must happen for me to know that this goal has been successfully achieved?
Step 5: Schedule Concrete Time
The final step of this process involves scheduling time to accomplish your goal. This effectively involves outlining specific tasks and activities you will need to complete in order to accomplish your goal. We will discuss how to do this specifically within the next section.
What’s also important is to develop a process you will use that will help track your results. This is helpful because it allows you to keep track of the progress you are making toward your goal. With this information at hand you can make necessary adjustments to your routine or schedule in order to stay on track. Moreover, you can also implement a reward system for when you accomplish certain milestones along your journey. All these things will help you to maintain a higher level of focus and attention while working on your goals.
This was by no means a comprehensive breakdown of the goal setting process. As such, if you would like more information about how to set effective goals that will help you to stay focused, then please have a read of the following articles:
Staying Focused on Your Tasks
Having outlined your goal, it’s now time to jump into the deep end and get lost in the specific tasks and activities you need to accomplish to achieve your goal. We will break this process down into six clear steps that will help you to focus-in on your highest priority activities.
Step 1: Choose Your Area of Focus
Once you have blocked out a specific amount of time to work on your goal, it’s important that you get very clear about how this time will be used. In other words, you must specify what your area of focus will be.
Let’s say that you have allocated a couple of hours today to work on accomplishing your goal. Your objective here is to choose a high priority task or activity you will give your full focus and attention to. The task or activity you choose is of course completely in your hands, so choose wisely to focus on something that is fundamentally critical for the accomplishment of your goal.
And here is where people tend to typically lose focus, especially when the activity seems a little boring or mundane. As such, take into account the answers you gave to the questions within the first section of this article where you outlined the ingredients that help you maintain long-term focused-attention. Your objective is to inject these ingredients into this specific task or activity. Ask yourself:
How can I add this ingredient into this specific task I am working on?
How can I make this task more fun and enjoyable?
How can I involve more of my senses while working on this task?
How could I make this task more challenging?
The specific questions you ask of course depends entirely on the ingredients you pinpointed earlier. Essentially the more ingredients you are able to inject into this task the easier it will be for you to maintain long-term focused attention.
Step 2: Remove All Possible Distractions
Your next step is to remove all possible distractions from your work environment and surroundings. These distractions will typically include temptations that are linked to the things you find most pleasurable, i.e. what you’re most passionate about. These distractions are essentially made up of the ingredients that you spent time injecting into your task. Be wary of them so that they do not pull you away from the task at hand.
Alternatively, distractions can come in the form of mental clutter and excuses as to why you should or shouldn’t do something. You might for instance have a lot on your mind such as working out what groceries you need to purchase for dinner, or you may need to call your mum and organize the family get-together for the weekend. Or maybe you’re thinking about what’s installed for Homer on the upcoming episode of the Simpsons. 😉
We all experience mental clutter. However, the people who are able to maintain high levels of focus are better able to manage that mental clutter so that it doesn’t get in the way of their work.
One way to remove that mental clutter is to simply write things down. Just spend a few minutes writing down all the thoughts you have running through your head onto a blank piece of paper. Write down anything that comes to mind that is taking up realestate in your head. The simple act of writing things down in this way will clear the cache from your brain and help you to refocus yourself on the task at hand.
Step 3: Anticipate Your Physical Needs
One way to lose focus on the task at hand is to constantly interrupt yourself with bathroom breaks, getting snacks from the fridge, topping up a water bottle, etc.
In order to avoid these kinds of distractions it’s important to spend a little time anticipating your physical needs in advance before you begin working on a task.
Let’s say that you plan to be working on the task for a couple of hours. Consider for a moment what you might need not only to complete this task (i.e. equipment and supplies), but what you might need in terms of snacks and beverages to help keep your energy levels high. Moreover, consider the environment you’re in and the type of clothing to wear that will help you feel relaxed and comfortable.
Figuring all this out before you begin the task, means that you are less likely to get distracted while working on the task.
Step 4: Simplify Your Tasks
If the task you are working on is significantly large or challenging, then it can be helpful to simplify the task by breaking it down into smaller pieces. You are more likely to stay focused on the task at hand when you’re not feeling overwhelmed. As such it is often worthwhile to spend time planning ahead to ensure that you focus on working through the task in an optimal way.
Step 5: Get in Your Zone
Getting in your zone essentially means calming your body and mind in order to get into an optimal state-of-mind that can help you to stay focused and attentive for an extended period of time.
One way to calm your body and mind before you begin a task is to spend a couple of minutes relaxing each muscle within your body through mindful meditation. Likewise you can also utilize this time to visualize the end result of the task you are working on. Seeing the end result clearly in your mind’s eye will help you to maintain focused-attention on what specifically needs to get done to accomplish the task successfully.
This is such a simple step, in fact it’s so simple that it’s easy to just ignore it all together. However, skipping this step would be a mistakes because this step is crucial to help get you into the right state-of-mind to focus-in on what needs to get done.
Step 6: Get to Work
The final step of this process is the “action” step. This is where you get to work on the task at hand. While working through the task it is however important to keep a few things in mind.
First of all, don’t try and rush things. Rushing through things is bound to get you distracted at some point. Instead work at a slow and steady pace where you are always mindful and focused on the details of the task or activity you are working through.
Secondly, take small steps. In other words don’t try and do too much at once. This can often lead to overwhelm and frustration, which will effectively distract you away from the task at hand.
Thirdly, work with a timer and make sure to take regular breaks to help rejuvenate your body and mind. You could for instance work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break where you go for a quick walk, do some stretches or simply lie down with your eyes closed. And yes, you should even take a break when you don’t feel like taking a break. Our levels of focus and productivity start to progressively diminish if we do not take regular breaks.
Next, apply the 80/20 Rule into your workflow. The 80/20 Rule states that 80 percent of your actions will lead to 20 percent of your results. Likewise, 20 percent of your actions will lead to 80 percent of your results. Now, these percentages can of course vary slightly, however on the most part this is quite an accurate assessment of the link between our actions and our desired outcomes. As such, focus on working on the 20 percent of activities/tasks that will get you 80 percent of your desired outcomes.
How can I make this task more interesting?
Then come back with a renewed level of energy and a plan to help keep yourself more focused and motivated. And of course the changes you make don’t necessarily need to be drastic. If for instance you are working on a task that doesn’t involve much thought, then simply playing your favorite music in the background could make a world of difference and help you maintain your focus and attention for longer. However, be wary not to multi-task.
If you’re working on something and at the same time you have the local news broadcast playing in the background, then you are at that moment multi-tasking. Both tasks require some thought and attention, and unfortunately your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Yes, it might seem as though you’re quite capable at multi-tasking, but the reality is that your brain is far from capable. What it’s good at doing comes in the form of switching attention rapidly between tasks, which makes it seem as though it’s doing two things at once. This only hurts both activities, as you are not able to give your full attention to either task.
There is of course a lot more that could be said about boosting our productivity while working through tasks. As such you might find it helpful to read the following articles that help explore this topic in more depth and detail:
- Boosting Productivity
- The Productivity Process
- Effective Time Management
- Working Smarter, Not Harder
Maintaining a Focused Environment
It’s not only what you do or how you do things that influences how well you are able to focus on the task at hand, your environment also plays a part in helping you focus.
Whether you’re working from your office or from home it’s important to ensure that your environment naturally helps support the tasks and activities you are working through. For instance, an environment filled with a multitude of visual and auditory distractions (i.e. music, people moving around, people talking, television screens) is certainly not optimal for maintaining long-term focused-attention. In such instances, it’s critical that you either remove these distractions or remove yourself from the environment.
Ideally your working environment should be uncluttered, organized, comfortable and quiet. These are the conditions that will typically help you to focus-in on the task you are working on.
A comfortable environment is the right temperature, has good lighting, and has suitable furnishings that make you feel comfortable and relaxed. Moreover, it’s important to make sure that there is a place for everything and that you put everything back in its place. This way your environment will remain uncluttered and as a result your mind will be more readily able to focus on what needs to get done without losing focus.
Finally, when it comes to creating an optimal working environment that helps you stay focused, it’s important to consider the people you surround yourself with (your colleagues or friends). People who are driven, focused and inspired with similar goals will remind you of the importance of staying driven, focused and inspired yourself.
Building a Productive Routine
The key to staying focused long-term effectively comes down to the small habits and rituals you are able to develop over time that help build the foundations of your working routine. This effectively comes down to developing a regular structure or pattern of activities and tasks that you partake in each day over an extended period of time. However, this certainly isn’t something that you will be able to piece together overnight.
The key to clear focused-attention comes down to developing a consistent work schedule based on the peaks and valleys in the energy levels you experience throughout the day.
You might for instance feel incredibly energized first thing in the morning. Then after lunch let’s say you feel somewhat lethargic. Then later in the evening your energy levels peak again. These peaks and valleys will of course vary from person-to-person; you must therefore figure out the patterns governing your own personal energy cycles. To do this, ask yourself:
What are my energy levels like throughout the day?
What’s my energy like in the morning? Afternoon? Evening?
What’s my energy like after eating a meal?
What times during the day do I tend to think best?
What times during the day do I feel kind of sluggish?
What does all this mean, and how can I use this information to help me better structure my tasks and activities?
Now consider for a moment all the tasks and activities you need to focus on. Let’s say for instance that you have a task that requires deep thought and attention. Slotting this task into the afternoon when you feel lethargic is probably not the most efficient use of your time. However, slotting it in during the morning when you naturally feel more energized will help you work through the task far more effectively. Moreover, you will be able to maintain a higher level of focus for longer stretches at a time.
During the afternoon when you’re feeling low on energy, it’s probably better to schedule tasks that either don’t require a lot of thought and attention, or alternatively schedule activities that get you up and moving. You’re likely not feeling tired, but rather just lethargic. As such moving around a little by doing something physical will help you to breakout of that cycle.
As you work on developing your schedule and building a consistent daily routine, take into account things that you will potentially eliminate or simply choose not to focus on. These things could be other projects, tasks or commitments that are not aligned with the one major goal you are working toward. Consider for a moment:
What things must I never allow myself to focus on?
Take some time to answer this question and list down all the things that you will not allow yourself to focus on. These things could include reading emails during certain parts of the day (something you could possibly do in the afternoon when you’re feeling a little sluggish), getting distracted by social media (leave it for after work), checking the latest news, chatting with friends over the phone, planning what you will do on Friday night, etc.
Create this list and pin it up prominently where you can refer to it throughout the day, then make a commitment that you will not allow yourself to focus on these things during specific times of the day. Only in this way will you maintain a high level of focused-attention on your highest priority activities.
Speaking of highest priority activities, it’s important to ensure that you make appropriate time for completing these tasks. There is a difference between being genuinely busy and pretending to be busy by focusing on things that don’t really matter.
You might have developed great focused-attention, but if it is directed onto the wrong things, then you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Finally, keep in mind that a solid focused routine requires time for adequate sleep, exercise and a balanced diet. Looking after yourself by addressing these three areas will help you stay focused and work more productively throughout the day. But do be wary not to overcomplicate your schedule with too many self-imposed rules and regulations. Just keep things simple and develop appropriate rituals and habits that you introduce into your daily routine that help keep your mind fresh, your body rested, and yourself organized and focused on what matters most.
The Focused Mind
In order to develop your ability to stay focused long-term, it’s important to approach each task with a very specific mindset that will naturally allow you to stay focused for longer.
This mindset requires you cultivate the three pillars of patience, passion and self-discipline. It requires that you stay mindful of the present moment but avoid getting lost in too many details. A mindful mind doesn’t easily wonders. It rather focuses-in on the present moment and attends to just the one task at hand. There is no thinking about the past or daydreaming into the future (unless of course the task requires this from you). It’s instead focused on the details of this present moment.
When you get lost in the moment, that is when you can potentially achieve a flow-state where you feel at one with the task you are working on, and where everything else outside the task fades away into the distance (The Legend of Bagger Vance demonstrates this beautifully). However, in order to get to this flow-state it’s critical that you follow through on everything that has been discussed within this article. Moreover, it’s vital that you learn to manage your emotions.
Our emotions can often get the better of us. At one moment we are working with focused-attention on the task at hand and everything is flowing smoothly, but then suddenly something unexpected happens and our emotions throw us into a tailspin. As a result we lose all our focused-attention and the remainder of the day is wasted away.
In order to avoid these pitfalls it’s critical that you learn to manage your stress levels, while also learning to deal with overwhelm, frustration, anger, worry, anxiety and a plethora of other emotions that are bound to sooner or later flood your brain with unwanted chemicals that are certain to distract you from the task at hand.
The choice is simple: You can either choose to Master Your Emotions, or they will have mastery over you.
A lack of focus in the end often leads to an unfulfilled life. Not only do you not end up attaining the goals you set out to achieve, but you also end up feeling guilty about the lack of progress you have made. That guilt then eats you up from the inside-out and subsequently drains your energy and spirit.
Yes, of course learning how to focus is not easy. In fact it’s a hell of a challenge. However, the rewards of gaining mastery over your ability to focus on your highest priority activities are worth the effort.
Consider the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and a plethora of other people who have accomplished incredible feats over the course of a lifetime. These people were able to accomplish great things because of their ability to stay focused on their highest priority activities for extended periods of time. They were able to do what others considered to be impossible all because of the focused-attention they were able to muster up each and every day.
If these people didn’t have mastery over their focused-attention then we simply wouldn’t know about them today. Just imagine Albert Einstein working on his Theory of Relativity while getting distracted every five minutes on Facebook, or by watching funny cat videos on YouTube. 😉 Yes, he was born in a different time period without these kinds of distractions, but that’s not really the point. The point I’m trying to make is that we all have our own “softspot” for certain distractions, but it’s not really the type of distraction that matters, it’s rather how we go about filtering out these distractions, and then about how we manage to redirect our focus on the things that matter most.
Albert Einstein did it and managed to formulate his Theory of Relativity after many, many years of research and contemplation. Thomas Edison did it and managed to create the light-bulb after several thousand failed experiments. In fact, all these people did it and manage to achieve great things because they disciplined themselves to stay focused on the things that mattered most to them. And if they did it, then why not you? Why not now?
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Focus @ Forbes
- 4 Proven Tricks to Help You Focus @ Oprah
- 5 Quick Yoga Steps to Help Improve Your Focus @ The Huffington Post
- 5 Ways to Increase Your Attention Span @ Time
- 6 Ways to Better Manage Your Focus and Improve Productivity @ Entrepreneur
- 8 Ways to Improve Your Focus @ Fast Company
- 10 Tricks for Paying Attention @ Health
- 14 Ways to Improve Your Focus While Working Remotely @ Inc.
- A Three Day Plan to Increase Your Focus @ Psychology Today
- Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus @ Psychology Today
- How to Improve Attention and Ability to Focus @ PsyBlog
- How to Improve Your Focus and Concentration @ The Huffington Post
- How to Stay Focused: Train Your Brain @ Entrepreneur
- The Four Basic Moves to Strengthen Focus @ Psychology Today