In the last post I shared with you how I discovered the importance of focus as a standalone skill that amplifies all your other skills. Today I’ll get into more specifics. It’s a huge topic, but the basics – the 5 pillars of focus – will get you a long way.
Some of these things overlap – when they do, it’s because I think of them as different lenses to view the same thing.
This is a catchall for diet and exercise. It technically also includes sleep, but that probably needs its own post.
It’s well known that exercise gives you energy and mental clarity, and therefore improves focus. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much. You don’t have to spend hours and hours in the gym.
I used to do that, but realized I could get about the same results in far less time. These days, 7-10 minutes plus a bit of stretching gets me about the same mental results and most of the same physical results.
An intense seven minute workout is a good start.
As to diet, years ago, I learned about Barry Sears’ notion of The Zone. Basically the idea is that there is an ideal zone for your blood sugar to be in. If it’s too high or too low, your brain doesn’t work and your immune system doesn’t work, meaning you’re not productive and you get sick.
Specifically, I learned to avoid food that quickly spike blood sugar. If you spike your blood sugar too high or fast, you overproduce insulin, which, among other things, means that your blood sugar will drop quickly, often to below-optimal levels.
Using this simple idea with a rough idea of the blood sugar effects of various foods, I got a lot more productive. As a bonus, I also stopped getting sick and could stay fit easily.
I’ve since learned a lot more about diet, but The Zone was life changing when I first encountered it.
2. Limiting Distractions
This is obvious but all too easy to ignore.
Obviously, most of us can’t concentrate if our coworkers are having a shouting match one desk over. However, we tend to be all too tolerant of smaller distractions, like open chat windows, messages on our phones, etc.
These don’t seem like a big deal, but for most of us, they are taking up way more bandwidth than we realize.
The takeaway here is just to think more carefully about what “small” distractions you might be permitting – they are more expensive than you think.
I talk about this in more detail in my free report – The Top 5 Focus Killers, which you can get by signing up for my free email newsletter.
This one is both obvious and tricky. It’s obvious because it’s really hard to stay engaged with something you don’t care about. It’s tricky because you generally can’t make yourself care about things on command.
Ideally, you’d be spending most of your time doing things you cared about. However, you will always have some work that has to be done you’d rather didn’t.
How do you keep moving in this case? Here are a few ideas.
One way is to convince yourself to enjoy the process of getting more efficient. My sister excels at this. Literally.
Her first job out of college was being an actuary at a major insurance company. If you aren’t familiar with this career, think of it as a risk analyst. It involves a lot of creativity and complicated math, but it also involves a lot of tasks that can be quite repetitive.
To get around this, she, like most actuaries, became an expert in systematizing her work and customizing her tools (primarily Excel spreadsheets) to minimize the grunt work as much as possible.
Think of it this way: The more boring the task, the more excited you should be to make it efficient. A little bit of time spent making something more efficient saves a LOT of time over the long run.
Even after streamlining things, you will still have to spend some time doing grunt work, but there is one psychological trick to make it more palatable. Specifically, deal with monotonous work by structuring breaks and rewards.
The Pomodoro Technique (originally developed by Francesco Cirillo) is great for this. In short, this technique is to commit to working for 25 minutes with complete focus, then taking a 5 minute break. This work/break block is called a Pomodoro. You do four pomodoros in a row, then take a longer break – preferably something rewarding, like taking a walk outside or getting a cup of tea or coffee.
This helps because it’s a lot easier to focus on something you don’t like when you know that it won’t last long. And by committing to a pomodoro, you’re not committing to hours, you’re only committing to 25 minutes.
For some reason, the part of your mind that gets bored and starts distracting you is much more likely to shut up if it knows a break is coming up quickly, especially if that break comes with a small reward.
The Pomodoro Technique and various extensions have other advantages too, but start with the basics and we’ll talk more about other stuff later.
4. Task Definition
A great way to not get a task done is to not know what the task is. Again, this sounds obvious, but think for a minute.
Chances are you can remember plenty of times you spent what should have been productive time spinning your wheels because you weren’t quite sure what to be working on.
This happens very easily in jobs that are highly autonomous and creative or if you’re an entrepreneur. Again, this is a big topic, and there is a lot of advice out there. Much of the more useful advice is fairly subject-specific.
However, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, try writing down exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish. This is stupidly simple but often works surprisingly well.
5. Working Memory
MedicineNet defines working memory as
“…a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension.”
This is pretty similar to the definition of short term memory, a related concept, but short term memory has more to do with static (though brief) storage and working memory is more about active manipulation of information.
More specifically, working memory underpins focus.
One of the key realizations that made me vastly more productive and focused was to view working memory as the key to productivity.
Basically, if something helps working memory, even a little bit, productivity gets a big boost. If something hurts or clogs up working memory, even a little bit, productivity takes a huge hit.
I’ve found that almost all productivity advice that works (including “Limiting Distractions” from above) is a special case of this.
Working memory is an exciting topic that is subject to a lot of ongoing research and is a particular interest of mine, so expect to hear a lot more practical knowledge about it in upcoming posts.
These are just the first steps of a transformative journey, but if you take internalize and act on them, you’ll start feeling a difference right away.
Like I have said before and will say again, your attention is incredibly valuable and extraordinarily powerful is applied correctly.
Even small improvements will go a long way and we’re going to show you how to make BIG improvements.