Laser-like focus is what sets winners apart from losers (Click to Tweet).
All things being equal, the one who is more focused has far better chances of succeeding than one who can’t stay focused for more than a couple of minutes.
At the same time, learning to focus is much easier than people make it seem. It’s not something you’re either born with or not and it’s proved by the fact that there are many successful people with ADD.
You just need to know how to do it and how to improve it, so I decided to create this guide to help you focus on what matters.
It starts with your health
Being healthy and well rested is the main thing if you want to improve your focus.
There’s no way your brain will function properly if you’re tired and your body is not well taken care of.
First of all, make sure you’re sleeping enough because sleep deprivation has been proved to negatively affect how your brain functions.
You should get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, but your mileage may vary and could be anything between 7 and 10 hours.
This article over on Bulletproof Exec can help you improve your sleep. Here are some of the takeaways:
I’ll add a couple more things:
- Have your last cup of coffee following lunch
- Plan your next day in the evening
- Read a book before going to bed
- Any thoughts you may have before turning the lights off, write them down on a notebook
- Take a cold shower 30 minutes before bedtime
Now that you’re well rested, you do need to make sure your brain and body have the proper fuel to work at their best.
So all the usual advice is ok — i.e. lots of vegetables and lean proteins. However, if there’s only one thing you are willing to do, you should avoid refined sugars altogether:
Research (link is external) indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of anything.
Source: What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain
I know you may love your sweets, but you need to realize they aren’t doing anything good for you while at the same time they turn your brain off.
Journalist Michael Grothaus tried to cut refined sugars from his diet for two weeks. This is what he wrote about it:
By the final days of my diet journey, I felt so focused, it was as if I were a different person.
Source: How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain
Another thing you might take into consideration, is to leave carbs as your last meal at night because they tend to make you hazy, so why not use them to improve your sleep at night and avoid the infamous post-lunch crash?
Learn how to focus
Once you know your brain and body are doing fine, it’s time to turn pro-active in developing your focus.
Every day, you have a certain amount of focus you can use.
Once you focus on something for more than a few hours, your brain needs to rest. And if you really focused and the task was challenging, you might even have depleted your daily dose of focus and will have to wait until the next day.
And don’t believe that if you focus on something trivial, it won’t mean you’re tapping into your focus-reserve. Your brain doesn’t care: focus is focus, no matter what you spend it on.
Focus is a finite resource, so you need to use it wisely (Click to Tweet).
So it comes as no surprise that the first thing you have to do is deciding what you have to focus on.
There’s no point in developing laser-like focus if you’re then focusing on watching YouTube videos all day long.
Set a daily focused task
Each day or even better the night before, you should pick a task on which you’re going to focus.
Take some time to review your goals and break them down until you reach a goal small enough for you to accomplish in a day. Now, that’s your next focused task.
If it’s true that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I guess goals work the same way: each day you have to make another step towards your goal, so each goal should be broken apart into single steps.
Once you know what your next focused task is, you should make it your priority for the day to complete it. Schedule it on your calendar and don’t call it a day until you’ve finished it.
Emails? can wait until later. Facebook? another time. Just work on your single focused task for the day. After that, you’re free to procrastinate for a while, if it pleases you.
Your mileage may vary, but I know I find it difficult to do more than 4-5 hours of intense focused work a day. I can work for more, but after 4 hours punching away at the computer, my brain just isn’t there anymore.
So each day, I plan to have at least 4 hours to dedicate to my focused task for the day. Once that is done, I can take a break and then start working on easy stuff like answering emails, doing some light reading and other tasks which don’t require my brain to be at full capacity.
Recommended reading: The ONE Thing by Gary W. Keller.
“But I have other commitments,” I hear you say
Sure, we all have other commitments and for some, it might be more difficult to work around them.
However, if you want to reach your goals, you need to sacrifice some of them. You need to realize that there are things you MUST do and things you SHOULD do, it’s slightly different (Click to Tweet).
You need to focus on what will move you forward. On what will get you closer to your goal.
And if you have to work with other people, try to schedule meetings and conference calls after your focused-task.
Try to make yourself unavailable every morning for 4 hours (Click to Tweet). That’s your focused time, that’s when you’ll develop your most important work. After that, you’re free to arrange your other commitments however you want.
It might be difficult for others to accept it at first. You can explain to them what you’re trying to accomplish. They might be upset in the beginning, but ultimately they’ll understand it and will learn to work around it.
Learn to say “No”
Another thing you need to learn how to do is to say “No”.
This is what the mighty James Altucher has to say about it:
When you start just saying “No” to the bad things, the “Yes” compounds every day. It compounds automatically, the way interest does in a non-US bank.
Source: How the power of No saved my life
You have to understand that each time you say “Yes” to something or someone, you’re saying “No” to something else (Click to Tweet). And most often than not, what you’re saying “No” to ends up being what you should really focus on.
While you might be missing some decent opportunities by saying “No”, you’ll have more time to focus on your most important tasks, on your goal, on your vision.
You’ll have more time to spend on what you really want to do, on what will make your dreams into a reality.
Recommended reading: The Power of No by James Altucher & Claudia Azula Altucher.
Remove all distractions
We live distracted lives and our ability to focus, create, and accomplish suffers significantly. It is increasingly clear that distractions are not going away on their own. Instead, the responsibility is ours to live attentive, intentional lives in a world of distraction. This is a goal we must continue to seek.
Source: 10 Unconventional Habits to Live Distraction-Less
Another important thing to do is to remove all distractions: close your email, put your phone in airplane mode. Do whatever you need to do in order to prevent distractions from reaching you while you’re doing your most focused task of the day.
Every time you are distracted by a chat message, by someone calling you or by the dreaded new email sound, your brain stops thinking about whatever it is that you’re doing and starts thinking that you really have to respond to that notification, like your life depends on it.
And when you’re back from the distraction, it needs to spend precious time to recall what it was doing and to get back in the zone.
You might think the time you spend to scan the subject lines of new emails every 30 minutes is negligible, but in reality, the cost is fairly high, because while scanning new emails might take 5 minutes, getting back to focused work will take more than that, and at the end of the day it could add up to a couple of hours.
Develop a routine
Apart from focus, there’s another finite resource we should keep in mind: willpower.
What does this mean? It means that each decision you make taps into your daily willpower-reserve (Click to Tweet). So if you spend it deciding menial things, you’ll end up being out of willpower when you have to decide to focus!
There’s a great book about willpower which you might want to read. It’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister.
But let me get back on track…
Make sure your less important tasks and decisions are already made for you, without having to make any extra effort.
And to achieve this, you need to develop a routine!
When you have a daily routine in place, you always know what you need to do next. You don’t have to spend time guessing, you just know it, because you have a plan.
Try to think what you’d like your ideal day to be like, write it down and stick it somewhere. Make it prominent, make it so that you can’t ignore your plan. And follow it every day.
It doesn’t have to be overly complex, something as easy as this would be just fine:
- Wake up
- Drink water
- Have breakfast (I don’t, but it’s your call)
- Read a book
- Walk 30 minutes
- Do most focused task of the day
- Check email
- Take a rest/procrastinate
- Non-focused work
- Walk some more
- Read a book
You see, nothing major, but still better than nothing. And this way, your brain won’t have to spend time and energy knowing what to do next and it will be able to use that time and energy to focus on your most focused task.
Recommended reading: Rituals are for losers. You need to have a ritual.
There’s only one way forward and that’s focus
Learning how to focus should be your priority if you want to do anything meaningful with your life (Click to Tweet).
Your brain is a beautiful and incredibly powerful machine, but it needs someone to control it, to tell it what to spend its magic on.
Left alone, your brain will start acting like a monkey, jumping from task to task, from thought to thought and binging on as many distractions as possible.
You have to learn how to regain control of your brain and focus on what really matters.
And remember to always have a plan. Always know what your most important task is. Always know what the thing you should focus on to move forward is.
What would you like to focus on? What’s preventing you from doing it?
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