Of all the resources which have become in short supply over the past few years, the diminishing of our power to focus is perhaps the most problematic. Lean and challenging times are nothing new to the human race, but it’s our ability to concentrate that allows us to thrive in spite of them—to cultivate relationships, deeply problem solve, and innovate our way to a better future.
So, whatever your resolutions are this year, my advice is to start by first improving your ability to focus—and from there, you can conquer whatever mountains you need to with aplomb.
It sounds like a big task, but rebuilding your powers of concentration is a remarkably straightforward process, which can be accomplished by targeting a few very simple behaviors. In my work as a time management expert, I’ve found the following three strategies to be extremely effective, producing rapid and satisfying results:
1. Avoid Computers for the First and Last Hour of Each Day
Our screen lives (email, social media sites, online news) have created an instant-response culture that has been scientifically proven to be addictive, stealing our ability to concentrate. And so, as a 2012 study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers found, spending time away from email significantly improves one’s ability to focus.
While I’m not suggesting you cut out email altogether, one easy way to break the mindless habit is to start and end each day fully unplugged. Devoting your first hour at home and at work for your most critical, concentrated task will allow you to begin your day with a sense of accomplishment and control. And preserving your last hour of the day to relax and unwind will get you centered and prepared to sleep—another activity that’s crucial to improving focus.
2. Fortify Your Work-Life Balance
Sacrificing your personal life for your job makes you a far less effective worker. It increases mistakes (which take time to correct), blocks the synthesis of new ideas, and leads to inefficiency and poor decision-making. While most service professionals believe that being available 24/7 is required to compete in today’s global economy, a Boston Consulting Group study published by the Harvard Business Review found that making time off predictable, and required, boosted job performance (not to mention satisfaction).
So, identify one or two activities that instantly recharge you—whether it’s dancing or meditation—and build them in to your evening or weekend routine. Yes, even if you think you don’t have time. Taking even a few hours a week for yourself has the remarkable effect of stretching time, by boosting your energy, fueling your creativity and perspective, and increasing your patience.
3. Capture All Your To-Dos in One Place
A 2008 Virginia Tech study on personal calendar use found that the majority of participants kept separate business and personal calendars, and only a handful used their calendar for to-do items. But keeping your information in multiple locations (plus your memory) is a recipe for distraction, confusion, and worry about what you might be forgetting.
Instead, commit to a single, consistent planning system for 100% of your calls, tasks, and meetings, both personal and professional. Choose paper or digital, and go whole hog. Integrate your to-do list directly into your calendar (rather than keeping tasks in a separate list or system). This gives you a complete picture of everything on your plate and allows you to prioritize your tasks in context. When you’re confident that there’s nothing you are forgetting or neglecting, your mind is free to focus and to fully engage in each moment.
Reclaiming your capacity to focus is the most important first step you can take this year, a behavior change that will position you to tackle every other challenge with confidence, clarity, and precision. Try dedicating the next two weeks to improving your focus—and see how quickly (and almost magically) you will feel in control.