The ability to focus is a game-changer. The more laser-focused you are, the more you can get done, and the better the quality of your work will be. We all have the same 24 hours every day, but those who are focused squeeze more meaningful work out of their day than the rest of us.
Focus matters even more for CEOs and other leaders. Daniel Goleman says, in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, that leaders need to be able to direct the attention and efforts of their team towards a shared vision. The only way they can do that is by being able to focus their own attention first.
Clearly, no matter what roles you juggle in life and at work, you will benefit by becoming more focused. Here are three ways you can do that:
Make time and space early in your day to reflect on your priorities and set your intentions for the day. This is useful on two levels. First, even a few minutes spent shutting out distractions and concentrating on only one thing exercises your attention “muscle.” And just like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Second, this gives you the chance to begin the day with purpose.
The Five-Minute Journal, created by Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas, lets you start the day right by setting your intentions in just five minutes in the morning. At night, take another five minutes to take stock, reflect on what went right, and decide how you could have made the day better. Writing in this journal will be the best 10 minutes you spend every day.
As you go about your day, it’s easy to get inundated by the hundred different things demanding your attention. Your intentions and priorities may get thrown out the window as you put out fires. Your attention jumps from one thing to another, until—just like a muscle—it gets fatigued and grows weaker and weaker as the day goes on. Recharge it with simple triggers or stimuli that remind you of your intentions.
My triggers are mugs and T-shirts from Startup Vitamins. This company creates motivational products for entrepreneurs, but they work for pretty much everyone. Whenever I reach into my cupboard to make a cup of tea, I choose the mug that best reflects my mood or gives me the boost I need at that moment. It’s a simple but effective way to refocus my attention on what’s important.
Productivity suffers when you keep a frantic pace all day, every day. In the same way that muscles grow bigger and get stronger by short periods of stress followed by rest and recovery, your attention needs to have the occasional break. This may not be what you want to hear when meetings run back to back and deadlines loom. But those breaks don’t need to take a long time at all.
Stop and regroup for 30 seconds before diving into new meeting or activity. Take three deep breaths and ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish?” “What is the win scenario?” That’s all it takes to bring your focus back to the significance of the task at hand. So, no matter how tired or busy you are, you’ll be motivated to give it your attention instead of secretly worrying about your unanswered emails or the rest of the items on your to-do list.
In a world where most people can no longer concentrate and reflect, the one who’s remarkably focused stands out and succeeds. The good news is you can train your brain to be more focused, intentional, and attentive. The three habits I described above are only some of the ways you can develop your attention muscle. Keep practicing, and it will grow more powerful. You’ll be amazed at how much more effective you are when you focus. As Alexander Graham Bell said, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
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