Exactly a year from today I will be adding another year to my life. As I reflect, I wonder what is that one thing that if I master could make a difference for my life journey when I assess my progress in April 10 2015. That one thing for me is FOCUS. It’s what I want to strive to cultivate in greater measures and to protect.
Focus for me is in two categories – Process Focus and Strategic Focus. By process focus, I mean my ability to do the important things I should be doing daily with the least amount of distraction and the greatest amount of efficiency. It’s called doing-more-with-less. Because this is how-based, It is the kind of focus I will need to be more efficient.
Strategic focus on the other hand is the kind of focus I need to be more effective. It defines my why – my passion, purpose, and vision for life. Strategic focus determines how I priorities my energy and time. I only have just enough energy so I can’t be everywhere or do everything. Strategic focus helps me ensure I’m not being efficient at things that do not count, that I’m recognizing and making the most of my opportunity.
This is why the definition of intelligence I subscribe to has little to do with IQ but more to do with living a life in alignment with my goals. I’m only intelligent to the extent that what I do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is contributing towards my life goals, my vision and purpose.
To be considered intelligent, you and I need a lot of strategic focus. We need not only to ensure that we are climbing our ladders fast enough but also to ensure they are leaning against the right wall. This is why the psalmist prayed, “Keep me from paying attention to worthless things.”
As regarding process focus, I still consider myself a chronic sufferer. I live in a paradoxical age of distraction and benefits. Technology can be a good servant but a bad master. My mind, often times refuse to cooperate with me in completing relevant tasks. No sooner have I resolved to complete a task in 1 hour that emails, Facebook, BlackBerry or Twitter notifications are there to prod me to take a break at the slightest feeling of drudgery.
One of the things I realize in myself and maybe it’s true with society is that we are prone to sacrifice depth for breath. We are doing a lot of things but mastering none. We are often prone to inaction, and where there is action, it is not thorough. We seem to be unwittingly constructing our lives using the frail scaffold of distraction.
Excellence is admired and rare because the price is FOCUS – Strategic Focus to ensure we are doing the right thing and Process Focus to ensure we are doing it right.
This is why university education is not sufficient for success in life. I finished school with seeming good grades without truly mastering focus. I crammed to pass exams not because I didn’t know better but that was how to game the system. After school, I realized that knowledge is acquired to be used not to write an exam.
Why do we need to develop focus? All achievers have a lot of it. Achievers have the quality of single-minded concentration on task (process focus) and of focusing on what matters in the long run (strategic focus) regardless of the distractions around them.
To develop focus in an age of attention deficit, I encourage you to pay attention to the these 10 tips:
1. Determine your life goals.
This will help your strategic focus. Knowing what matters to you in the long run helps you align your actions in the present with the results you want to see in the future. People lack focus because they have no goals to capture their attention and where there are goals, they are not written or action-inspiring.
2. Avoid multitasking. Instead prioritize.
Multitasking is a myth. It’s the easiest way to produce low quality work and wasting. It can make you busy about nothing. It simply doesn’t work. Instead work from a to-do list, prioritize your task and practice single handling of task starting from the most important to the least important. Brian Tracy suggests you always ask yourself as a rule – what is the most important use of my time now?
We suffer an illusion of work when we try to do too many things at a time. We do a lot but little gets done, usually with low quality. Stop trying to check emails while typing your reports or any other version of multitasking you engage. Focus on one task at a time.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Pay attention to the present moment. You are mindful when you are following Graham Bell’s advice, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.”Again, the only place you can make a difference or improve your life is in the now, not in the past or in the future.
Learn to focus with full engagement on your current task or situation. Nothing undermines mindfulness as worry, anxiety or trying to do so many things at the same time. Pay attention to your thoughts during a task. When it wanders from the task or situation at hand, bring it back.
Mindfulness has been proven through research to improve reading comprehension, working memory capacity and ability to focus. If you are a knowledge worker with tasks that usually require attention, you need mindfulness not mind-wandering. I also believe it will improve your relationships because you will be a partner that is actually present and listening, a very endearing quality.
4. Learn to read.
One habit that trains our brain to focus is reading. Our brains are forced to understand and make meaning of the printed page when reading. Therefore it trains the mind to concentrate. Too much TV and mind-numbing entertainment have been found to have a contrary effect. They don’t engage or stimulate the mind in the way that develops it. Reading has been found to be more neurobiologically demanding than processing images or speech (through TV).
5. Master smart technology.
The notification beeps of your smart devices or mail box will not help your process focus. Put the smart phone away from sight. Switch off the notification of your mail box. Check your emails and social media accounts only at designated times of the day. One of the greatest problems in today’s workplace is attention deficit and smart phones, emails are a great contributor.
6. Eat the frog.
The frog is that task we know we should do but have a tendency to avoid doing, either because it is diificult or demanding. Here is where self- discipline adds up. According to brian tracy in the book,Eat the Frog, “Self discipline is the will power to force yourself to do what you know you should do, When you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” Some tasks just require discipline or else you never get around them. Don’t wait till you feel like. It is in the thinking and doing that the feeling comes.
7. Use Pomodoro technique.
This is a technique in personal effectiveness in which you discipline yourself to focus on a task without any distraction for at least 25minutes and then take a 5 minutes break. You will be amazed if you track it how single-minded concentration for 25minutes can be difficult.
Some versions of this technique recommend 90 – 120 minutes of single minded concentration before a 5-10mins break. Do whatever works for you. If focusing your mind is not yet strength, I recommend your start from 25 minutes so that you gradually build capacity for longer durations.
8. Practice task completion by setting deadlines.
When we postpone or permit interruptions on a task, it takes a longer time than usual to get into flow and complete the task. A task that should take an hour if attention is focused then takes 4 hours to complete with interruptions and distractions.
One of the easiest ways to prevent this quantum waste of energy is to set a deadline. Our brain is a goal seeking machine. It likes to have something to look forward to. Your brain will focus and gear you into action when you set deadlines. This is another reason why people don’t achieve their goals or complete their tasks – their goals and tasks have no deadlines or time lines.
9. Reward yourself.
When you complete a task, your brain releases feel good chemicals called endorphins that improve your self esteem and overall happiness. This is a reward in itself. The endorphins are released because task completion gives you a feeling of confidence, competence and mastery.
Rewards can also take the form of a cup of your favourite coffee, chocolate drink or bar. It could be guilt-free play time with a lover without thinking of work. It could be a novel, a movie or a book. Just find a way to reward yourself. Your brain will aid your discipline when it recognizes there is a reward for completing the task.
10. Focus is a muscle. It takes time, commitment and rigour to develop it.
Like any worthwhile skill, developing focus, whether strategic or process focus won’t come easy. That is why I will encourage you to be patient with yourself. It’s easy to cultivate bad habits but they later make your life difficult. It’s hard to cultivate good habits but they later make your life easy. I’m sure you will resist the path of least resistance and choose the narrow way of focus that leads to life.
Please don’t try to work on all your bad habits at once. That is a dignified lack of focus. I have been there so I share from experience. Habits require focus, one at a time if you are going to be effective.
These ideas are a synopsis of the many I have found helpful as I strive to overcome my daily struggles with focus. I trust you will find them useful to get you started.
As a way of helping others, please share this article. In addition, this is my birthday gift to you as I celebrate my Birthday today.
I remain dedicated to your success.