25 ideas that help me focus.
Of course, #1 is: Don’t be overwhelmed. There is a whole lot of good stuff to follow. Remember, all of this is totally pointless unless you use it to change your life! If you read it and get completely overwhelmed with all the stuff you should do that you aren’t doing, you’ll never actually do any of it! Let me challenge you to pick one or two techniques to try out right now, and if they don’t work, pick a few more! Work your way through the list, rather than trying to do them all at once. You won’t be able to do it.
All of these tips and techniques help me focus (or have helped me focus in the past), and I’m a very distractible person. If they help me, they will help you. Good luck in your quest to focus better and get more done.
+ + +
2. Get Rid of Obvious Distractions
This probably should be the first step. It’s totally obvious, but distractions have become such a way of life that sometimes we don’t even think about turning off the cell phone. Turn it off; turn off the television; move to somewhere where there aren’t people around; unplug your headphones; embrace the environment free of obvious distractions and get to work.
3. Have snacks/water handy
Ready to start that all-night study session? If you don’t want to interrupt it to raid the local convenience store, you had better have some snacks ready. It’s much harder to focus if you are hungry or dehydrated, so grab some snacks to keep your body from complaining right in the middle of your project. I suggest drinking water and eating relatively healthy snacks (caffeine and sugar can actually lead to more distraction, not less), but it’s really up to you: just don’t starve yourself! Bad idea.
4.Imagine the end result
Close your eyes. Imagine in rich detail where you want to be. If you have to finish a project that day, imagine the end of the day when you have the project done. If you’re working on something a little more long-term, think a little bit farther down the road: it doesn’t really matter when. You just have to be able to see in your mind the end of whatever you’re working on, and imagine the positive emotions that you’ll feel. Keeping the future in your mind will help you focus, especially if you don’t want to be working on whatever you’re doing. The goal shouldn’t be to finish whatever you’re working on; it should be to build the life you want to live, and you need to see what you’re doing as an important step. If it’s not, you don’t have to do it. It’s really your choice.
5. Do something with your hands
Do you have a natural tendency to doodle or mess with things with your hands? Don’t completely cut that off when you are trying to focus! Do something with your hands: flip your pencil around. Get a small toy to hold in your hand. Get a rubber band to stretch and twist around your fingers – even a ring will do, in a pinch. This won’t distract from your project, it will actually help focus your mind, if you have a tendency to unconsciously do this anyway.
6. Set a timer
One of the best ways that I know to zero in on a project that must be done is to set a timer. Setting a timer really focuses your mind, because you suddenly aren’t just working on a project: you’re racing the timer. Suddenly adrenaline kicks in and you work as fast as you can, just to beat the timer. You aren’t thinking about how you really need to go check Facebook again: you’re focused on beating that timer.
7. Take frequent breaks
Taking breaks every hour or so will actually end up making you work harder. Why? If you work straight through an eight or six hour timespan, your productivity and focus are dropping with each consecutive hour. If you take breaks, you’re much more likely to work hard during the times that you do work, because you have a break coming up that you can look foreword to. The times I’ve done this, I’ve doubled my productivity easily, and it’s usually been no sweat focusing on the project at hand.
8. Speed up
Here’s a great tip, especially if you get distracted easily when you’re reading. If you feel your attention wandering, speed up. It seems counter-intuitive, but give it a try – keep speeding up your reading until your mind stops being distracted and focuses: you can even jam your finger down on the page and move it down the lines, dragging your eyes with it. Our mind can be really lazy, and this helps zero your mind in on your reading material.
9. Listen to lyric free music
This is a great technique for blocking out sounds and focusing. Find some good, high-energy music to pipe through your headphones. Make sure the music is lyric-free, especially if you’re writing: I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to focus on forming words if there are other words being played into my ears. If this isn’t a problem for you, no big deal: just select your music appropriately so it isn’t actually detracting from your focus.
I suggest you download Spotify, by the way. It’s free and awesome.
10. Start right away
Have time to work on your project? Do it right away. Don’t check your e-mail or your Facebook, don’t turn on a TV show, get started! Get it done before you allow yourself to move on to more pleasing – and more distracting – tasks. When you choose e-mail over your project, your mind is seeking an easy way out: it doesn’t want to do the hard work, and would much rather distract itself. Oftentimes one distraction will lead to another which will lead to another, and pretty soon you’ll find yourself looking at the history of Russia on Wikipedia instead of working.
11. Plan exactly what you’re going to do and do no more
Want to focus? Plan exactly how much you want to get done in a day, knock it out, and then stop. No, really: stop. This is important, because if you don’t have a stopping point, you can find yourself dragging things out over hours and hours, and you end up taking much more time and never really focusing on anything. Instead of writing that chapter over a six hour period while sort-of paying attention to your spouse, spend two hours totally focused, writing frenziedly, then stop. Put down your work, and focus 100% on your spouse. This will help you focus, and have a more balanced life, too.
12. Restrict (or shut off) your internet
Use something life Self-Control (mac only) or StayFocusd (chrome extension) or temptation blocker (windows) to completely block out your internet – or just the really distracting sites – for a period of time so you can stop worrying about what you’re missing down at the Internets and focus. These really help me focus, because there’s actually no way that I can distract myself on the internet – it’s just not possible. How wonderful.
13. Just keep working
Keep your fingers moving. Keep your brush moving. Keep thinking. Force your mind through it; keep slogging. Sometimes it helps to say out loud “I don’t want to be doing this” over and over again, just so long as you keep working. Eventually, if you just keep pushing through, you’ll regain your interest and it will start flowing. Just keep working.
14. Make it a competition
I don’t know how competitive you are, but consider getting a buddy to have productivity races with. The first one to get x task done wins, and the loser has to buy lunch for the victor. You can even do this weekly: it’s a great motivation to focus and get to work.
15. Create a routine
This is probably one of the best ideas that I can give you. If you develop a “get to work” routine and do it every time you sit down to work, it can instantly focus your mind. It can be as elaborate as you like, you’ve just got to do it consistently. I’ve got to be wearing a hat when I work, have something to drink, and I usually plug into some high-energy music. In the past I’ve done some pretty crazy things as part of my routine: for a while I always grabbed my potted lucky bamboo to sit by my computer. Really, the crazier the better: anything to signal to you mind that it’s focus time.
16. Clean your desk/work area
Tidying your work area will definitely clean up the space in your head, allowing you to focus on what’s important. I don’t know how many times I’ve been trying to work and it’s felt like beating my head against the wall – then I figure out that I’m frustrated because my desk is a complete mess. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about it, a messy work environment can be mentally taxing and will sap your energy and ability to focus. Purge your cluttered work area and reclaim the mental real estate to get to work!
17. Clean your computer desktop
Do things pile up on your desktop? Do files and pictures and links make it so you can hardly see your wallpaper? Be constantly purging. Don’t let it pile up, or your focus and productivity will be reduced. I use a sweet program called Hazel to automatically clean up my desktop for me. You could also use something like DeskToday, or you can use Belevedere if you’re on a PC. If you work a lot on the computer than this is important to your mental health, trust me.
18. Embrace interruptions
There’s a cool post at the Guardian about how interruptions boost creativity. So, why not? Try building some interruptions into your day. Try to be well enough ahead that you can afford to be interrupted. Experience what this post calls the “joy of interruptions”. This might just help you be more creative and focused.
19. Don’t make excuses
Can’t focus? Never have been able to focus? Suspect that you might have ADD? Stop telling yourself that! Try to remove that from your mental vocabulary. The more you think “I can’t focus”, the more your mind is going to accept this as reality and refuse to focus. You need to sell out on this idea that you can focus, that you have just as good of an attention span as anyone else, even if you prefer to be pacing or standing on your head while you work.
20. 1 task at a time (be strict)
Don’t try to do everything at once: don’t even try to do two things at once. Choose a task, throw everything you have at it until it’s dead, take a break if need be, then start on the next thing. Don’t try to do more then one thing: you’ll divide your attention, frustrate yourself and not get as much done. One thing at a time!
21. Pop in your headphones and turn on some white noise
Try Simply Noise. It has several different options for the level of white noise – I prefer brown noise, which has more bass in it than white noise. White noise is a wonderful way to cut out distracting noise and help you focus. Use noise-cancelling headphones for a more complete focused environment.
22. Go do that thing that’s in your head
You know what it is: it’s stuck in the back of your mind, it’s not really bothering you, but it is. It’s some task that you’ve left undone, probably because you don’t really want to do it. It’s actually using up mental space: it’s stuck back there, just below the surface, distracting you, causing stress and breaking your focus. Just go knock it out! Then you can return to your work with a clearer, more focused mind.
It’s tough to focus when you have a stiff neck and your legs are asleep. Get up and stretch, walk around the block, get your blood flowing. Do some desk yoga. It’s tough to stay awake, let alone focus to your fullest ability if you’ve been sitting for a couple of hours. Get up!
24. Set a deadline
If your task doesn’t have a deadline, set one. Tell your friends about it so you have to get it done on time. A deadline is one of the best ways I know to focus your mind and to get things done. Make sure there are some consequences too! I have my wife set deadlines for me all the time. She’s not naturally mean, but I ask her to be tough so I will get stuff done. These consequences sound something like this: “I’ll be bringing home ingredients to make those chocolate mocha smoothies, and if you don’t get your writing done, you don’t get any!”. As you can imagine, these threats are very effective.
25. Calm your mind
Stop for a second. Close your eyes. Imagine all of those distracting thoughts swarming around you head, and push them out, one by one. Take deep breaths through your nose, inhaling as much air as you can; relax your shoulders, your back, your legs, your neck (one by one); calm your crazy, distracted mind and reclaim the focus that you were spending. Now get to work.