Do you check your email as soon as you wake up? Do you send text messages from just about everywhere? Do you feel like today you so connected and informed that you sometime actually have no idea what is really going on?
Have you gotten to the end of an hour/day/week and have absolutely no memory of what happened? Do you have cyber-overload and feel constantly distracted?
Well this week, we are going to learn some tool to help us unplug just a bit – remember my confessions as a smart phone addict – and get focused. This week is focused on focus.
As a busy person, you have a lot on your plate. Staying focused can be tough with a constant stream of family, friends, employees, co-workers, clients, emails, and phone calls demanding your attention. Amid the noise, understanding your brain’s limitations and working around them can improve your focus and increase your productivity.
Our brains are finely attuned to distraction. In caveman days anything out of the ordinary caught our attention. A movement in the trees, grass swaying in the wrong direction or an unusual smell would all be a distraction alert. A potential sign of danger or opportunity. A call to focus your attention here now. So today's digital environment makes it especially hard to focus. Distractions signal that something has changed and our brain's reaction is automatic and virtually unstoppable. In some ways we are powerless to avoid putting our attention on the distraction.
But today that distraction is seldom danger or opportunity. It is the ding of a text, an email alert, a snippet of interesting conversation, the pop-up ad on the side of something we are reading, the list is virtually endless. We are under the illusion we can multitask. While multitasking is an important skill, it also has a downside. It reduces our intelligence, literally dropping our IQ. We make mistakes, miss subtle cues, fly off the handle when we shouldn't, or spell things wrong.
To make matters worse, distraction feels great. Your brain's reward circuit lights up when you multitask, meaning that you get an emotional high when you think you are doing a lot at once.
So our goal is not constant focus. We know that is impossible. But we can start to train our brains for short periods of distraction-free time every day. Just twenty minutes a day of deep focus will be transformative.
Here are the three tips I use to become more focused and productive:
Know my goals/objectives/needs.
Every year I have a list of goals I want to accomplish. I start with a very long list then wean it down to just 4 or 5 things. Generally, it is one item in each of the five life categories:
Once I have just one goal for each category, I break that down into action items. Those action items are broken down into daily tasks.
Here is an example. Under career my goal is to get to 1,000,000 downloads on my podcast. My action items for this goal would be content, marketing, research, and events. I then break each action item down into daily tasks. For example, my first task would be to go to iTunes and see everyone in my category that has a weekly podcast with over a million downloads. I would listen to their podcast every day for 2 weeks to see what their content and style was like. Then, for the next 2 weeks I would spend one hour per day to research the ways they increased listeners. I would look for events in my area or places I would be willing to travel to attend. I belong to a podcasting meet-up group and have signed up for a podcast convention next month in Orlando.
My health goal this year is to improve my ratio of lean muscle mass to fat. This sounds so much better than saying I want to lose weight. Action items are get fat analysis and bloodwork done to know baseline. Get trainer to show me the right exercises to increase muscle mass. Research the right eating plan to burn fat. Daily tasks become preparing correct food in advance so there is no last minute call to the pizza delivery guy, put exercise or work out with trainer on the calendar, make Dr. appointment.
So, each Sunday I go through my list of goals and action items and fill in what I need to do each day to move me toward accomplishing those goals. I try not to put more than 5 items from my action list on my daily task list. It is not realistic for me to accomplish more than that with my other business and family obligations. The purpose of this is to successfully accomplish my goals not add guilt and a sense of disappointment to myself.
So, now that I have a list where do I put it? There's no point in making a list if it ends up in a journal you close or under all of your unopened mail at the end of the day. I post it right where you will see it every time you look up, answer the phone or turn to your computer. By keeping it within your field of sight you can also keep it top-of-mind.
How do I pick the order of importance on my list? Typically, we do mindless work first and build up to the toughest tasks. That drains your energy and lowers your focus. An hour into doing your work, you've got a lot less capacity than you did at the start of your day. Every decision we make tires the brain. My list takes it off the decision track and moves it to the execution track.
In order to focus effectively, reverse the order. Check off the tasks that require creativity or concentration first thing in the morning, and then move on to easier work, like deleting emails or scheduling meetings, later in the day. I put the most difficult thing first. For me that is exercise. If it doesn’t happen early in the day, it doesn’t happen at all. I have a limitless number of excuses not to work out. I try not to schedule meetings before 8:30 so I can get my exercise in. But if I do have an early meeting – I make sure I get up in time to do both.
The Pomodoro - how to allocate your time deliberately
In a study of thousands of people, it seems that we are truly focused for an average of only six hours per week. That is an alarmingly low number – less than one hour a day. If this is true for you - you want to be really diligent with what you put into those hours.
Most people focus best in the morning or late at night, studies show that 90 percent of people do their best thinking outside the office. Notice where and when you focus best, then allocate your toughest tasks for those moments.
But if you want to get more than six hours a week of focused time, you need to learn the Pomodoro Technique. It had literally changed my life. I get more done now than I ever imagined. I can get in the zone, and stay in the zone, several times a day.
So, what is this magic technique? Pomodoro is a time management philosophy that aims to provide us with maximum focus and creative freshness, thereby allowing us to complete projects faster with less mental fatigue. The process is simple. For every project throughout the day, you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically. You work for 25 minutes, then take break for five minutes. Each 25-minute work period is called a “Pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for tomato. What? Tomato? Can tomatoes make us productive?
No, but Francesco Cirillo - who created this technique - used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato as his personal timer, and thus the method’s name. Pomodoro’s create flow because they work with the brains construction on how it uses energy. It also uses a timed action to help you break through the habit of procrastination.
How does this strange sounding technique work?
First, look at the tasks you must complete today.
Then break them down into 25 minute segments – some longer tasks can have more than one segment.
Start with the most difficult tasks first.
Set your timer for 25-minutes (use a timer that ticks - will explain below).
Focus only on the task in front of you until the timer rings.
FOCUS means - remove distractions.
Put your smart phone in airplane mode and put it face down on the desk.
Put your desk phone on do not disturb – or forward to voice mail.
Turn off your email – no dings or pop ups allowed.
Shut your door if you have one – if not make a sign that says “concentrating on project – do not disturb - if it's not bleeding, burning or quitting, tell me in 25 minutes”.
Move all the papers on your desk, except what you are working on, to the floor or somewhere out of sight.
Now work for 25 minutes – just listen to the tick and work until the buzzer goes off.
Once the timer goes off simply put a check next to that task and take a 5 to 10 minute break.
Get up, open the door or walk around for a minute, check your email, check your voice mail.
At the end of 10 minutes, set the timer for your next task.
After four Pomodoro’s you should take an hour to 90 minute break to catch up on other things.
I just do 4 Pomodoro’s a day at the office. I do a few more at home for my personal goals. One of these Pomodoro’s is 25 minutes of uninterrupted time focusing completely on my husband with no distractions. Try this one – it is a relationship changer.
Each Pomodoro must be a true indivisible unit of work. This means if you are distracted by a co-worker, meeting, or emergency you must end the Pomodoro and start back again anew - or ignore the distraction until the Pomodoro is finished.
If you subscribe to the practice, you will discover two surprising things. First, after you train yourself, you will be amazed at how much you can get done in 25 minutes with concentrated focus. Second, there are very few things in life that cannot wait 25 minutes for your attention.
Why use a ticking timer? The timer that ticks out loud becomes a conditioning tool. After as little as 30-days of the nervous system will get conditioned to the ticking sound much like Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to the bell. I have found that the moment I hear the ticking I can focus and tune out distractions. I have conditioned my mind to focus at the sound of the tick. This is an incredible tool. Get a very inexpensive kitchen timer that ticks out loud and I promise after 30-days you will never want to work without it.
But this lead me to the last secret….
Train yourself and others.
When multitasking is the norm, your brain quickly adapts. You lose the ability to focus as distraction becomes a habit. We have trained our brains to be unfocused.
Use the Pomodoro technique and practice concentration by turning off all distractions and committing your attention to a single task. If 25 minutes seems scary, start small, maybe five minutes per day, and work up to 25 minute chunks of time. If you find your mind wandering, just return to the task at hand. You must train your brain to be focused.
However, if you are perpetually putting something critical off may it may be a matter of emotion rather than distractions. Are you afraid that you don't have the skills to accomplish something important to your business? Do you feel that you don't have enough information to do a good job? Are you nervous about the next step after your current project?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, really spend time with a pencil and paper looking at the reasons why you aren't tackling something and then figure out how to fix them. Train yourself to “just do it” even if it is just for 25 minutes a day. You can do amazing things if you allow yourself the luxury of great success.
But success is generally not a solo job. You also must train others.
I have trained my staff that if they hear the ticking, do not come in unless there is blood, fire or warm cookies with just one left. They know that in just a few minutes they can have my undivided attention to whatever they need. I have trained my clients that I answer emails 3 x a day. From 8 to 9 am, right after lunch, and at the end of the business day. If it is an emergency (and very few things are really an emergency) they can text me and I will get back to them within one hour. I have trained myself that it is better to have several small increments a day where I can be fully focused and do my highest level work than spread myself over 25 to 30 multi-tasking events that I do “B” level work.
This week, try these three things. Start small.
Pick just one goal you have and break it down into action items then daily tasks.
Set aside just 25 minutes of completely un-distracted time each day and focus fully on that task.
Keep track of what you accomplish and how you feel.
Let me know how this worked for you.
I you like my blogs, try my podcast “Unlocking the secret of living rich” on iTunes or Google play. You can also like, share and subscribe on my website cindybbrown.com
Until next week, Live Rich!
January 24, 2018
Join me every Wednesday on my podcast “Unlocking the Secret to Living Rich”.
If you have questions or comments you can contact me at my email firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @cindybbrown777
Who is Cindy Brown? Cindy is a CPA, MBA, CFO, board member of public and private companies, business consultant, entrepreneur coach and a foremost expert in the field of financial mastery. Cindy’s purpose is to motivate, educate and inspire people to live their richest life. She is the host “Unlocking the Secret to Living Rich”.