When you’ve a hundred different things vying for your attention, how can you keep it together long enough to complete any single task? Today I want to share 12 ways to stay focused so you actually get your real work done and not have it drag on all day.
In a world of social media and streaming services and smartphones, it’s so easy to be distracted from what you should be doing. That’s why, in recent years, I’ve been working really hard at figuring out how to stay focused and get sh*t done.
Here’s what I’ve learned from many trial and error experiments.
12 Ways To Stay Focused On What's In Front Of You
1. Get enough sleep
If you haven’t had a quality night’s sleep, your concentration levels will deteriorate much quicker as the day goes on. You may not always notice it, but I’ve been tracking my productivity levels for many years now and, believe me, lack of sleep has a serious effect on your output.
Your brain needs a break.
So if you find you’ve been tossing and turning, or the alarm woke you before you were ready to face the world, try get in a quick cat nap as soon as you can to top up your energy levels. If that’s not possible, at least allow your brain to switch off a bit by doing some autopilot tasks. (More on that later.)
If sleep is something you struggle with, I’ve previously shared my best 4 tips for sleeping soundly. (#4 is a strange one, but I’ve used it to great effect.)
2. Choose your time wisely
It may sound like common sense, but don’t start something that requires a lot of focus when you know the doorbell or phone’s going to ring. Don’t dive in right before the kids come home from school, or just before dinner’s served.
That’s not to say you can’t get stuff done while you’re waiting (like prepping by following some of the other tips here), but if you really need to focus on something, you’re going to require an extended period of time to do it. Structure your day so the work that requires the most focus has the longest block of uninterrupted time.
Avoiding distractions isn’t always possible, of course (though we will talk about some great ways to do it below), but try to ensure that, when you sit down, you’re in it for the long haul. And yes, that means using the bathroom first.
3. Clear your space
Clutter is distracting. If you can help it, don’t have anything in your space that doesn’t directly relate to the job at hand.
4. Gather supplies
You don’t want to realise that you left something important somewhere else just as you’re starting to find your groove, focus-wise. Gather everything you need before you start so you don’t have to stop before you’re ready. This includes snacks, drinks, an extra layer in case you get chilly, and all the tools and equipment you’ll need to complete the job (including chargers for devices).
5. Eliminate decisions
Having to make too many decisions will slow you down. Have as many decisions as possible made beforehand so you can focus on the doing and not on the deciding. (This also applies to what you’re going to do afterwards and what you’re going to have for dinner, the two questions that will probably crop up most that are unrelated to the task at hand.)
6. Block out noise pollution
Put your phone on silent, mute your computer, tell your partner to pipe down… If you have to, wear ear plugs or headphones.
Of course, there are people who prefer some form of background noise. If you’re one of them, just ensure it’s noise you actually enjoy and that helps you to focus, like white noise, not something that’s going to distract and derail you.
Personally, I work best in silence, but sometimes a little white noise is necessary to block out other sounds. (As I type, for example, my daughter is playing beside me.) In those instances, I pop on my headphones, click over to SimplyRain, and crank up the storm intensity.
7. Eat a frog
As the day wears on, your brain’s energy levels and capabilities will begin to dwindle. If you can, tackle the tasks that require the most focus in the morning (after that good night’s sleep we talked about).
Also be aware of how your energy levels peak and dip during the week. For me, for example, I’m most productive on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. I start to lose steam on Wednesdays. Then Thursdays and Fridays are basically a write-off in terms of tasks that require a large amount of focused attention. Things start to pick up a bit again from Saturday.
With that information, I’m able to structure my schedule so that most of my writing is done at the beginning of the week, switching to more admin or autopilot tasks as the week progresses.
Work with your energy levels to get the most done when you’re at peak performance. (If you’re interested in learning more, see my post on eating a frog.)
Speaking of peak performance, another great tip is to…
8. Alternate your tasks
Don’t try to fit in focused work right after you’ve already expended a huge amount of mental energy.
Give yourself a break by first focusing on something where you can switch your brain off for a bit. Maybe do some tasks that require physical exertion but very little in the way of brain power, like exercising or doing laundry. When you come back, your brain’s batteries should have recharged.
9. Single task
If you’re serious about getting focused, you need to stick to just one thing. Trying to switch between tasks means you’ll never get a good “flow” going, so close down all browser tabs, put your phone in another room, and set aside all other work.
10. Set a deadline
If it’s work that someone else needs but that isn’t urgent, consider contacting the person to tell them when they should expect it. That will light a bit of a fire under you.
If it’s something like housework that you keep putting on the long finger, consider inviting someone over to focus your mind on getting things spick and span in advance of their arrival.
If you’re only accountable to yourself, set a timer. I use timers on a regular basis to force me to focus and get as much work done as possible in a short amount of time. Or maybe focus on a “natural” deadline, like seeing if you can get the current task completed by lunch time. You’ll be amazed at how much you hustle when you’re against the clock.
If someone else is doing the same job, make it a race! I bet both of you will finish in record time, regardless of who actually wins. (You can also just try to beat your own previous “best”.)
11. Burn the ships
This is from a great story about a captain and his tired, beleaguered crew. After many days at sea, they came upon the land they’d been looking for only to discover a savage tribe there. Knowing they weren’t exactly fighting fit, the captain ordered his crew to burn the ships. Not being able to retreat, the weary men now had no option but to draw on all of their reserves to defeat the tribe.
When you don’t have any other option, you’re forced to get stuck in. As with the housework example above, engineer it so you’ve no alternative but to knuckle down. Organise a weekend getaway, invite the whole family around for dinner, volunteer at your local charity shop…
When you know your weekend is already taken up with other obligations, you’ll have no choice but to finish your work by 5 on Friday.
12. Punish or reward
Different motivations will work for different people, but use what you can to keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re more motivated by fear, set a suitable punishment for yourself if you don’t complete the task on time.
(I’ve heard of one woman who was trying to form the habit of getting up earlier. She would schedule an embarrassing secret to be posted to her social media a few minutes after the time she hoped to wake. That way, if she didn’t get out of bed, she couldn’t stop it from posting. Genius!)
If, however, there’s something you’d really love, promise yourself you can have it as soon as your work is done. That should motivate you to move your arse.
The next time you need to focus, try one or a handful of the above and see what works best for you. We’re each unique, so you’ll probably notice some tips will be more effective than others. Find the ones that work best for you and use them to get more focused work done than ever before.
But tell me…
What do you find is your biggest obstacle when it comes to staying focused?