Either you run the day or the day runs you.
I was 12. I followed my brother to join this crazy race in the mountain. Only 8km long, but a 1200m vertical climb. Without much training, it was certainly daunting.
As I was standing on the starting line, ready to go, I started wondering if it was a good idea… At that point, the gun was fired and the raced started. No point in turning back then, I ran forward, towards a long climb.
In the middle of a race, you don’t have much trouble focusing. Staying motivated and mentally strong is another matter, but focus is generally not an issue for runners.
Why is it easier to focus in that scenario than in other parts of your life?
For a start, because there are no distractions around to steal your focus: no internet, no TV, no mobile phone. Also, a crowd is there to cheer you up. It pumps up your adrenaline and pushes you forward. You are on the spot, people, your friends and family are looking at you. You can’t let them down, can you? The pressure is on. And pressure brings focus.
When you go back to work the day after the race (or to school when you’re 12 years old), it becomes much harder to stay focused on tasks.
You get interrupted by your colleagues. You get email notifications. You get a text message. You quickly check out the score from the game. Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are constantly nagging at you (you never know, someone might have noticed your incredible talent and is offering you a job). And your deadlines are days away, not minutes. Also, no one is watching and cheering you up.
And in the evening, when you try to think back about your accomplishments for the day, it might all be a bit of a blur. But one thing you will notice for sure is that your were not as focused as you were during the race.
Now let’s imagine you could consistently be as focused in your life as you were during the race. Let’s say you could run your life as a race. What would you accomplish within a day? You could probably finish your work day in about 3-4 hours. Or achieve twice as much. You could become super-human.
How can you run your life that way? How do you achieve high focus consistently and double your productivity?
1. Kill multi-tasking
Over the years, multi-tasking has been praised as a great skill to have. People even joke about the inefficiency of men at multitasking, while women are better at it. As a matter of fact, there is actually no scientific data to back this last one up, but nevermind.
My point is: if you want to stay focused, you need to quit multi-tasking as it completely kills your productivity. When you focus on one single activity at a time you productivity goes up. You can then finish your tasks much more quickly. This is in essence the pinnacle of focus.
If you multi-task, you can never focus properly. You constantly defocus one task to focus on another and your productivity is low.
To stay focused I learned to stop multi-tasking.
I plan my tasks, allocate them the time I need and focus on one thing at a time. Like in a race, focus on running and nothing else.
2. Kill distractions and minimize interruptions
Alongside multi-tasking, distractions and interruptions are a killer of focus and consequently productivity.
In our modern society, we get constant distractions. Modern apps, like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest need their users to be online, using the app. That way more content gets generated and more ads are viewed. This is part of their business model. So they go to great length to distract you constantly. And this kills your focus.
To stay focused, I have to stop distractions. I turn off email and app alerts. I only go and check them at specific times that I have allocated and planned in advance. This has made a big difference in my focus and productivity.
Interruptions from others are another focus killer. This is more difficult to tackle if you work in an office and I will admit that I haven’t found the perfect formula yet.
One way I can discourage interruptions is by not answering emails straight away, which I don’t do anyway as I check my email at specific times only. Another one is by not answering the phone and by calling back people.
In summary, there are a couple of things that can be done to minimize interruptions. If you only remove app notifications, it will already make a big difference in your life. You can also take steps to prevent too many direct interruptions from people that will help you staying focused but I concede that they are more difficult to implement depending on your work environment.
Checking Facebook while you are running is not advised. Runners don’t do it (usually), so why do it when you are working?
3. Focus, rest, rince and repeat
Staying fully focused is energy draining. This is why, to achieve maximum focus, you need to time how long you are working on tasks. A study conducted by Anders Ericsson on violinists showed that practice sessions should be kept under 90 minutes for best results.
To optimize focus, I recommend starting the day with a work stretch of 60-90 minutes before taking a break of 10-15 minutes. Start with your most important tasks. Then work another 60-90 minutes, before taking a 30 minutes break. Finally, do a last work stretch, before a 10-15 minutes break.
With your remaining time during the day, you can work on less important tasks, that need less focus. I have found this method works really well to keep my focus and productivity at a high level.
Just like in a race, you need to alternate between effort and rest.
4. Take the procrastination bull by the horns
Procrastination is a tricky beast and it affects people differently.
I am of course not immune to procrastination. I have learned not to ignore it as it generally tells you that something is not quite right.
It often means I haven’t really sold myself on the task at hand. Procrastination is my brain telling me that there are so many other things that I could be doing instead, things that are more aligned with my skills and goals.
To combat procrastination, first and foremost, I think through and plan my activities. They are all parts of a big plan and have their importance. Once I am done with my weekly planning, I have a list of activities that I am sold on. I have clear reasons for working on these tasks.
When the execution comes, I know why I am doing specific tasks. I can focus on the outcome and the big picture. And I am motivated and generally passionate about this outcome. That means procrastination doesn’t come in the way. I tackle it at the onset. I literally take it out of the equation at the planning phase.
Unfortunately, procrastination still comes back on a regular basis. When it does, I have two choices.
Either I quickly remind myself of the likely outcome if I execute on the planned tasks versus what will come out of procrastination. It helps getting back on track in many cases.
Or, if that doesn’t work, I pause and reflect on the situation. If I really struggle on a task, that means either I am not fully convinced of its utility or I don’t have the skills or knowledge to make good progress. In that case, I make a decision to:
- Ask for help
- Delegate the task
- Think it through and make adjustments to the task or my perspective to end up with a task I am fully sold on
This is what I mean by taking the procrastination bull by the horns. It is not an easy task and the secret is to plan your life and consequently your days, weeks and months so that everything you do brings you closer to your goals. By doing the hard work of planning upfront, I can take care of procrastination at the onset.
If you are motivated to finish the race, you will not stop to read a book on the way. Or would you?
Finally, this brings us to the last item: urgency. In a race, you are running against time, which means there is a clear sense of urgency!
Lack of urgency is one of the recurring causes of losing focus. Because a paper has to be turned over in two months only, we are not really focusing on it. Other more urgent items keep getting in the way and delaying progress on the paper. Then, when the deadline is very near, like the next day, we rush it through as the adrenaline and the sense of panic brings us into high focus.
Basically, having only a long term goal means that it’s nearly impossible to fully focus on it.
The solution for me has been to create short term goals, so I can stay focused on a clear target. If I have to write a 20 pages long paper within two months, I create a weekly milestone of 2.5 pages. Which then converts to a daily target of half a page. If I meet my daily target every day of the week, I can take the week-end off!
And when I miss a daily target, I can see straight away that I am getting off track and take corrective actions. If I haven’t met the half a page target one day, I write one full page the next day to compensate. And if I have only written 1.5 pages during the week, the consequence is that I will have to write one page at the week-end. That means less time off. The pressure is on!
Any time I miss a target, there is a direct negative impact (more work the next day, or less free time at the week-end). Setting my mind on these mini-targets, reminding myself of the consequences and keeping a sense of urgency in everything I do is a big boost on my focus.
In the end, after over an hour of effort, I made it to the end of the race. I was focused on one task, motivated, I was running against time and I had a crowd to cheer me up and keep the pressure on.
Also, I guess not having mobile phones or Facebook in the eighties helped me staying focused.