Staying Focused

Category: Strategy

One of the questions I hear most often is “How can I stay focused?”


Those who know me well know that my focus is impressive. As a teenager I once sat at the breakfast bar reading. My sister was on the other side of my book talking to me. Well, actually, talking at me because I was so focused on my book and reading that I never knew she was there until she grabbed my book and yanked it out of my hands. That’s the kind of focus that I am capable of. Perhaps that is why so many people ask me this question.

However, the demands of running a small business and still attempting to have a life can leave me, and I’m betting you also, frazzled. As a result we run from task to task in an attempt to get it done. Instead of marking it completed though, we get it just done enough that we can move on to the next task. This then complicates the matter by leaving a trail of disarray behind us. Files that are piled in a corner, an email in box that contains hundreds or thousands of emails, and a voicemail box with thirteen messages are the detritus we leave as evidence that we have been productive.

In reality these not quite finished tasks weigh us down, both psychically and physically. On the emotional level, we know that someday we need to file those files, empty the email inbox, and take care of the voicemail box as well. This nags at us and distracts our focus.

On the practical level, they eat up our time every single time we are forced to wade through the piles looking for that elusive file, email, or voicemail because we are ready to work on it. And, if you are like me, as you are searching for document A, you also locate file B, and to do item C. Then, before you know it you are following up on task D having completely forgotten about document A and your highest priority.

Because of these lingering effects, the first priority for me when I find that I am not focusing well is to take an administrative day and clear all this stuff out. I label the files and place them in the file cabinet where they belong. I ruthlessly sort through the accumulated emails and delete, read, and reply as needed. And then I listen to the accumulated voicemails and delete or respond as required.

Usually these piles have taken a long period of time to grow so large, so I complete the clearing out by seeing what other extraneous material has accumulated on my desk and immediate work area and clear them as well. And I end it all with a good dusting.

Are you at this moment thinking I am crazy? That perhaps, I have no idea what it takes to run a business?  I do know. And I know myself also. I know that with a clean, clear desk I have fewer distractions and it is easier for me to focus.

At the same time as I am clearing my work area, I am also working on my mind. I don’t clear these piles mindlessly. Instead, I work slowly and deliberately, taking the time to be present with the task. As I see a job file for a client that went well, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been of assistance. As I place a book back on the bookshelf that I learned something important from or that was a useful resource for me in my research I am grateful for my entire library of books. I may even take a moment to stroke the book bindings of some of my favorite books.

As I work I also work on my priorities.

  • What is most important and urgent?
  • What is important and I want to do it soon, but just not today?
  • And what are the great ideas I want to pursue, but I’m just not sure how to fit them in yet?
  • Most importantly, what are the distractors that are not in alignment with my goals? (This should go without saying, but I am saying it anyway – these have to be eliminated!)

Once I have straightened up my work area, grounded myself in the present, and identified my priorities I am prepared to focus.

First, I go through my important and urgent list to select those tasks that are most important for me to work on. I evaluate if there is enough time for me to accomplish them all. If not, then I select only those that I know that I will have enough time to accomplish. This is what I will focus on today. The rest go back in my file drawer for tomorrow. For me, out of sight is out of mind.

Then I prioritize the list, assign time limits, and get to work. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, it’s simple but not easy.

One of the recent changes I have made to enhance my focus is to purchase subliminal music by Steven Halpern that I play while I am working. For example, as I write this blog, I am listening to his CD entitled Enhancing Creativity.

Another important rule is to eliminate as many extraneous distractions as possible. For me, this means avoiding email and not logging into FaceBook.

Finally, to free my mind from constantly checking the clock when I am working on time limited projects, I set a timer. I have found the Insight Timer app on my iPhone to be wonderful because it does not tick like a kitchen timer. In addition, I can add a 5 minute warning so I can begin to wrap up my work before the allotted time has expired. And I enjoy the soulful bong of the bell as opposed to the jarring ding of a timer.

To summarize, following are the most important tactics I use to enhance my focus:

  • Clear up all the accumulated detritus from days gone by
  • Become grounded and clear on my priorities
  • Schedule time to work on those projects that are most important
  • Eliminate or minimize annoying daily distractions
  • Use a timer to track my time.

Remember, more time does not always result in more work accomplished. By being focused you can usually accomplish more in less time. And one last warning, the job is not completed until you have put everything away.

So what can you clear up today so that you can focus tomorrow?