Seems like this should be straight forward.   Trust me, for me it isn’t.

You’d think that I could just flip a switch.  One moment I am in la la day dream land.  The next –  perfect focus on the task at hand.

Over the last few years (especially after turning 40 in 2012) focus and concentration have been harder for me to … oh look.. a squirell.  Anyway.. what was I saying?… Right…  I used to lose myself in what I called “The Zone.”  While in the zone, time did not exist. I never got hungry, never had to pee, and I had perfect clarity of what I wanted to get accomplished. The days I was in the zone were very very good days.

Others call this state “flow” – who am I to argue – however, I still like “The Zone” better. Whatever it is actually called I think we can all agree that we all need to be in it more often.  Here is a link to a TED talk about how the state of Flow is the secret to happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (wow.. what a last name!).

Here is my set of tips that I use to get focused and, with any luck, get into the zone (you don’t necessarily get into The Zone when focused, but you can never get into The Zone without first having focus).

  1. Start with the Why
  2. Know the Outcome
  3. Visualize the Feeling of Done
  4. Set up Your Environment

1 – Start with the Why

Knowing that I must do some work is simply not enough for me to do that work. I need to connect it to a purpose and I do this by asking WHY 5 times.

Why (1) do I need to write this proposal?  So we can get work.  Why (2) do we need to get work?  So we can grow our business.  Why (3) do we want to grow our business?  So that we can build a company that benefits its employees and shareholders.  Why (4) do we want to do that? So that we have the freedom to live the life we want.  Why (5) do we want to have the freedom to live the life we want?  So we can be happy.

(Well, that was an overly dramatic example of the 5 WHY’s.  You get the point though.)

You might not even have to go 5 Why’s deep to find that motivational energy you need to connect before beginning whatever you’re doing.  If you find your mojo at 3 WHY’s go for it.

Starting with the WHY is the reason I plan my weeks every Sunday night (as best as I can) – connecting the week’s WHAT to the WHY.  Every morning I must remind myself to connect the WHAT to the WHY as well. The WHY is usually connected nicely to my ONE THING – which is a whole other post… however, for a shortcut, read this book:  The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results (which happens to be the book I have most gifted).

2 – Know the Outcome

This may sound obvious, however, you should always start something with the end in mind.  The goal is never to do the work.  The goal is to get to the results of the work.  Know what done looks like and you’ll have an easier time knowing what to do.  If you can’t clearly define the outcome you’re looking for as a result of the work – perhaps you really need to rethink WHY you’re doing the work and if that work needs to get done.

3 – Prime Yourself by Visualizing the Feeling of Done

Sometimes you need to prime yourself a bit. Priming simply is a word I use for motivating me to do something.  It’s like going to the gym.  You know it’s good for you and when you get there it will be awesome – however – sometimes getting there is just.. well, hard to do.  The solution?  Priming.

Priming is a simple mind exercise, which may sound hokey to many of you, but it totally works.  Simply, imagine yourself perfectly focusing on something.  Visualize how distractions seem to bounce off you.  How time stands still.  Envision you being super-charged, plowing through your work.  Tap into that feeling.

Why does this work?  I’m no scientist, but I have read that visualization techniques like I just described are interpreted by the brain as if they were really happening.  By the way, I still have to do the same thing when getting up at 5:30 in the morning to go the gym.  The first thing I ask myself is “What the hell am I doing?  I need sleep!” – then I remember to simply visualize being at the gym, destroying my workout, and grabbing on to that feeling.  That’s enough to have me get out of bed and head to the gym, which is all I really need to get that flywheel spinning.

4 – Set Up Your Environment

You are probably surprised at why I didn’t state this first.  For me, if I don’t accomplish steps 1-3 (above) – the environment I’m in doesn’t make a difference.  I could have the perfect environment for focus and still get nothing done.  If, however, I nail steps 1-3 – I only need to make little tweaks to my environment as my mind will be racing to get to the work already.  Here are those tweaks:

  1. Turn off distractions: In my world, this is difficult. I have to turn my phone on airplane mode, turn off email, and set my Windows 10 computer to Quiet Hours.  Any distraction will pull me away from my focus – and it takes me anywhere from 10-15 minutes to regain it.  Distractions kill me. Noises from conversations, sirens, airplanes, just about anything, will pull be out of focus and that never makes me happy.
  2. Put Up Your External Focus Indicators: I think the perfect example is putting on headphones.  When I am on a flight, I race to put on my headphones because it’s a sign of “please, don’t talk to me” without me having to be rude.  When you want to focus, tell people that you are going to focus.  Put on your headphones, send an email to coworkers saying “hey.. I’m going to be focusing for the next 2 hours.. please don’t bug me” or sick a sign on your door that says “Focus in progress”.
  3. Set a Timer: I find that setting a timer really helps me “get to it”.  I set the timer to around 20 minutes for most tasks.  As soon as the timer kicks in I immediately think “well, let’s see what I can do in 20 minutes”.  If 20 is just too long for you, set a timer for 10. It doesn’t matter.  I like the Pomodoro method for this very reason.

Remember, having focus isn’t an accident.  It is a deliberate action. Focus reflects willpower – which is a muscle that needs to continue to be developed.

Learning how to focus “on demand” is likely one of the most important skills you’ll have in your career.  Encapsulated in the some of the tips I give above will also help you make sure you are always focusing on the right thing as well.

Now, go focus on something.