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Stay focused

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Stay focused

Scott Miker

We all hear the advice to stay focused in life.  We all know that focus is key to success.  But how can we become more focused when there are so many things pulling at our attention? 

While it may seem that focus is only for times when you can shut the door to your office and think, it isn’t.  Focus needs to be something that you utilize whenever something important comes up so you can properly think through the problem you face to determine the best steps to take. 

First, we all need to understand the psychological concept of the Zeigarnik effect.  This is when items that you haven’t yet completed keep pulling at your attention.  In other words, if you have something hanging out there, it will draw more attention than an item that has been completed and checked off your to-do list. 

This means that whenever possible, we should work through problems to solutions.  Sure there are times when we should just think about it, or sleep on it before making a major decision.  But we shouldn’t take this procrastinating approach with every task throughout our day. 

This will instantly start to free up your mental capacity to be able to better focus on the problem you are currently facing.  Without the distraction of incomplete items, you are free to dive into problems and keep your attention on the matter at hand. 

But what if you are not able to complete the task immediately?  There are plenty of instances when you have to remember to do something in the future.  There are follow-up tasks.  There are items others complete that you have to wait on. 

These will continue to pull your focus and attention away if you aren’t careful.  The best way to get around this is to develop ways to complete the part of your task that you can complete and then use calendar reminders or some other reminder system to follow up on a future date.   

If you know that you can’t make a decision until you hear back from your boss next Tuesday, don’t let this item hold your attention until next Tuesday.  Instead, put a calendar reminder for next Tuesday.  This will allow you to stop thinking about it now.  In your mind, it is complete. 

There are many ways to remain focused.  One of the major ways is to make sure tasks are taken to completion as often as possible.  The fact that open tasks take up mental bandwidth means that it will be harder to focus when we do not “close-out” items throughout the day. 

Another problem is when we have multiple items come at us all at once.  We have to do 10 things, all of them important and urgent.  What do we do?

We can’t do all 10 at the same time.  Multitasking is a myth that says we can simply divide up our attention.  But we can’t do this with complex tasks.  Ask us to chew gum, walk down the hall, and carry a conversation and we have no problem. 

But ask us to do our taxes while simultaneously writing instructions for a work project and also carrying a conversation with a family member about an upcoming vacation and you will quickly see that instead of multitasking, you simply jolt your attention to each task, back and forth.  But as you do, you likely have to back up and retrace what you already did.

In these instances, the best way to proceed is to have a way to log tasks.  It could be a simple to-do list, a calendar event with various items needing attention, a backlog, or a complex list of projects and sub tasks.  But whatever you are using, find ways to take some new, important, urgent task and rank it among the other important, urgent tasks.  Then simply choose an order to tackle them and get started. 

If another task arises, look at the list and fit it in.  Then move right back to the next ranked item.  You will be surprised at how much you can get done when you can focus and how much your attention gets pulled away if you aren’t careful. 

Being able to focus is important but most of us take it for granted.  We don’t think about it and so we go through our day having our attention pulled around without our ability to take this new information and quickly organize it to free up mental capacity to focus on the most important tasks.