Focus – The productivity solution

There is no big secret to productivity. If you want to be more productive, you need to get more work done faster. Now, being productive doesn’t guarantee you will be effective. Producing a lot will more you very productive, but getting the right work done will more you effective. But for right now, we will just focus on being productive; I will assume you can solve the problem of choosing what to work on, once you can produce consistently.

How do you get more work done …faster? Well, it all starts with focus. Focus is critical to getting any task done. Right now, I am focused on writing this article on Focus. I have got my headphones on, I am ignoring my email or any other notification. I am looking at my screen and typing, because I know this article could take me all day to write, or it could take me a couple of hours. It all depends on focus.

In this article, we will discuss what focus is, why it is so important, and most importantly – how you can get more of it. Resist the temptation to flip the pages ahead put your phone on vibrate, and let’s get started.

What is focus?

Put simply, focus is the opposite of distraction. The problem is we live in a world that’s so distracting that many people don’t actually know what true focus is. It’s easy to work an entire day and never reach a point of distraction, and interruptions tend to rob us of focus and make us forget what it even feels like to be focused. Let me take a second to remind you what true focus is – in case you’re having trouble recalling the last time you had it. Remember the last time you were working on a really hard problem? Perhaps you were trying to fix some bug or trying to figure out why your code didn’t work. Time seemed to fly by as you forwent food, drink, and sleep laboring at your task. Anyone who dared distract you were greeted by an angry growl and you poured all your attention into a single task.

That’s focus. We’ve all felt it from time to time, but the problem is that most of the time we aren’t focusing. Most of the time, we’re in quite the opposite mode of working – we’re easily distracted and can’t seem to settle down into the task we know we should be doing. Focus, like many things in life, is a game of momentum. It’s harder to get focused, but relatively easy to remain focused once you’ve pushed the ball up the hill.

The magic of focus

I don’t usually believe in magic pulls, but I do believe focus is the magic pill for productivity. If I could focus, I’d whip out the credit card and max it out, knowing full well the return on my investment was all but guaranteed. Focus is that important.

The Problem is, without focus tasks end up getting stretched out over a very long period of time. Distractions that break out focus – or prevent us from ever getting it – end up costing us more than the time they take away. We have discussed this more in another article when we talk about multitasking, but many tasks we take on have a context-switching cost. When we switch from one task to another, we end up having to regain some lost ground before we can begin again.

Focus is important because it keeps us from having to keep laying that foundation over and over again when we’re trying to work on a task. it can take some time to get everything set in our minds so that we can actually perform at our peak. Think of it like a car getting up to highway speed. It takes a few gear shifts before that car can maintain a highway speed. If you have to constantly stop and start, you’ll be forced to go at a much slower speed overall. it takes time to get that car back up to highway speed again and shift it into fifth gear. But once you’re there, you can cruise along with very little effort.

I’m sure you’ve probably experienced situations where you were able to work very hard, yet it seemed effortless. In those situations, it often takes some time to get to that point, but once you’re there, you can really get a lot done in a short period of time (unless you’re cashing your tail trying to track down an elusive bug).

Getting more focus

I probably don’t have to take any more time to convince you of how important focus is. But you’re probably wondering how you can get more of it. (No, sorry, I haven’t figured out how to get it in pill form, but I will let you know if I do.) In fact, it is pretty critical that you learn how to get focused because most of the rest of this section will be of little help to you without the ability to stay focused. I can tell you all the productivity hacks and techniques in the world, but if you can’t sit down and focus on a task, it won’t do you much good.

Now is a good time as any to put this into practice. Is there some task you can pick up right now that will take you around 15-30 minutes? Put a bookmark on this article and do it now. But concentrate on doing it with complete focus. Don’t think about anything else, just work on the task. See how that feels.

As I said before, focus has its own kind of momentum. If you want to get into a focused mode, you have to realize that it isn’t an instant switch that you can flip. You’d be kind of a strange person if you could when you sat down at your computer and in an instant, your eyes glazed over as you started typing frantically.

To get into a focused mode, you have to push through the initial pain of contorting your mind to a single task. And unless your task is something you thoroughly enjoy doing, it’s pretty painful – at first. But that’s the key. You have to realize that the pain and discomfort are only temporary and don’t really last long.

When I first sat down to write this article, I felt a burning urge to check my email, urinate, and get some coffee all at some time –and I don’t even drink coffee anymore. My brain was doing anything it could to stop me from focusing. I have to subdue it and force my fingers to start typing. Now I am in a zone where I could keep typing for hours –well, maybe half hours. The point is that I had to sit down and force myself to get going to get into a focused mode.

Most of the techniques I use to be productive are rotted in this backbone of productivity, reaching a point of focus.

It’s not as easy as it sounds

Now, I may have made it seem a little easier than it is. Focusing isn’t as simple as just sitting down on the keyboard and typing. You’ve got to actively fight against the distractions that will code at you when you are upshifting to the high gear that will send you cruising. Fighting these distractions requires some free thought.

Before you begin a task, make sure you have done everything you can to protect yourself from interruption -both internal and external. Silence your phone, close distracting browser windows, disable popups on your screen, and you may even consider handing a sign up on your door or cubicle entrance that says you are busy. You might think I am joking about the sign part, but I am absolutely serious. Your coworker and boss might be a bit resistant at first, but once you start producing like a madman, they will understand –in fact, they will want to buy some of your magic pills.

Okay, so you are ready to start working. You sit down at your computer and start typing. No distractions in sight, but wait –oh, what that? You can’t think of what to say. You feel like you just have to see if someone liked your code on GitHub. Stop it. Don’t ever think about it. Now it’s up to you to use your willpower to remain glued to the task at hand. At first, the focus will be forced, but eventually, the momentum will build up and carry you through. Your goal is just to survive the first 5 or 10 minutes. If you can make it to 10 minutes, chances are you will have enough momentum to continue. At that point, even a minor distraction will be unlikely to break your focus.


Taking action

  • Think about a time when you were extremely focused. What did it feel like? What caused you to get into that focused mode? What eventually caused you to break the focus?
  • Time to practice focus. Pick a task that will take you a half hour or more and block off the time needed to complete that task, giving it complete focus. Force yourself to concentrate on that task and that task only. Make a mental note of what it feels like when you’re in the “zone”.
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