When Bill Gates and Warren Buffet met for the first time, they were asked what they believed to be the single most important contributing factor to their success. Both men gave the same one-word answer: FOCUS.
In a world in which the average person checks his or her phone every six seconds, how do we maintain focus? Leadership coach Peter Bregman believes that where most of us fail in executing our vision is not in the planning but the follow-through—avoiding the pitfalls of distraction, procrastination, and ‘the allure of unproductive busyness’.
Here are three simple steps to stay on track and kick ass, whatever the endeavor!
Bregman suggests identifying about five priorities for the year, including professional and personal goals. Take the time to plan each day in advance by writing out your to-do list within each of your areas of focus. Include a sixth category for miscellaneous—admin and OPP (other people’s priorities in this instance)—which not be taking up more than 5% of your time. Writing your to-dos within the six categories ensures that most of what you’re doing is in service of your long-term objectives, and allows you to monitor and redistribute your time between them if necessary.
Bregman emphasizes making this planning a ritual, before opening your computer. How often do we start the workday in our email inbox, only to look up from fighting fires to see the morning gone?
Then take your to-do list and SCHEDULE IT. Studies show that people who decided where and when they were going to do something were WAY more likely to get it done. For optimal focus, time-management experts generally recommend starting the day with priority and creative tasks, as most people’s energy and concentration is at its highest in the morning.
2. SINGLE TASK
Tim Ferriss, whose podcast ‘deconstructs the habits of world-class performers’, has observed that
The common characteristic of the people who had the most time and the highest income is the ability to single task.
Commit to doing one thing at a time with full attention. While multi-tasking gives the illusion of productivity, it is actually ‘switch-tasking’ to the brain. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains the phenomenon as follows:
It takes more energy to shift your attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus. That means people who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it…
Perhaps most important, multitasking by definition disrupts the kind of sustained thought usually necessary for problem solving and creativity.
The human brain evolved to notice novelty, which means that our attention is easily hijacked by new stimuli. This response may keep us safe if a wild animal suddenly charges at us, but it’s also what makes the short-term reward of a dinging phone so hard to resist, and multitasking effectively addictive. In order to accomplish our bigger visions, we need to actively train ourselves to forgo the short-term fix in order to reap the long-term rewards of focusing.
We can facilitate focus by using technology to avoid external distractions, and, with practice, train our wandering minds to limit internal distractions. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, believes that just 20 minutes a day of deep focus can be transformative. A regular meditation practice has also been shown to gradually rewire the brain to develop better concentration.
3. RESET + REVIEW
Bregman’s management system involves setting an alarm every hour to check in on how you’ve spent the last hour, and readjust if necessary.
At the end of the day, shut off your computer, clean off your desk, and review how you did. How can you be more productive tomorrow? Any to-do’s left undone go on the next day’s list, although Bregman counsels not carrying them over more than three days.
Training the mind not to wander is useful not only for professional success, but for our general well-being. As Daniel Goleman notes in Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence, people’s moods tend to skew towards the unpleasant when unfocused:
While the mind sometimes wanders to pleasant thoughts or fantasy, it more often seems to gravitate to rumination and worry.
Being engaged in a task is a precursor to the flow state that some psychologists believe to be the key to happiness. And focus begets further focus: brain scans have shown that subjects focused on something have brain circuits deselected for emotional preoccupations, which is the most powerful type of distraction.
If we are what we think, then cultivating the ability to choose what we think about is one of the most powerful ways to influence the quality of our days and our lives. In the words of science writer Jonah Lehrer:
In recent decades, psychology and neuroscience have severely eroded classical notions of free will. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind. And yet, we can still control the spotlight of attention, focusing on those ideas that will help us succeed.