How To FOCUS and Create High Quality Work Even If You’re Easily Distracted

by Mark Fisher

Even in normal times, it can be challenging to strap yourself down to your desk and bang out mission-critical projects: the demanding and creatively challenging work that will move your professional ball forward. And at the time of this writing, we’re deep in the lockdown period of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has added another wrinkle/ stressor to the question. 

The “deep work” that is most impactful to your business success usually requires uninterrupted attention and consumes a lot of brainpower. Yet many people struggle to stay on task.

Maybe you’ve thoughtfully designed the perfect schedule. You’ve crafted a plan of attack for your day that prioritizes the correct projects and tasks to achieve your most important goals. You sit down with a steaming cup of coffee, you start typing, and…

SQUIRREL!

SQUIRREL!

SQUIRREL!

Something has led you off the trail, it’s now 12pm, and you look back in horror at your proposed-but-abandoned schedule. You now have clear proof of your total lack of discipline and incompetence. So you reason, “eff it,” pull out your bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and start drinking.

Wait! 

Put. The bottle. DOWN.

(At least till later tonight.)

Here’s a simple framework for staying FOCUSED.

The Two Types of Distractions

First, acknowledge and address the two types of distractions:

  1. External 
  2. Internal

External interruptions come in two general flavors: physical humans or other analog disruptions, and digital interruptions from your phone or computer.

In the case of physical human interruptions, it’s merely a matter of communicating your boundaries. In the Days Before and the Days That Will Come, this may mean having a chat with co-workers to not barge into your office or interrupt you for a “quick question” when you’re doing your “deep work.” If you work from home, you can have this same chat with partners and roommates. 

(Admittedly, this is a bigger challenge if you have children, as by nature, they’re not as persuaded by your sob story about your need for focus or “your mission.” This will likely require some patience and consistency on your part, AND if at all possible, the help of another caregiver to run interference. And if that’s not possible… do your best, be kind to yourself and them, and take heart that children (generally) grow up.)

Handling digital interruptions is – at least in theory – much simpler. Turn your phone on silent or turn it off altogether. Make sure your computer isn’t beeping and that there are no browser tabs in sight to alert you of notifications or messages. Set up your workstation so the only thing you have to focus on is the project at hand.

But now we come to the larger problem for most humans: internal interruptions.

Please note that we are leaving aside the wonderful moments where the muses speak and you easily drop into flow. That scenario doesn’t require coaching. But as the saying goes, “amateurs wait for inspiration, pros just show up and get to work.”

Two Keys for Successful Execution

The effort required to do your most important work will, more often than not, create some discomfort. It’s important to note your brain registers this in a similar manner to physical discomfort. Understandably, it wants to avoid this pain. So there are two secrets to succeeding with your deep work and winning the battle with yourself:

 

  1. Start
  2. Keep Going

Ok, ok, I know that sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous, but hear me out, there’s some (actionable) nuance to consider here.

1) Start

Procrastination is often triggered because your brain wants to avoid the discomfort of the “activation energy” required to start your project. Since there’s a bigger energy cost to get started than to keep going, we want to do our best to push ourselves over the hill and BEGIN. The more we can bring down the “activation energy” and lubricate the process, the better off we’ll be. 

This thought process has created all sorts of useful tactics, like sleeping in your gym clothes if you’re reluctant to work out. After all, you now have one less barrier. You can toss on your sneakers and get after it. (You could also try sleeping with your sneakers too, but I’d encourage you to consider the cost/ benefit there, and at the least, discuss with any sleeping partners.)

For work projects, this may mean setting up your computer so the document you plan to work on is pre-set, and you’ve minimized your other browsers (and distractions) the night before. This will reduce temptation to “quickly check your email” and make it easier to start at the appointed time.

2) Keep Going

So to recap: 

  • We’ve communicated boundaries with other humans.
  • We’ve turned our buzzers and beepers on silent.
  • We’ve made it easier to start work on a given project and dived in.

And since it’s easier to keep working than start working, we should be golden, right?

But what if you find you can’t stay focused for long periods of time? 

It seems our phones have quite literally trained us to be distracted and soothe any discomfort with a quick check of social media, texts, or emails. Many of us will find our brains get “itchy” a few minutes into the task. We’ll suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to check Instagram, or Google a random question that came to mind, or order that thingamobobbie on Amazon. 

All very normal impulses! So here’s a solve:

The most classic time management technique to ensure dedicated focus is called the “pomodoro technique.” Set a timer for 25 minutes and commit to staying focused on the task at hand for the duration. Consider keeping a notebook handy to deposit any burning “to do’s” that your brain uses to tempt you. Trust me, you can wait till the end of the 25 minutes to look up the complete filmography of Tina Fey.

Now to be clear, there’s nothing magic about 25 minutes. If you want something more bite size, maybe you start with 15 or even 10 minute increments. Depending on your ability to stay buckled in and the project in question, you may want to go as long as 50 minutes.

Regardless, one of the key elements of this technique is taking a break. After you’ve made it through your 25 minutes, give yourself 5 minutes to break. Stand up and stretch, use the bathroom, go look out your window, play some hackysack (??), whatever. The key is to train yourself to experience the reward of several minutes of a brain break. Not only will the overall quality and quantity of your work improve by integrating breaks, it means each dedicated work session will feel less daunting. 

It can be hard to get started when all you can see is an infinite expanse of time with no end in sight. But most people can buckle it down for a dedicated 25 minutes of focus.

*******

And there you have a simple framework for successfully executing your plans, accomplishing your tasks intentionally, and pretty much making all your dreams come true.

Lemme know how it goes! Shoot me a DM on Insta.

For more about time management, check out our full course HERE.

Comments

4 Comments

  1. Quinn Henoch

    I read this as “set yourself up for success”. Very helpful, thank you Mark!

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      YES!

      Reply
  2. Melanie Tapson

    1. start
    2. keep going

    this is so brilliant in its simplicity, really! just fix the “getting started” and the “keeping going” problems and wham! you’re doing! I really needed to hear this, as silly as that sounds!

    much love!

    Reply
    • Mark Fisher

      Thanks Melanie!!

      Reply

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