Yay, you! You’ve crafted some longterm goals and broken them down into shorter term goals with an action plan! You’ve set realistic expectations for this month, this week, this day and communicated them to the people who need to know them. Now you’re ready to tackle the most important part of doing the thing: actually doing the thing. There are zillions of books and blogs and Instagrams to tell you what apps and notepads and planners you need to be productive, and there’s value in many of those conversations, but none of those tools are going to be effective unless you know how and when to use them. Here’s what research has proven you actually need to do to focus and succeed.
Set aside time to plan your weeks and days
If you wake up in the morning and roll out of bed and spend your day doing the things causing your phone and email and Slack to ding and flash the loudest, you are not making the most of your one wild and precious life. Making planning a part of your day will help you feel calmer and increase your productivity (doing the things you actually want to do). Whatever your goals are that you set last week, make sure you’ve got a firm plan to take action on them at least weekly. If you’ve got that baking competition coming up, you’re planning to practice your scones for three hours on Sunday, which means you need to go grocery shopping on Thursday, which means you need to spend an hour Tuesday researching recipes. If you know all that on Monday, it’ll make it easier to say no to impromptu drinks invitations or your boss asking you to take on a last-minute project that’s going to require you to work late every night.
Get to know your mind and your body
One of the most important parts of staying focused when you’re settling down to work is consistently doing the prep on your mind and body when you’re not working. #Determination alone isn’t going to get you where you want to go — especially if you, like me (and one in five Americans), wrestle with anxiety, depression, ADD, etc. You’ve got to take your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health seriously. There are lots of ways to do that; no one thing or combination of things works the same for every person. However, a vast body of research offers some suggestions.
Doing mindful meditation for as few as ten minutes a day can improve focus, general well-being, and make you more resilient to stress. Regular exercise improves your mood, sleeping patterns, anxiety, depression, and makes your brain work better. Drinking lots of water and eating fruits and vegetables and protein enhances your state of mind and your cognition. Sleep is absolutely essential for focus. There are also just things you learn through trial and error: How much or how little caffeine gives you energy vs. gives you an anxiety attack. What time of day your mind is most alert. What environment you can concentrate best in. What medications work for you. What supplements have a positive effect on your body and your mind.
Maybe you can’t do all of these things, for a variety of reasons. That’s okay! Can you try one of them? Can you download a free meditation app and try it for five minutes a day for a week? Can you do a beginner’s yoga video from YouTube for ten minutes? Can you leave your phone in another room at night to get rid of the blue light and remove the temptation to scroll Instagram until the sun comes up? Can you add one fruit or vegetable a day to your diet? Can you drink more water?
If you want to focus better, you absolutely have to take care of your mind and your body when you’re not explicitly hunkered down trying to achieve your goals.
It’s a truth of the human condition that everyone is starring in a movie about their own life in their own mind. That means, for the most part, that your friends and family and co-workers and managers and teachers and pastors and partners and acquaintances and social media mutuals are doing what they need and want to do to fulfill their own desires and meet their own goals and find their own happiness. Which means you better have some firm and serious boundaries in place or your entire life will be spent as a guest character in someone else’s story.
You’ve already gotten a jump start on this because you’ve created some reasonable expectations for yourself and communicated them with the people who will likely need things from you, which means your boundaries are taking shape in your head. Here are three more ways to firm them up.
1. Learn to say no
Listen, I know how good it feels to say yes. I know how self-righteous it feels to be the hero or the martyr who steps up again and again and does the thing no one else is willing or able to do. I know how easy it is to take on the tasks you know will please people. I get it. I really, really do. But if you don’t learn to say no, you’re going to fail. It’s that harsh and that simple. You’ll say yes to the point that you’re only doing what other people want you to do, which is failing yourself and your own goals; and you’ll keep saying yes until you’re so overloaded with other people’s stuff you’re failing them too.
This goes for emotional tasks as well as physical ones. Learning to not stop everything you’re doing to, once again, be a therapist to your friend or parent or co-worker or boss who’s always having some kind of crisis is just as important as not halting in the pursuit of your goals to start pursuing their goals. “I’d love to talk with you about this, but I’m working on something that’s going to take up the rest of my afternoon. If you still need to talk about it tomorrow, I can set aside some time to do that,” is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to say.
Start saying no to very small things, and then to regular small things, and then to medium-sized things. Once you see how much it improves your quality of life, and how misplaced your pride is in self-sacrifice, it’ll become a lot easier to say no to even the biggest things. Your energy and your time are valuable and finite resources, and they belong to you. You get to chose how to spend them.
2. Establish your workspace
Whether you’re working in bed, in an open-floor office plan, in your own office or home kitchen or backyard workshop, find a way to let people know that this is your space and your time and you will be focusing on your priorities while you’re here. You can explain it upfront, or explain it when you’re interrupted. You can wear headphones. You can put up a sign. You can shut the door. You can tell people you won’t be responding to emails or texts or shared workspace notifications for a certain amount of time. If you jump at every ding and rush to every Slack channel that lights up and click on every new email as it comes through and stop to answer everyone’s questions as soon as they ask them and take on whatever task they ask you to do, you’re never going to get anything worthwhile done (or it’s going to take you ten times longer than it should to do it).
3. Take time to take care of yourself
Instead of, as I mentioned last week, pushing yourself to the absolute edge and then flaking on everything you’ve promised to do, take care of yourself preemptively and proactively. Take days off, take time to go to the doctor, take time during the day to exercise or meditate or stretch or go for a walk or look away from your computer. It’s much easier to evaluate how you’re doing with your goals, and to contemplate saying no, and to reaffirm that your time and space are your time and space when you’re proving to yourself and to other people that you care about yourself enough to regularly do what you need to do to feel good. Also, feeling good makes you want to keep doing the things that make you feel good, so figure out what those things are and make a habit of them.
Become a single-tasker
Multitasking is a myth. No one can do it. Neuroscience has proven time and time again that your brain cannot do multiple things at once and if you’re rapidly switching back and forth from thing to thing, constantly changing your focus, you’re losing little bits of data every single time. It’s less efficient, it causes us to make more mistakes, and over time it takes a toll on our mental and physical health.
When you think you’re multi-tasking, what you’re actually doing is rapid-fire stopping and starting and stopping and starting and stopping and starting individual tasks. Imagine what stepping on the gas and slamming the breaks and stepping on the gas and slamming the brakes and stepping on the gas and slamming the brakes would feel like in a car. That’s what you’re doing to your brain and ultimately to your body when you try to focus on multiple things at once.
Just as important: Don’t get caught up in other people’s attempts at multi-tasking, even your partners’ or your boss’. If someone else is ping-ponging around and expecting you to ping-pong around with them, you have to reset their expectations of you. Nearly everyone thinks that whatever they’re doing at the moment is the most important thing anyone could be doing at the moment, but if you stop to help someone who is convinced they can defy their brain’s proven limitations and actually multi-task, you’re interrupting your workflow and the progress you’re making toward your goals, and for who even knows how long? They’re probably going to zip off again in five minutes and return every half hour for five minutes at a time and ruin your entire plan for the day. Set those boundaries. Say no.
Multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness, and as such, it provides no room for perspective. Group similar tasks together. Use a timer if you need to. Do one thing at a time.
Most people don’t differentiate from the sound of a text message and a baby crying, a Slack alert and a fire alarm. We rush to every noise that begs for our attention. If you’re really going to do good work and make progress toward your goals while maintaining your acquaintance with calmness, you’ve got to eliminate the flashing and noise of every clang that isn’t essential. Social media notifications, Slack alerts, text messages, non-emergency phone calls: they can wait.
Distractions also take place in the form of untidy workspaces. If there are multiple stimuli in your line of vision, it’s harder for your brain to focus. Science also suggests that people feel more relaxed when they’re not surrounded by clutter.
And, of course, noise. If you even think you have ADD, prioritize figuring out how noise affects you. (I’ve written more about that here.)
Most of these skills — and they are skills, you have to develop them — don’t come naturally to people, especially to women who have been taught that their time and attention and even their bodies belong to the people around them. But the more you deliberately work on doing them, the better you’ll get at them. I promise.
Next week: What happens when we inevitably fork it all up?