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The Top 5 Enemies of Focus and How to Overcome Them

Because I’m feeling amazingly productive this week, I though I’d share a little bit of the path I took to get here.

My Struggle With Focus

I don’t think anyone would describe me as “really focused and insanely productive.” They’d probably say, I’m a hard worker, intelligent, and always looking to provide great service.

But I’ve never been super focused. My mind wanders. My legs bounce. My eyes drift outside the window and into thoughts of imaginary worlds with pools of purple waters lit by starlight. I’m a hopeless day dreamer. I love the feeling of falling into my own mind and exploring another world I’ve made up, or another person I’ve created. That’s why creative writing works well for me, and how I’m able to pass a whole lot of time basically doing nothing other than stare out a window.

Business stuff? Not so easy. I have to get into that elusive flowthat’s so essential to great work, and that can be tough. I love copywriting, but it requires much more focused mental facilities than dreaming up new animals.

So now that I work solo, the only person I can count on is myself. There’s no more management to “just check-in” and see how I’m coming along, remind me about an upcoming deadline, or approve my work before it’s passed up the chain.

That type of independence is freeing and terrifying. And if you don’t have a good relationship with focus and productivity, it can also be damning.

How I Used to Think Focus and Productivity Worked

When I first started working, many years ago, I thought focus was staring at my computer all day, tip-tapping away on my keyboard and poof I have been productive created something amazing.

I figured if I did enough stuff, whatever that was, in no particular order, shit would just get done and it would be like magic — my “To Do” pile had magically morphed into a “It’s Finished” pile and somehow a Kit Kat bar had also instantly appeared on my desk.

But slowly I realized, the hard way, because that’s really the best way to learn things — you know, repeatedly banging your head against the same wall — focus has to be built deliberately, and doesn’t actually last over a ten-hour time period.

How It Actually Works

So instead of looking at focus as this thing which will automatically happen, and then I will be a productivity master, I broke it down and started looking at it very differently.

Before I could be productive, I had to come to terms with my inability to sit down and focus. And that meant I had to be painfully honest with myself.

Top 5 Struggles with Focus

Struggle #1: Distraction

Since my mind is made to wander, I have to limit distraction as much as possible.

How I fixed it: Sit in a sad little corner

That means I do best if I sit in an area where I can’t see people or movement. Facing a blank wall works really well, sadly. If I’m not somewhere with a blank wall to longingly stare at, I try to find a corner that has the least amount of commotion going on. Somewhere in the back of the room, where I can basically hole myself up.

I also listen to Noisli, which is an ambient noise generator. I put my headphones in and listen to birds, blowing leaves, and the low hum of white noise. And speaking of headphones, I recently bought noise-cancelling headphones. This was one of my most productive days ever. I could hear nothing but the music I was playing, and it made me feel like the only things that existed were my daily goals and the London Symphony.

Struggle #2: Boredom

I get bored. It’s just the way I am. I might be in the middle of a task, hit a wall, and start thinking about what I need to keep going. This happens quite a bit when I write these blog posts. My instant reaction is to do “research” for the thing I am struggling on. “Research” is a nice term for dicking around. When this happens my research articles somehow magically turn into my Facebook account and Twitter feed.

How I fixed it: Block tempting sites and work for short blocks of time

So I shut that shit down. I use Rescue Time to block access to sites that I have told it to flag as “very unproductive”. It won’t take me to the site if I type it in, and it even gives me a vaguely Catholic guilt trip, with a quote about how being productive makes you a better person. I’m paraphrasing there, but you get it.

I also use it to schedule 75 minute work blocks. My brain does not focus for longer than an hour and fifteen minutes. I have tested this. Multiple times.

At one hour and fifteen minutes my brain trots off somewhere fun and my hands type in, “Best New Spring Sweaters 2016” and I’m on crying because they don’t ship to Thailand and I have nothing else to complain about because my life is really just not hard, and I know it, so dammit if I can’t find something to whine about.

Struggle #3: No data on myself

It’s hard to know if you’re doing well if you don’t have data. But it’s easy to feel productive if you feel busy — until you look at what you’ve actually accomplished. We all know that busy and productive aren’t same thing. So, if you’re able to see where your time is going, you’re much more accountable.

How I fixed it: Site tracking

So now I use Rescue Time to tracks all the sites I’ve visited in the background and sends me productivity updates each week. No longer can I deny the video I just watched of three puppies jumping in leaves! Because there it is, listed in all its fluffy glory — YouTube, 30 minutes. Sigh.

It hurts, but this way I know if I’m doing better or worse than last week, based on the work goals I’ve plugged in. It even tells me my productivity percentage for the day!

Have you caught on yet that Rescue Time is basically my manager?

I knew I couldn’t do it myself so I outsourced it to a computer. Because it’s 2016 bitches, and we’re living in the future!

Struggle #4: A long to-do list

I love me a to-do list. It makes me feel powerful. Put together. Intelligent. And many other strong-sounding adjectives.

But in reality, a to-do list is kryptonite. It’s never going to be finished. The point of a to-do list isn’t to do all the things, but to keep a running tab of things to be done.

It took me a lot of sad and unproductive time to figure that out.

How I fixed it: Set only one to three goals per day

I only set one to three goals per day. That’s all. Any more than that and my daily schedule looks like this:

9:00 am — I feel so awesome after my workout and breakfast! I’m going to be soooooooo productive today! Who’s checking off all 12 things on her to-do list? This girl. Start singing “Everyday I’m Hustlin’” to myself.

10:00 am - Where is that file?

10:20 am - Seriously, where is the damn thing? How is it _not_showing up in search?

10:30 am - Foooound it. Awesome-ness resumed. Level up.

10:33 am - Oh my god. I remember why I didn’t finish this yesterday. Power through Marisa, power through.

11:45 am - Break. Holy shit. It’s 11:45. I’m not even halfway done. Start doubting I’ll ever become wildly successful. Consider giving up and just getting a temp job that I hate. Decide that I’d rather die trying than die of boredom.

1:00 pm - Lunch. And maybe a drink depending on my level of existential breakdown.

2:20 pm - Back to the task. I’m gonna do it!

4:00 pm - I’m done! I’m so awesome. And exhausted. How is it four o’clock already? One thing? I did one thing today?!?!

If I only have one goal per day, then I only worry about that _one_thing. Today, my goal was “Research and write blog post on focus and productivity.” That’s it. If I finish this one post, I’ve had a productive day. Tomorrow, my one goal is to edit and post this article.

This has been awesome for motivation. Anything in addition to finishing my daily goal is a bonus, and I don’t have to worry about all the other crap just sitting on my to-do list. That will wait until another day.

Struggle #5: Lack of big results

When we make incremental progress, we don’t usually realize that we’re moving forward at all. This is part of the reason that so many people find it hard to do deliberate practice.

When we don’t see big things happening at work or in our business, it’s easy to think that we’re doing things wrong or that nothing is actually getting done.

How I fixed it: Track small results and get excited about them

When I meet my one goal for the day, I get excited about it. I tell someone, a friend or my mom or maybe that guy who’s trapped in the elevator with me, all of my small wins I had that day.

If I did additional work on top of my goal, like creating a script, answering business questions from other freelancers, or setting up outlines for my guest blog posts, I recognize that and celebrate it, too.

That way, I never feel like I didn’t get anything done. I know exactly what I did, and ending on a positive note will make me happier to start back up in the morning.

Three Steps to Be More Focused and Productive

Focus and productivity is a skill just like anything else. That means it requires practice, failure, and determination if you want to get better. I’ve gone over the biggest productivity and focus killers, but I’m sure you can think of a few more that are unique to you.

So, if you’re looking to be more productive, here are three steps you need to take. You can do all this in a couple of hours and put together a new plan for the next day:

Make a list identifying your areas of weakness. Be honest with yourself. Do you daydream? Procrastinate even on simple tasks?

Make a list identifying your strengths. Are you determined? Are you great at following through? Are you able to zone out entirely when working?

Offload your weaknesses on something else, so you don’t have to worry about them. I use Rescue Time because it solves almost all of my productivity struggles. Once you know where you could use a little help, it will be easier to set systems in place to fix them, and find apps that can help you manage time the way that works best for you.

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