Episode 30: Why Focus Isn’t Really Your Problem

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I think I get asked about productivity at least 5x a day from my Digital Insiders.

Oftentimes the question is framed as, “But how do you stay so focused? How do you manage social media and a business and all the things without missing a beat?!” I’m not trying to exaggerate…but I honestly have yet to see anyone who can produce at the same capacity I can. I’m actually starting to think I could become the best in the world at this stuff and not be using puffery to sell myself.

Everyone expects me to say something like….

  • I carefully batch my time 100% of the time
  • I use a timer to keep me on track
  • I have all kinds of distraction app blockers to prevent me from scrolling the newsfeed
  • I have notifications turned off
  • I stick to my plans
  • I use supplements and enormous amounts of caffeine

I do NONE of the above.

I don’t even drink coffee (just tea).

I have NO distraction apps, all notifications are ON, I don’t even know what I’d do with a timer if I had one.

So what the heck right? How am I pulling it ALL off?

That’s the reason I need to write a book on productivity, but lucky for you – I’m using these emails and blog posts as the way to get all my chapters written one at a time. 🙂 I wrote about the Paper Whiteboard about a week ago, and lots of you wrote back with photos of the sketchbook you got. AWESOME! Make sure to turn over a fresh sheet every day and use it for at least 60 days before you conclude if it’s working for you.

Today, I want to talk to you about focus.

Focus is not your problem, and I’ll show you why…but first, let’s talk about what focus is (a very non official definition).

Focus is the super power that pushes all the productive momentum you have onto ONE activity or task at a time. 

We all know that multi-tasking isn’t really a thing right – our brain just toggles quickly back and forth between whatever tasks we’re doing. Like right now for example – it’s 5am, I’m waiting at the airport, drinking tea, and writing to you. Technically three tasks but my brain is focused on one thing at a time.

If I observe my activity here, what’s actually happening is about every two minutes, I’m moving my focus off my writing and onto my tea. Then I take a sip. Then I move my focus again onto the clock to see if it’s time to board. Then I’m moving my focus to this dude snoring next to me. Then back to my screen again. It all happens in the course of five minutes, but I’ve basically moved my focus four times. About once a minute.

Imagine focus is like a little red laser light. Wherever that light hits, it creates a hole. You’re using this laser to drill some holes in the wall. Hole one goes great. Hole two goes great.

Then your dog barrels into the room chasing a cat and instead of staying focused on your task, your focus gets diverted and the laser moves quickly to the floor. Now there’s a hole in the floor.

What was the problem? Did you really need more focus? No. You didn’t need a deeper hole right? It wasn’t about your focus, it was about the MOVEMENT of it. In other words, we could say the act of refocus. If you had been able to quickly refocus your attention on the wall, there’d be no hole in the floor.

So many people in their quest for productivity try to improve their concentration and focus, thinking that will make them able to get more done. But it doesn’t solve the problem.

Just think about how annoying it would be if you were given more concentration and focus to dwell on how dirty your office is when you have only two hours to build a presentation you’re about to share with 10,000 of your ideal customers?

That focus on the dirty office is WILDLY unhelpful huh?

Focus isn’t your issue. The movement of it…is.

If I were to boil down the NUMBER one thing that contributes to my productivity, it’s that I’ve exercised the muscle of REFOCUS. It’s not easy to strengthen because it requires practice…and therefore…risk. Because you have to actually refocus a bunch of times to get good at it and some pretty horrible rabbit trails can occur as a result.

Can you keep writing a chapter of your book for example, pop off the screen and go on Facebook for a minute, and come back without too much “re-entry” time?

I can.

And it’s not just with Facebook. Anything really.

Toggling from Trello to Voxer to Slack to Facebook to kids to husband to writing….from project to project to project, it happens literally hundreds of times per day, every day.

Now…I will say that I DO have dedicated times of creativity where I deliberately close down other activities and keep my focus pointed in one direction for a longer period of time. I’ve talked about it some (and will more in the future), but I usually do that in the wee hours of the morning before anyone is around.

It’s great for book writing, curriculum design, and other heavy brain power tasks.

But there are weeks and weeks on end where for whatever reason, I can’t get that time to myself, and I still have to produce at an insane level. I have to figure out how to maximize small batches of time through the power of REFOCUS.

Here are few tips to get you started on the practice of refocus.

1. When you sit down to start something, identify the end goal (i.e. write an email). That becomes your bullseye. Like a machine that has a default setting, your bullseye is the default setting of your focus. Say it out loud so your brain and body all agree that said task is your bullseye.

2. Every time your attention is caught on something – the phone, another tab, a notification, the need to drink, kids, whatever it is…recognize that even if you DON’T entertain it, your focus was moved. It was just was. This is NORMAL. You’re not weird.

3. Once you see that, you can then make a conscious choice to either ENTERTAIN it, or return to default setting (the bullseye). The question will be HOW to determine when to engage, and when not to. That’s another exercise you’ll have to practice (and it’s for another email!).

That’s really the job here. Not about how to avoid distraction. It’s about how to create the rules you’ll use to determine the MOVEMENT of your focus.

As you can see – if I recommend to the world to start practicing refocus, I might be laughed right off the stage because what productivity specialist would tell you to actually entertain a distraction for the sake of practicing?

But I kinda am.

Here’s a real practical example of how I appear to look like I’m on Facebook all day and yet can get a ton of stuff done.

Unless it’s the wee morning creative hours, I have the Facebook tab open on another browser. It’s safe to say that every 10 minutes or so, my focus gets moved to that tab and I check the little number to see how many notifications there are. Focus moved right?

I have a game I play with myself – when that notification number gets to 10, I get to check it. So if it’s at 2 (which it is right now), my focus is literally moved for ONE second on that tab, and then I REFOCUS back to my writing. If I see it at 10, I allow my brain to wander over, look at the notifications, answer them, and then go back to my default setting.

I know what you’re thinking – just keep the tab OFF your browser and then you won’t be tempted to check? Oh really? I call bullsh*t. My phone is right next to me at all times. And even if my phone is on silent and my Facebook tab is nowhere to be found, I will still find my mind wandering every couple minutes looking for a distraction. Eventually, I will cave and open it up anyway.

And this isn’t about Facebook. It was just an example. Remove Facebook entirely and there are other things that will pull us away, even if we have all notifications off, app blockers deployed, etc. Because if we’re not trained in the art of refocus, we’ll look for something to distract us. Maybe it’s the laundry, maybe it’s a phone call, maybe it’s the mail, the TV, the dog, etc.

The brain’s need to be distracted will not go away. And the more you try to artificially resist what is natural to human nature, the more time you will take fighting against it.

At best, if you spend a lot of time practicing focused meditation, you might be able to get your brain to stay on one hard task for an hour. IF YOU’RE REALLY GOOD. But the reality is most of us will have at least 10 attention grabbing distractions in some form (not just Facebook) in a 60 minute work session.

So we can either beat ourselves up and fight against a very distract-able world, go off and live in the woods with very little Internet, or we can exercise the muscle of refocus so we can let the distractions not derail us.

I’ve managed to be able to write for approximately 90 minutes in the early morning hours, and I can say I probably get distracted about 5 or 6 times. But my refocus is fierce and it usually only lasts 30-60 seconds before I’m back to bullseye. As the day wears on, my return to bullseye isn’t as strong, and distractions are much more frequent.

I’ll keep writing about refocus and how to get better at it in future emails. But right now, I’ve managed to board a plane, get buckled up, and write this post in the midst of all of that. Why? Refocus. I stopped writing in the lobby to board, and then the minute I sat down, I returned to bullseye.

It’ll take practice, but you can learn to do this too!

My homework for you is to start recognizing when your brain wanders, see it, acknowledge it, and make a conscious decision to entertain it or return to bullseye.

I’ll write more soon!

xx Julie

P.S. Are you liking the productivity posts? There are MORE of them! Check out The Paper Whiteboard, Sacred Time, and Stop Time Stacking! for additional tips and strategies.