Stay focused

4 Strategies to keep you focused and get stuff done

I’ve been struggling to stay focused lately, or more to the point, struggling to not want to be distracted when I have stuff to do.

Squirrel.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about listening better. And, yeah, I’m working on it.

But focusing on being a better listener has made me realize my very self-sabatoging tendency to allow distractions to shift my focus.

I allow myself to be distracted by things, people, stuff, and, here’s the biggee, I tend to actually look for things to distract myself — stuff that sucks me in and keeps me from work/tasks/commitments that matter to me. 

Distractions abound. And when I’m bored, tired, out of my groove, or wanting to do anything other than what I’m doing, I look for a distraction. 

Squirrel.

Especially when the task is difficult, tedious, boring, or otherwise unappealing. That’s when I most want to look at/think about/read about something else, which keeps me from doing what’s most important to me.

Must stay focused, but….squirrel!

Recently, I’d been working on a blogpost when, for no good reason, I logged on to Facebook. I had no business there, no real purpose for going there other than to distract myself. All I wanted was a little diversion, just a quick glance at something else.

Well don’t you know, I got sucked into the Facebook vortex.

20 minutes later!…I finally pulled myself away and logged off.

And it isn’t just FB. I might pick up my phone to check the weather, but I end up reading news headlines and checking Instagram and maybe looking to see what’s showing at the movies. Or maybe I’ll just have some Valentines’ Day chocolate.

So, with a conservative estimate on a regular day, I can easily spend about an hour on stuff not in line with my priorities. 

7 hours a week. 30 hours a month. 360 hours a year. That’s 15 days. Of my life!

Time well-spent? 

Almost certainly not.

Someone once said: Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource. 

(I looked it up and according to Goodreads.com, it was Albert-Laszlo Barabasi in his book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do)

You are so right, Albert!

The clock is ticking, man.

And if time is my most valuable non-renewable resource then what am I doing wasting so much of it? 

I had to ask myself, how can I shift my mindset to help me stay focused on what I’m doing?

Here’s what I know: I get way more long-lasting satisfaction from completing something on my “To Do” list than from scanning news headlines, checking email, or mindless snacking. 

When I complete a task from my “To Do” list I know I’ve done what I set out to do and spent my nonrenewable resource on something that’s important to me.

And that sense of accomplishment has a snowball effect. It gives me momentum.

I’ve proven to myself that I can focus and accomplish what I set out to accomplish. (Honestly, even if it’s something as “boring” as doing the laundry. Not my favorite thing to do, but necessary, and now…done. Check.)

Here are a few strategies I’m using to combat my tendency to seek distractions to avoid important but difficult/boring/challenging/mundane tasks.

Have a plan

I work well with a “To Do” list and a calendar. On the calendar I mark my deadlines, some self-imposed and arbitrary, others imposed by others and firm, like April 15 tax filing deadline. 

By Sunday night, or at the latest Monday morning, I have a plan for my week. I list what I will work on every day. That’s my “To do” list. If for some reason I don’t get to something on my “To Do” list for that day, I push it back to the following day or earliest possible day. 

What works best for me is scheduling slightly more than I think I can do. And then I prioritize my list, taking into account any factors that may affect the schedule. 

I’ve been using this strategy for a while and I’m surprised how lost I am without a plan.

The other day I had nothing on my schedule except to spend the day with a relative. She got sick and had to cancel. I was left with my blank schedule board and I had to think for a few minutes about how to best regroup.

If you want to stay more focused, try writing a daily plan.

Be flexible

Things are going to come up, which is all the more reason to seize the day when you have the chance.

When you do what’s important instead of squandering your life away on stupid stuff that doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, you’re better prepared for the unexpected.

It’s like money in the bank for a rainy day.

Set a timer

Depending on your work environment and level of potential distractions, I’ve found it very helpful to give myself a set amount of time to work on something on my list. 

Let’s say, for example, I have an idea for a blogpost. I know what I want to say and I’m ready to write. I set my timer for 30 minutes. 

Begin.

Everything’s great, I’m rolling along, but then I hit a snag. I get into the weeds and start questioning myself, doubting the validity of my message, and dozens of other things that sidetrack me. 

That’s when I’m most likely to start looking for something else to do or think about. 

But if I’ve set my timer, I’ve committed to write until my timer goes off. I know I can stay focused and write for 30 minutes, so I keep going.

Often, pushing through that yuck phase gets me back on track so when my timer goes off, I find I can go another 30 minutes. 

If 30 minutes seems too long, start with 10 or 20 minutes until you build your stamina, your “stay focused” muscle.

Set your priorities and purpose

When I worked as an elementary school librarian, I had so much stuff to do every day. Inventory, shelving books, ordering books, researching books to order, teaching classes, etc, in addition to the incidental interruptions like fire drills, staff meetings in the library, etc. There was no way I could do everything I had to do. 

So I had to prioritize. I gave myself deadlines, did what I could, made daily lists, and tried to remember that, above all things, I was there for the students.

I tried very hard to keep my purpose in mind: Connect kids with books and foster a love of reading.

Every day was a challenge and I probably lost my cool a few times. (A few dozen times if you count lunch duty.) But I tried very hard to stay focused on what was most important.

Those strategies again

So when you want to stay focused and get stuff done

  • Have a plan
  • Be flexible
  • Set your timer
  • Set your priorities and purpose 

We can do more than we think we can, but only if we stay focused on the tasks at hand, set our priorities, and treat time as our most valuable nonrenewable resource.

Can you relate? Do you put off tasks you’ll know you’ll eventually have to do? Do you leave work that really matters to you for stuff that doesn’t matter to you much at all? What strategies do you use to get past it? 

Listen more, get more

What can you gain when you listen better?

As someone a long time ago once said, We have 2 ears and 1 mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. (According to Goodreads.com, Greek philosopher Epictetus said it about two-thousand years ago.)

2 ears, 1 mouth. Listen better. Sure. Sounds good.

Makes sense, even, but I’m afraid it’s not working out that way. Not for me, anyway.

I used to think I was a pretty good listener and included listening as one of my strenghts. I’m not sure what happened to my listening skills. 

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

This is an actual conversation I’ve had with my husband:

Me: How was your day?

Mark: It was good. Busy, but good. 

5 minutes later

Me: How was your day?

Mark: You just asked me that.

Me: (deer in headlights look) I did?

Mark: Yes

Me: Really?

Mark: Yes

Me: What did you say?

Mark: (Long pause) It was fine.

Whoa. That’s pretty crappy. The problem was not that I forgot what he’d said.

No, the problem was I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t fully present even as I stood right there with him?

Why not? Was I asking a question because I felt the need to speak, to fill the silent space? I don’t know. 

But I know I can do better. I want to do better. 

The thing is I believe listening is one of the most fundatmental ways of showing love. It’s pretty basic really.

When we truly listen to another person, we’re fully present, body and mind, engaged in what that person is saying.

But why is it so hard to do sometimes?

There are many possible reasons.

Maybe we’re

  • thinking about something that happened earlier
  • formulating a response to what is being said
  • wondering when this person will stop talking
  • dying to check our weather app
  • itching to check new posts on Instagram (or Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

When petty stuff distracts me so much that I can’t listen well to someone I love, that’s a problem.

And it’s not just hearing their words that’s important. It’s giving them my full attention. Listening, yes, but also seeing, feeling, and being completely present in the moments that make up my life.

I realize, for example, how quick I am to pull out my phone or think about pulling it out for no good reason. Major distraction.

Shifting focus

The other day, I held my 2-month old granddaughter in my arms while she slept. It was just us and the house was quiet, except for the faint squeak of the rocking chair I sat in.

I thought, Hey, there are tons of movies I’ve been wanting to watch. Maybe I can watch a movie. Or maybe I can listen to an audiobook.

But because I’ve been thinking about this whole idea of “listening” and what it means to listen and be fully present, I stopped myself, didn’t pick up my phone or turn on the TV.

It was so quiet. 

I just sat there and listened. To the quiet, to her breath, to her sigh. And the listening caused me to feel her more, her presence, the weight of her in my arms.

In that moment, I found myself overcome with immense gratitude for the amazing miracle I held in my arms. I prayed for angels to watch over her and for her protection, now and always. 

No movie or book could ever compare to the magnitude of that moment for me. I’ll always remember it as a gift, made possible by the power of listening. 

I know this to be true. And you know what? As wonderful and awesome as it was, I still struggle. It’s still hard for me to listen. 

This is something I have to practice every day, for myself as much as for anyone else.

Listening is an act of love. It connects us to the world, life, people, our surroundings. The Universe has something to say and if we don’t listen we could miss it forever.

Do you struggle to listen? What keeps you from being a better listener? I’d love to hear from you in the comments : ) 

Read more about listening (to yourself) on this post: Discover the value of your intuition

Photo by Ruby Montalvo published on strong-woman.com

Be patient and trust the process when it feels like you’re getting nowhere

Have you ever felt like you were fumbling along just trying to figure things out and hoping for the best? Like you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. Parenting can feel a lot like that (it did for me!), or taking a leap of faith without a net.

In a previous blogpost, What to do when you feel stuck in the weeds I covered some tips to help get you through those times when you feel unfocused, overwhelmed, or unsure you’re on the right track.

That’s what I call being in the weeds. The tips:

  1. Stay flexible
  2. Connect with people who’ve been where you are
  3. Find a process that works for you
  4. Trust the process

If you missed the post about being flexible, click hereOr the 2nd post about connecting with people who’ve been where you are, click here. Or the 3rd about finding a process that works for you, click here.

So you’ve been flexible to help you find your way back to your clear path, you’ve done your research and decided on a process to help get you there, and you’ve gotten started.

Time to trust the process

Even when you have a roadmap to get where you’re going, you’re bound to face unexpected challenges that get you off-track along the way. Weeds. Don’t let them stop you. Make adjustments and regroup if necessary, then keep moving forward and don’t give up.

But we can be impatient. We want results because we want to know that our investments — our time, effort, money — will be worthwhile.

No one likes failing. Sure it feel great to win. It’s validation. Winning validates that your work, blood, sweat, and tears have not been wasted.

Failure can be tough on the ego, on the psyche.

But what if we back it up and look at what we’re doing and trust the process.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay Creative Commons published on rubymontalvo.com
Photo courtesy of Pixabay Creative Commons

Use it as a guide

Maintain flexibility and tweak as necessary.

We learn best by doing and things will not always go as planned. Sometimes they’re way better than we planned, but inevitably there’ll be times when they’re way worse.

No problem. Do it again. Julia Child said, “If you’re going to have a fear of failure, you’re just never going to learn how to cook. Because cooking is lots of it — one failure after another. And that’s how you finally learn.”

That’s true for most things.

Trust the process.

A friend was transitioning to a newly designed process at work that would make her job easier.

She had trouble adjusting to the new process. When she tried applying the newfound principles she freaked out. She wanted to revert back to her old way of doing things, but that wasn’t an option.

As difficult as it was, she had to trust the process, to work through it, make mistakes, learn from her mistakes, make adjustments, and then do it again.

It took a major mental shift for her to stick with it, to not give up and trust the process.

Be patient.

Remember, failure’s part of the process.

Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Don’t let fear of failure keep you from trying.

Even when it feels like you’re getting nowhere, trust the process and keep moving forward. It’s the only way you’ll ever get on track to reach your goals.

You can do it!