If you’re employed staying focused is as easy as pie. It’s not voluntary though, because there’s a system to keep you in ‘the zone’. The system is called Bosses. Yes, any time you wander off for a period of longer than one minute to play Angry Birds on your phone or Solitaire on your P.C you run the risk of getting caught. And if you do get caught you create a reputation that, if consistently nurtured, can lead to your procedural exit from the company. So with this in mind you can easily stay focused through the fear of getting fired. Again, if you do get caught, your boss is there to make you get back on gear by simply howling ‘What are you doing there?’ So you see, it’s pretty easy to stay focused in the workplace. You rarely have to ask yourself how to stay focused. Your boss is even paid a lot more than you because the big man on top knows what’s more valuable – actual work or keeping people focused on doing actual work. But what if someone didn’t go through the pains of hiring someone and paying them a lot more than you to keep you in the game. What would you do then? What would keep you focused?
Marshall’s technique on how to stay focused
After I quit my day job last year, I had to face that very problem. I asked myself why on earth it was so hard to stay focused on what I needed to do to get ahead if I wanted it so badly. It was very clear that I wanted to achieve A and B but after some time I found myself wondering into the abyss of personal freedom doing the other things that I had missed doing. And everyone out there who’s ever worked on their own terms faces the same problem every now and again. I remember searching relentlessly on the internet for resources on finding your focus zone and how to stay focused once your in that zone. I ended up coming across a book by Lucy Jo Palladino called ‘Finding your focus zone’. “Perfect!” I thought. Unfortunately, I couldn’t buy the book at the time. Afterwards, I came across one Sebastian Marshall’s blog. Marshall is all about the art of self discipline and this is exactly what I needed. I remember reading one particular post where, and I quote, he says,
“99% of people you interact with in life are fucking jokers. You’re used to joker behavior..
What’s a joker? A joker is someone who says they’re going to do something, and then doesn’t.
A joker always has excuses. “Oh well, I tried…”
Did you do it or not?
DID YOU DO WHAT YOU SAID YOU’D DO OR NOT?
If not, you’re a fucking joker and we’ve got problems.”
With those harsh but true words, it dawned on me that I was being a joker and if I had to prove I was right in pursuing my dreams. I had to stop fooling around and accomplish whatever I set out to do.
Marshall’s method of staying effective was based on periodical assessments. He would calculate how much he has accomplished in one day as a percentage of the number of tasks he had written on his to do list for the day. The problem with this method was that it dwelled on maximizing efficiency rather than effectiveness. It may take longer to do some things and one may not really know how long beforehand so in effect failing to complete one of two things in 24 hours doesn’t necessarily constitute a lack of effectiveness. Again some things are more important than others so doing all the less important ones faster doesn’t mean you’re the most effective guy on the planet. Also, this method certainly does not account for quality. Sometimes using more time on something is bound to get you better results.
Later on, I came across a method of scheduling tasks throughout a day (something most people do with their diaries but not me) to accomplish something bigger. So if you have a couple of things you hope to achieve you pick out starting points with small bits for each goal and schedule them out in one day. The advantage of this method over Marshall’s was that it allowed you to level out the importance of stuff when planning on how to do them. If you pick out a very small bit of everything to do each day then every activity seems just as important as the other. For example if you have to work on a web site that takes 2 weeks to build and you still need to send emails, what amount of each will you do in one day? You might want to start by making half of the CSS template for the site and sending one of your emails on day 1. This way they both become equally easy. This method worked for a week till I realized it that it still didn’t get me to my desired focus level. There was still something lacking.
Dean Jackson’s 50 minute focus finder
That’s when I came across Dean Jackson’s method of finding immediate focus. It’s way too simple. You simply list everything you need to do in terms of single item activities again. For me, I incorporated Jenny Shih’s project management techniques. Simply break down a goal from the general objective to the smallest single tasks. You want to be a millionaire? You need to break it down to the level of making a call to a supplier if you chose to start a business. How much time will that take? 10 minutes? – more or less. So essentially with a rough idea of how much each listed task will take (and you will need a big paper if you are handling loads of tasks in like 7 days), you then proceed to batch them up into blocks of 2 hours. In these two hours you have a bunch of stuff to do and possibly even one task only. You take 50 minutes and start on the first half of your batch. Allow yourself a 20 minute break then finish off the rest within the remaining 50 minutes. Easy as that. I was dubious at first till I tried it. Since then I can only say Dean’s method has been more than superb in helping me maintain focus. The reason why Dean’s method works so well is because it allows you to work for what may seem like a small time frame and get the most value for your time. That way you don’t have to stress about working for too long. With the 24 hour system I hadn’t realized just how valuable 5 minutes of your day can be. Also the 20 minutes of rest seem like an interruption once you get into the zone (the actual zone this time). It’s important that you take the break because it keeps your mind fresh for what’s left. It also keeps you eager to get back and continue working which thus provides extra fuel for staying focused. So Dean’s method gave me what everyone else was lacking; a way of accounting for the time value of everything. I wasn’t looking to be the most efficient guy in terms of finishing nominal tasks. I was looking for the most value for my time so that at the end of the day I can sleep with a sense of actual accomplishment. In fact I’m using the method to write this very blog. There isn’t a simpler procedure for figuring out how to stay focused.