Why you must focus to achieve success!

The ability to stay focused and control your mind from wandering regularly throughout the day can be both incredibly frustrating and exhausting if you are working on specific activities in pursuit of your goals. Whilst there certainly appears to be evidence to support ‘deliberate’ day dreaming that can in fact benefit you from embracing your creative part of the brain in a variety of different ways. The simple need to concentrate without distraction can be challenging when deadlines are fast approaching. It’s the ability to assume control of your mind, unhook the current thought and reset your focus on the task in hand. This takes practice, like and habit, but the benefits are significant as you will become a productive machine!

There are a number of different techniques to consider to train your mind to become better at focusing on your specific priorities and the benefits are certainly there to be seen. There is no doubt that by channeling your energies into a single activity will ensure you are consistent and the overall quality of your efforts will increase (check out the previous post on ‘The One Thing’). You will also find that you feel more relaxed and less overwhelmed as your mind isn’t trying to juggle a handful of different things at once – all you have to deal with is one task at a time. Additionally your specific objective will be achieved rather than a sub optimal version of the perceived outcome. Finally you will simply get more done in a shorter time period, rather than endlessly distracted and losing energy as your mind tries to process different requests, thoughts and activities.

The working day is essentially a series of individual blocks that you should focus all energies on for a specific period of time, then rest and go again – one analogy is like a boxer and having a series of rounds to fight in – 3 mins of focus, strategic effort with a single clear goal in mind, then rest, recover then go again…with the ability to last 10 – 12 rounds. We will explore the structure of the day in much greater detail in future posts but for now you should ensure your focus is maintained for the current window or round. To achieve your goals, you need a plan and the focus to deliver on the specific parts of the plan. To really achieve success you must have your primary goals in mind before you go to bed and when you wake in the morning – writing them down, reading and repeating them to yourself, front and centre – this creates the unwavering purpose you need to have any chance of being successful. Your goals will evolve over time, new ones replacing the old but you need to ensure you look ahead rather than backwards – your attention focused on what’s ahead of you to be achieved.

Below are a list of suggested techniques to think about that will help you focus:

  • – Our willpower and decision making lose energy throughout the day therefore it can be valuable to work on the more creative or activities that require concentration first whilst our minds are fresh, focusing on the hard tasks up front in those 2 or 3 hours in the morning, the more mundane, repetitive, mindless tasks can be done later in the day – it’s all about planning out your day effectively to optimise your energies – understanding when you are at your best should align with when you focus on different types of activities.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice – every time you find your mind getting distracted, recognise it and reset your attention on the task in hand – no matter how insignificant or small, keep working on this as you will get better at it and eventually it will become natural and you’ll pick up on when you day dream far faster – like anything its a habit than can be learned and improved upon.
  • During your breaks use this time to day dream and encourage your mind to wander – actively embrace this time and see where things go – essentially allowing your mind to problem-solve and relax – there are benefits to improving your focus by simply giving your mind a break from the intensity and deliberate control of staying in the moment.
  • Reinforce your commitment by keeping your promises (no matter how big or small) – follow through on commitments you’ve made ensures you’ll see things through till the end – this develops a habit of consistency and there are parallels to the way your mind will approach focus and self control.
  • Treat or reward yourself after completing a task with supreme focus. The promise of some kind of reward can drive you to see through a specific task. Remember these blocks or rounds should be small and therefore it won’t be that long until your first break – setting an initial reward as you start practicing can get you over the first few hours and gradually the rewards can become less frequent but perhaps larger as you complete more significant goals.
  • Take time to completely switch off – no work, no phones, time with the family, completely distract yourself with enjoyable activities, lose yourself in a different part of your life to re-energise yourself before coming back to your goals – avoiding burn out is key to relentlessly drive forward – it’s all in the planning but taking time away will enable you to refocus and push on.
  • Sleep at least 7 hours per day – don’t take this lightly – yes you may think you can work through the night (sometimes required) or you can live on 5 hours per day but over time I believe this catches up with you – you’ll be fresh and you’ll mind will be clear – critical in those first few hours of each day. Find ways to optimise your sleep so you sleep deeply and wake full of energy – it’s all about how effective you truly are whilst working rather than simply turning up – we want to maximise each hour and squeeze every last ounce of value from our working day if we want to achieve great things – so fresh, focused and energised requires quality sleep.

Priorities – finding the most important first step!

The key to success lies in asking a single question…’What’s the One Thing that I can do such by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary’? The ‘focusing Question’ as described by Gary Keller in his excellent book ‘The One Thing’, considers the question you should ask yourselves or others when tackling any activity that is aligned to your goal or activity. Having read this book a number of times now it is clear to me that the power behind this question is immense and has huge influence over how likely you at to succeed in achieving your goal.

The key is to select the most IMPORTANT question rather than the hardest – generally most people create lists of priorities of things they have to do and have been told ‘get the hardest out of the way first’. The theory behind the ‘Focusing Question’ is to focus on the most important task or activity first no matter how hard or easy / large or small. The trick is identifying that one activity that is really the most important and then once finished, move to the next most important activity.

The beauty about the simplicity behind the question is that when you break down the question it guides you, holds you accountable and tells you what you need to do next. If we break down the question into three parts we can see the impact and effect;

(a) What’s the One Thing
This is very specific – its saying ‘tell me what the one and only thing is – not a number of things, just one’ so in effect gets you to pick one – it doesn’t allow you to choose more than one.
(b) That I Can Do
This is the accountability part – that ‘I’ can do – not anyone else – i.e. I’m taking responsibility for this task or activity – it means that I’m on the hook for the successful completion of this activity – no one else.
(c) Such by doing it everything becomes easier or unnecessary?
This is the Importance part – i.e. the part that ‘Matters Most’ i.e. the idea is that by selecting the most important activity all subsequent ones follow become easier or in fact may determine that others are simply unnecessary. To quote Gary Keller;

Make sure every day you do what matters most. When you know what matters most, everything makes sense. When you don’t know what matters most, anything makes sense.”
― Gary Keller, the One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The One Thing can be applied to everything we do – be that work place activities or targets or personal goals. Once you’ve defined your primary goal or objective and the timeframe by which you choose to achieve it (further details on this structure later in a future blog post) you can then start considering the actions you need to take to achieve this goal…however by starting at the top level and asking the question (for example a goal that will take 12 months)….’What’s the One Thing I can do this year most such by doing it everything becomes easier or unnecessary?’

Think about what that one action item would be. As Gary Keller says ‘extraordinary success is sequential’ and this is at the heart of the process. By focusing on one thing at a time (without distraction) will ensure that the really important things get actioned in order and progression builds and builds (the domino effect) as momentum is created and you find yourself entering a state of ‘FLOW’ (section covers this later).

Breaking down a goal into smaller and smaller components really is the key to achieving your plans and repeatedly asking the ‘Focusing Question’ ensures you always are working on the most important actions first. So what’s The One Thing I can do this year, this month, this week, today or right now!

The question is the starting point for every step and as the question implies – everything after each action is that little bit easier or in some cases unnecessary – look at the list of actions that you need to take and consider those that are important and rank them based THE most important towards achieving your goal. As Gary Keller states – you should be creating a Success List rather than a To Do List – that’s what will get you there in the end.

Furthermore Gary Keller states ‘you can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once’. So many people believe they can multi-task but in reality their attention is divided. Many people believe that multitasking is an efficient use of their time and they can achieve many things – this may also be true in certain circumstances however there is a danger of feeling overwhelmed and additional its simply not possible to do two important tasks concurrently – each individual item will distract you from the other thereby losing focus and concentration on what matters most – and that’s just two things at once – adding a third or fourth results in something eventually having to give.

By focusing on only One Thing at a time will result in other things being left until they then become the next most important thing to focus on – this is the time at which things should be left to a state of ‘chaos’ – in reality though some things may need to be lightly maintained however in the vast majority of situations most other activities can be left to a later point in time, delegated to someone else or simply never completed. This may sound impossible – how can you let everything else just drift? – however when you consider you are focused on the most important things first and then work your way down a ‘success list’ you will find that considerable more progress is being made in pursuit of your primary goal. As you become more successful those less important tasks or generally more administrative activities will be or can be taken up by others in support of you as you become known for these important critical tasks.

Most people will see the value of you regularly executing and completing critical important valuable activities that move the business or a situation forward ahead of other lower priority tasks.

An example may be that you simply taking action on a specific task (such as hiring someone to help you with a project or activity) will then free you up to do something more important and take care of other activities that are less important thereby giving you more time to focus on those things than will grow your business or yourself. So the action of hiring someone becomes the most important activity and the result means that everything after that becomes easier or unnecessary (as someone else is now taking care of business for you).

Whilst it may appear very simply (and it really is when you get good at it) there are many other forces at play that can make this much harder that you will need to overcome – many of which we will deal with later in the programme, for example Procrastination (huge factor in preventing you from taking any action at all or particularly something important) or Distraction (in person, social media, notifications, noise in general) all things that can result in a deviation from focusing on the One Thing that will improve your chances of success. Getting into a habit of focusing on the One Thing will overcome many of these factors as you become clear in what it takes to utilise this approach in everything you do.

Once you study many successful people you will see how single minded they are and how they don’t let anything distract them and have a clear goal, plan and execute the important things above everything else – repeating this process creates the domino effect and success builds quickly and geometrically.

Identifying the One ‘most important’ Thing is the secret and finding the smallest most straightforward starting point will unlock the progression. You may not always get it right but taking action, doing something, is half the battle. Eventually, through practice, you will get sharper in finding the starting point. Evaluate all possible options in consideration of your ultimate goal and keep challenging your position as to whether this IS the most important activity I could do right now. By thinking in this way it will become easier to quickly determine that first step or action. This is not Astro Physics, you simply have to identify what first single step is most beneficial – it’s all about breaking things down and down into small ‘baby’ steps – tasks then appear to be far easier to achieve and with completion you gain confidence, momentum and are encouraged to move to the next one.

The Focusing Question is something that can be applied in any situation once you’ve determined your goal and work backwards pinpoint your first step that then forms the basis of your plan to succeed.

This approach may seem simply, obvious and familiar but tackling a problem or goal in this way will ensure you are focused in the most optimum manner with the very best chance of success.

In the corporate world you will be asked to take on many different tasks, projects, challenges, solving problems or equally hopefully you’ll be pro-active and looking to identify opportunities to innovate or evolve your role, team, department, function or business – your starting point is simply to clearly articulate your goal (what is it you are trying to achieve or solve) and then consider the timeframe (the by when – even if this is not completely clear but at least determine a reasonable target date) and then you start working back by asking the Focusing Question.

The benefits are not just in the correct prioritisation of the activity it also prevents you from wasting time, drifting, never actually accomplishing significant things – by developing an ability to also focus on the most important things you will quickly be recognised for cutting through the noise and getting to the heart of the opportunity or problem.

This approach will set you apart from others as whilst they may work hard or long hours you are acting in an optimal state of efficiency and at the most effective – the time saved by completing those critical things first will push you above everyone else and you success will build on success as you become almost ‘machine like’ in your ability to identify the critical path to success. By asking this question each time it will become almost impossible not to be successful if you apply the other techniques in support of this starting point (that we will discuss later). The cumulative impact will ensure you stand out and on the correct path. The Focusing Question really is the key that unlocks the door to success, progression and achievement in both corporate and your personal life – once you uncover the first step everything else becomes that little bit easier.

Why affirmations work!

As we consider how to optimise our focus, execute our goals and take control of the working day there are many small techniques and tools that can be easily deployed to assist in setting us up for rip roaring success – positive affirmations happen to be one of those elements.

They are clear specific statements that when used repeatedly help you change your focus and mindset in an extremely positive way.  They can be thought of as an injection of motivation into the mind, focused thought leading to taking massive action.

It’s important to ensure that the statements used are in the present, powerfully constructed to be clear on intent even if the outcome or goal is still yet to achieved.
For example ‘I am financially independent’ or ‘I am passionate about my job’ or ‘I am respected by my peer group’.

The key is that you consider first what you want to achieve and then follow this by reminding and repeating to yourself the outcome that you desire. By repeating over and over, both by writing these down, reflecting on them daily and by saying them to yourself you will let your subconscious go to work to help you achieve them whilst constantly reminding you to take positives steps aligned with your goals.

I like the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ however this could be reworded as ‘you are what you repeat‘, at least it will ensure you stay in a positive mental state and drive you forward.

Now of course your affirmations have to be achievable and realistic much like your goals but go big – don’t make them easy – dream hard and push yourself, you want to be the best you can be? so stretch yourself – you are in control of your thoughts and attitude so why not make that visualisation as big and as bright as possible and then keep it front of mind at all times.

Your brain is incredible and it deals with everything in the moment.  When you think of something your brain gets to work to consider what appropriate action will follow.  Therefore it’s reasonable to assume that feeding it positive statements will result in meaningful actions.  If you don’t take control your brain will look for other influences to make sense of the immediate environment and then lead you down a different path, more often not the one aligned to your goals.

Like anything practice makes perfect – and repetition is the key to success with affirmations. Try writing down four or five affirmations and saying them to yourself when you first wake up and regularly during the day – success doesn’t happen overnight (I liked a quote I saw yesterday that said ‘it’s amazing how many late nights it takes to be an overnight success’!  I can’t remember who to attribute this to but it’s certainly true).

Build into your day a sprinkling of positive affirmations and repeatedly say them to yourself and let the magic of your mind assist you in achieving them.

Those ‘smart’ notifications destroy your focus!

So we sit down ready to focus on the task in hand, having determined what the next most important priority activity is in pursuit of your goal – all the planning has been done, everything is aligned and so we begin.  Then one of the following things inevitably is about to happen:  (1) mobile phone rings (2) text message beeps (3) we glance at our phone and the little notification number has appeared next to either Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube….. (4) someone wanders up to you for a casual chat (5) an email appears in your inbox (6) your mind wanders to think about your boiler or some other less important personal issue….the list goes on and on….the result?  it’s all over, you’re done! – the task you planned to do so carefully now has less than a 50/50 chance of getting completed properly within the allotted time, probably much lower chance to be honest….when you return to the task if you don’t end up procrastinating at this point then you’re doing remarkably well.

The likelihood is that you’ll find something else to get done which is far easier, less effort after this and so the cycle repeats over and over again.  Now taking control and protecting your time is tough, no denying that and it requires discipline but it can and should be done – at least when everything is aligned to achieving the next most important step towards your goal.  Remember we are not settling for mediocre success – we are talking about being unstoppable, the very best and quietly going about our business in pursuit of the next step in becoming a focused success machine that is going places!

We will deal with how to protect your time, how to organise your time, prioritise at a later date but for now please TURN OFF ALL NOTIFICATIONS when you need to focus on a specific task! it’s that simple.  If you’ve allocated half an hour or longer to work on something that requires your absolute concentration then switch it all off….emails, social media, text messages, phone off the hook (if possible)….or better still go find a quiet spot and leave your phone at your desk.  Emergencies only should interrupt your time – nothing is more important than time – it’s yours and plenty of people with different agenda’s will happily waste yours with no regard for you.  You should protect it above everything else because lets face it, you can’t get it back.

So just try it – find a particular task or activity that warrants your focus and energy then clear your mind (recognise when your mind wanders and bring yourself back in the moment) switch off all distractions, put a sign above your computer saying (do not disturb!) and go to work…it’s harder than you think to focus and may take time to build up to this – you want to get in the ‘zone’ and focus 100% – it can be mentally draining to really achieve this state – but you’ll amaze yourself how productive you become.  As with anything start small and build up to longer durations, a little more each day, keep practicing.

Unless social media is your business, or you work in a call centre, or a role that requires communicating regularly on the phone or by message then switch those notifications off, clear the distractions and direct all your energies, thoughts and focus on the task(s) in front of you.  Then the next one and the next one….at the end of the day, reflect on how you felt and what you achieved – did it work?  did you feel more productive?  did you miss anything really important, I mean really?  Your productivity is about to improve as a result.