This last few years have been very challenging for me. Since I started a family, my brain has changed or maybe I should say, the environment in which my brain was used to living has changed. I have noticed that the more personal responsibility I take on, the harder it is for me to focus and get things done. I am easily distracted by obligations and expectations of others. When I was single and even newly married, I did not recognize any measurable changes in expectations. As time has progressed, I can see them and as my family grows it becomes easier and easier to measure them. My problem is that I have had a false sense of urgency. I spent my entire 20’s learning, trying and growing. Now that I am in my 30’s I feel that ideas are much larger. I also feel that I have less time to accomplish them or get them to produce fruit. Mentally and physically I can not stay up all night working on projects anymore. I get tired quicker and my brain fails faster than before. I am finding that I need to learn how to control this and make it work. It is going to require me doing things in a whole new way; something that is unfamiliar to me.
I read a lot. I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I am fascinated with the inner workings of the brain. The how’s and why’s are intriguing to me and I feel it helps me understand more about why my brain is the way it is as I continue to age. Through my audiobook partaking, a lot of self reflection and prayer, I have determined that the following five reasons listed below contribute to most of my problems with focusing. My hopes are that if you connect with what I have said so far that you will be able to start on the same path I am beginning to start on myself.
1. I allow my brain’s limited resources to deplete prematurely.
Hard thinking depletes the brain’s ability to focus much faster than I realize. When I focus on a task of any sort, I am using strength that my brain has to process information and complete tasks. This is a finite resource that we all have and in a world where every direction we turn is calling our for our attention, it is easy to delete this resource prematurely.
I wake up, and the first thing I do is check email to make sure nothing big needs to be handled right away. I also check to see if any new orders have came in on a couple of websites that I run. Before I even get up out of bed to get my blood flowing and make my way to the kitchen to put food in my body, I am using up precious resources that I would not be able to get back until the next good-nights sleep.
My father-in-law is a truck driver. We have discussed before how his job is not really mentally draining so much as it is physical. There are things that he needs to focus on, but driving for the most part, is a muscle memory task that we all can do with out much mental processing. Writing is something that you could not do for a 12 hour shift like you could with driving a truck. Eventually you will run out of processing energy and you will begin to lose your edge.
I have noticed that I can focus really well when I have limited time to complete a task. Sometimes it is a deadline that puts my brain into work mode and allows me to stretch further than usual, other times it is just knowing that I only have an hour to work on something because I have meetings through out the rest of the day.
Actionable Step: I am going to start splitting my day up. I have had the hardest time getting to the gym because I can not wake up as early as I used to and if I go to the gym in the evening, I will lay awake in bed for hours. If I can not make it to the gym for other reasons, I will come home for lunch and enjoy some time with my family. What I can not do is stay in my office for 8 hours straight and expect productive results. The goal here is to get to the gym more and I think that complete change up and release of physical energy will help me regain productivity in the afternoon.
2. I hold too much in my brain.
The older we get, the more we need to write things down in order to remember them. I am finding that the more I try to remember, the harder my brain has to work to remember those items which usually results in something else slipping away. As I mentioned above, the brain has limited resources and as my life gets more complex, I find it harder to allocate those resources accordingly so I can still accomplish my goals and tasks.
I use Evernote but I have failed to use it to it’s full potential. Ideas pop into my head, tasks bombard me and all of these things are distracting. Even though I am writing more down than I ever have before in my life, there is more information bombarding me than ever before. I need to take advantage of how easy it is to get that down on paper, my iPhone or my computer.
A very successful man I know has a notebook that he carries with him. Every day has a page in that book. He writes everything down in that book and the book is always with him. He writes things down on each line as the day progresses. Though I am sure he has amassed a stockpile of notebooks over the years I can see why he does it. After the habit of writing everything down took over I am sure that his brain is fully aware and confident to let go of thoughts because they are safely on paper. He can reference back to anything he needs to at any time because he writes down everything. His brain is liberated to focus on intense tasks and thinking at a whim because of this habit of writing things down. I tried doing this for a while but did not allow it to become a habit.
Actionable Step: I am going to write everything down each day. My tool of choice will be Evernote. I can access Evernote on all of the devices I have. It is already installed on my computers, my iPhone, iPad, Android Phone, Android Tablet and I am sure any device I obtain in the future will support it as well. Just now I created a Daily Notes notebook which will contain a note for each day. The first thing I will do each day is create a new note for the day. As things pop into my head, I will write them down. As I meet with people and have thoughts come up, I will write them down. I will add tasks there as well. Everything will go into that notebook and when I feel like I am being rude because I am typing into my phone during a conversation I will simply say, “I am going to write this down so I don’t forget it.”
3. I attempt to perform to many tasks at once.
As a male, I am aware that I am not genetically able to multi-task. I know that only a small percent of humans in general can truly multitask however I attempt to do it every day. Because of this, I end up performing at a lower level than I would if I was to intently focus on one task at a time. Even as I began to write this third reason I was in Evernote adding to my note for today. This is me multitasking and I need to try and do less of it.
I believe that if I can master the art of writing things down and get to the point where my brain is able to trust the fact that I stored my thought outside of my mind, I will truly be able to find a greater level of focus. This should ultimately help me steer clear of multitasking which I know happens because my mind jumps from one thought to the other.
Actionable Step: To help my brain stay on one task at a time I need to remove distractions. This means that if I am editing wedding photography work or writing code for a website design project, I should shut off my email client, turn off any and all notifications, put my phone on silent and listen to some non-distracting music or background noise. When I find myself in a rut, I will leave my office and go to a coffee shop where the background noise and lack of desktop distractions are enough to subdue my thoughts and allow me to focus.
4. I often switch between tasks before completing what I was working on.
My life is a constant struggle between wanting to work on my own projects and completing projects for clients. My own projects end up getting shelved because I want as much of my focus to be on my clients projects as possible. This results in many unfinished projects of my own that I eventually end up abandoning. Some of the best ideas I have had were put into a project that ended up never seeing the light of day. By the time I was ready to get back to work on it the idea was either no longer good or somebody else had already brought it to market. It has gotten to the point that even my employees see something in the news and tell me that they remember me having that idea 6 months earlier.
My best work not only for my own projects but for my clients as well has came out of a long uninterrupted session where I was able to focus and create with out distraction. I let to many distractions into my life and I need to be better at managing them. Distractions are not a bad thing to have but they become bad when you allow them to get you to stop working on what you were focused on and work on something else. The main distraction is my phone. Clients will call me with legitimate issues, and I want to help. I don’t like it when my clients feel helpless. They are reaching out to me to solve an issue for them and when it is done by phone it breaks whatever focus I had and moves it elsewhere. Getting back to that focus after a distraction is not easy.
Notifications from my various devices are also huge distractions. Apple, Goole and Microsoft think that they are doing us a favor by allowing us to be notified about pretty much any action but it is actually hurting productivity. When I am concentrating on something hard such as writing an article like this or writing code for a web project, my brain wants to find something else to do that is less taxing. A simple notification or even having other browser windows open makes it very easy for me to get distracted by checking email only to find that it’s a notification from Youtube letting me know I have a new subscriber. There some things that we have been doing for such a long time that we do not need notifications for them. Email for example is one of them, we check our email often as a habit. I don’t need a notification to pop up telling me that I have a new email. It is a given that I will have a new email being that I get over 150 new emails per day. On my Mac, very few apps are allowed to show up in the Notification Center. Email, Facebook, Twitter and any other service that tends to distract me have been removed.
Actionable Step: A few months ago I implemented a ticket system on my website in hopes that I would be able to get clients to start using it. My new goal is to ask all of my clients to submit their support requests to the ticket system so I can work on needs one at a time. This will make it much easier to manage issues. The customer support system I am using is called Ticksy and it is super easy to setup and manage. I also plan to build up a solid FAQ section to help my clients find answers to common questions quickly.
5. Inconsistent focus has taught my brain to be over-aware.
As I mentioned before, the brain adapts and my brain has certainly adapted. Because of the bombardment of distractions from all directions my brain is always on alert so that it will be ready for the next request. Even when I want it to focus on a task, it is hard for me to stay focused for long periods of time because of how my brain has changed over the years. This change in the way my brain does things did not happen over night. I have slowly allowed things to enter my life in a way that has became overwhelming for my brain thus causing it to change. It is easy to form patterns, but it is hard to break them. The same goes for habits. When I consistently allow email, text messages, phone calls and the allure of funny photos from TheChive to disrupt me, I am telling my brain that it is ok to go look at those things instead of tackling the task at hand. This is how my procrastination forms. I never decide not to do something because I know I have plenty of time to do it later. I put a task off because I ran out of time to complete it at that sitting because of other distractions I allowed to get in. Granted I don’t spend as much time browsing the interwebs for silly content as most people do, but the allure is there so long as the internet is available to be connected to.
Actionable Step: I recognize that there does need to be a set amount of time where I can allow my brain to rest. My goal is to schedule that rest by using a timer. I will work intently on a task for 30 minutes and reward myself with 10 minutes of something else such as getting a drink of water or checking a fun website for a quick laugh. That timer will go off and I will close whatever I was doing for fun so it does not become a distraction. The break I gave my brain will help me keep away from distractions because I gave myself time to be distracted. The important thing to note is that I gave myself a set amount of time for distractions and then I return back to what I was working on.
I know that this is going to take time. For years I have allowed myself to drift in other directions when my focus should be tack sharp. It will take time to train my brain to work in a more controlled way. This is my first step and I hope that if you are having similar issues that you will join me in this path toward a shaper focus. I used to have it and I desperately want it back.
If you have something to add to this article I would love to hear it in the comments below. If you have a tip or ritual that you do that helps you remain focused, please share it. I am always open to new ideas and love to hear about what others are doing to promote sharper focus in their lives.