Getting Focus: Methods and Techniques I Use

No Words: 2010-09-31
Squirrel?!?

I often find that I have trouble staying focused.  Focus is a challenge for anyone, but it can get especially troublesome when you have a predominantly creative mind.  Your brain desires stimulation constantly, otherwise you find yourself sidetracked.  You’ll procrastinate, fail to complete tasks and as time passes you lose all efficiency.  This sort of behavior is often mistaken for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  But unless you have been officially diagnosed, that isn’t always the case:  You can have focus issues even if you do not have ADHD.  I have focus issues: I’d like to introduce you to a number of things that have helped me to maintain focus on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

My Story

For the record, I have never been diagnosed with ADHD.  I raised the question when I was in college and I worked with a therapist to dig a little deeper into my focus issues.  But I opted out of deeper evaluation because the focus techniques she taught me were proving to be effective.  It’s a misconception that focus issues are directly tied with a condition like ADHD.  Likewise, mild cases of ADHD can be managed without the use of medication.  For me, a few simple techniques and habits work, so I don’t really care what the diagnosis might be.

So it’s time for a Disclaimer:  Just to be clear, I am not talking about addressing ADHD tendencies here.  The scope of this discussion is purely about staying focused.  As is the case with any clinical condition (medical, behavioral or otherwise), you cannot self-diagnose.  If you suspect you have ADHD or any other behavioral condition, you really must talk to your doctor.  Online medical sites (WebMD, Mayo Clinic, etc) are not a surrogate for a doctor.  So if you are here because you think I’ll give you advice about ADHD, stop and go talk to a professional.  Additionally, I am not here to tell you what works for everyone.  I’m only going to share my own experiences and the tricks that work for me.  Your experiences may be different.

My behavior as I tried to work through my day is not unlike anyone wandering onto YouTube.  You may have wandered there to check out a video about a guy pulling a prank on someone.  But then you notice a cool video about another guy revealing magic tricks, or a new music video or some other instructional thing…and then four hours passes:  You haven’t eaten, you haven’t gone to the bathroom and you should have been in bed two hours ago.  Except in my case I would be working on one project, get an email about a different project to which I started to respond when someone walked into my office to ask me about a third project.  I got around to lunch two hours late and then I’d sit down and realize I had four drafts of email responses I hadn’t yet completed or sent (two for the same response).  Quitting time would come around and I would scratch my head and wonder what the hell I did all day.

The struggle didn’t stop at work.  Case and point:  I started this article a few days ago.  But of course I needed some research to confirm a few details.  So I got on the web…and someone ended up on YouTube.  And…you know where this story goes.

The struggle is real.  Squirrel!?

Getting Focused

If you have focus issues, I’m sorry to say that a solution is not going to be easy.  And even when you do find some good solutions and habits, you will still have unproductive days.  But there are a great number of things that you can do to improve yourself as you go about your life.  In some of these cases, I have to stay fairly broad because every situation is different.  You will need to experiment on your own to find what works best for you.  You may even find some of my methods don’t work for you.  You will find some that you like that I haven’t mentioned.  So let’s keep an open mind and an open dialog (and yes, you can comment below or ping me on social media).

Minimize Distractions

This is almost a given:  The number one reason that you have focus issues is because there are too many stimulus in your environment.  You must first identify your disractions, then address each specifically.  When you can eliminate or reduce any distraction, it will make you slightly more productive.  Distractions come in many forms.  It could be a pop-up for your email, it could be an alarm for your next appointment or simply clutter on your desk.  These distractions need to be controlled.  This is a theme that will carry through this entire article because it really is the root of our problems:  Distractions pull our attention away from the immediate task.  The more complicated issues get their own subsection below.  But I’ll mention the easy issues right away:

  • Compartmentalize certain aspects of your day:  There are certain things you do every day.  On any given day at work, I know I will be reading and responding to a number of email and I know I’ll be checking plans.  I know I will occasionally have some sort of meeting.  To the best of my abilities, I try to carve out sections of the day for all of this.  I set three one-hour blocks aside during the day to do nothing but respond to email (I’m in middle-management, email is a big part of my job).  Plan checking gets allocated to the end of the day unless there’s an urgent submission that needs to go out.  At the end of the day, I get less email and some of my associates go home for the day (I tend to work later).  Therefore, there are less distractions and disturbances when I’m checking plans.  I try to schedule most of my meetings mid-afternoon when I have control.  And I try to do most of my phone calls late morning.  I’m never able to adhere to this perfectly, but it’s a framework that helps me tremendously to stay focused.
  • Turn off alarms and notifications: As I mentioned, email is a large part of what I do every day.  But it is also the largest distraction.  On my workstation, I have disabled the pop-up notification and bell, which is very distracting as it will catch your eye and ears (squirrel?!).  Of course I use filters to let those notifications happen when certain people (my boss) are emailing me.  And I even use filters to color-code emails based on sender or keywords so I can see – at a glance – the most important emails when it gets to that emailing time.  I even have my phone’s email notifications set to not make itself known during specific aspects of the day.  My staff can be a distraction as well, but I have worked with them so that they will group questions and we can go over them in chunks (fewer distractions overall and a more efficient dialog).  I’m also not afraid to tell someone that I can’t talk right now and ask if I can follow up.  Alarms should be used sparingly.  You need an alarm to remind you of a meeting.  You don’t need one to remind you that the football game is on; you anticipate and are fully aware of the latter situation, so don’t set the alarm.
  • Work/Life Balance:  This is especially important for those of you in this digital world of business.  Just because you have a phone with access to work email doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.  I actually have two phones:  A personal phone and a work phone.  People think I’m crazy.  But the work phone goes off the minute I start my commute home.  This goes along with compartmentalizing your life.  But if you have a family, it makes that time more valuable as well.  Work distractions should never interrupt family time.  But during the day it’s important to have balance as well.  I take a break every day for lunch with very few exceptions.  It’s always one hour long.  This is when I do stuff for me.  I’ll catch up on my website, check out youtube (and set an alarm…because YouTube), read or other personal things.  This is healthy for you because you will feel refreshed, you’ll accomplish something for you and your afternoon will be smoother.
  • Close your windows: I’m talking specifically about the ones in your computer’s user interface.  But there may be benefits to closing the physical windows and drawing the blinds as well.  But I digress.  If you work on your computer for more than an hour or so, you’re bound to have a hundred windows open.  When you’re done with an application, close it.  The more you have open, the more you will alt-tab (command-tab) through and get distracted.  You don’t want that.
  • Clean your desk: At the moment, I don’t have a leg to stand on because my desk is cluttered with post-it-notes, extra pens and supplies I just grabbed from the store and bills that have yet to be filed.  But I feel awful because those things are distracting me right now.  Just from the time I started this article, I’ve formed a paper clip into some sort of animal, I’ve reorganized my pens on the desk (and that will not be their final resting spot) and those bills have started to get filed.  But my article has suffered thus far.  So I’ll go clean that up before I try to go further….  I feel better.  My point is that distractions can be physical as well.  So if you don’t have one, get a set of drawers and start putting things out-of-site and out-of-mind.  Just don’t jam things in the drawer because you need that stuff organized.

Which is a nice segue into the next big topic…

Staying Organized

Organization is second to none when it comes to staying focused.  It won’t curb your tendencies to wander down the rabbit hole of the internet.  But it will help you to stay on task, or at least pick up where you left off.  At the very least, you need to clean up that mess.  Piles of smaller messes is not a way to stay organized, you must have a defined organizational path.  In the physical world, this means bins and folders or file cabinets that actually help you organize your thoughts.  In the digital world, this means organizing everything from your directory structure (which means you must avoid what Windows wants you to do and carve your own path) to your note taking.  Personally, I am much more rooted in digital space, so there happen to be a lot of tools that can help you stay organized.  Here’s some tools that I use:

  • Evernote (referral link) – I have been using Evernote almost since it first came to market.  If you are unfamiliar, it’s a note taking/archiving app that is available for Android, iPhone, Windows (desktop), Mac (desktop) and from pretty much anything that can pull up a web browser.  It’s a little daunting at first, but you can tag notes, collaborate on notes and dump everything into a searchable database of sorts.  You can clip articles – links, partial articles or full sites – and save them for later reference.  You can even save photos, recordings, collaborate with others (shared notes or whole notebooks).  It pretty much is the lynch pin to my entire organization.  You can organize things into different notebooks, which is handy to organize different aspects of your life.  I personally have a “Distiller” folder where I clip things by default and go in a few times a week to reorganize those notes into their appropriate notebooks.  It’s a must-have tool, in my mind.  And if you don’t want to give me any points by clicking on that link at left (I won’t hold it against you), just visit evernote.com or search for it in your favorite app store.
  • Trello – Trello can be used for making Todo Lists or organizing your thoughts, more of a virtual white board.  If you’re
    Trello Example
    This is just one example of a Trello Board, but it can be set up to fit your exact needs.

    familiar with Kanban, you already know what to expect.  In it’s simplest form, you could have three columns:  Todo, Doing, Completed.  Unlike a white-board, however, you can track history on each item (referred to as a card):  You can add notes, add due dates, assign people (if you’re working on a team board), set reminders or sub-checklists.  I also use it when I’m writing:  I have columns for research where each card is a fact or method that I need to discuss, columns for important people or character descriptions (in the case of my fiction) or columns for structure where I have different headings and sub-elements in sequential order.  Trello is really anything you want it to be.  I prefer it to other todo list type programs because it is far more intuitive and it seems to fit my crazy mind a little better.

 Occupying a Busy Brain

This is possibly the most counter-intuitive issue we’ll discuss today:  Your brain is capable of so much more, so give it something to keep it busy.  That’s not to say that the goal is to overwhelm your brain.  Instead the goal is to keep some of those spare brain cycles from wandering.  So I’ve found that sometimes, I need to have something to keep me on task.  The most widely known focus technique is a white-noise generator.  I’ve tried it.  It’s not for me.  I find that I keep trying to find music in that white noise; or worse, I feel like the white noise starts to morph into things like voices or other things.  Too many cycles burned.  Instead, I find that some good, down-tempo music works best for me.  Not too much left up to the imagination, but enough to eat up some cycles.  And it has the added bonus of blocking other distracting noises.

There are other times where I find I need to be fiddling with something.  Obviously, if the focus of the moment is to respond to email or sketch out a garden, my hands are plenty busy.  But if I’m reading something, reviewing a plan or listening to case notes, my hands are otherwise idle.  I noticed this fairly recently, in fact.  I was bending paper clips or clicking pens incessantly (which is apparently quite distracting to those around me).  At home, I am fond of twirling my boading balls (affiliate link), but that’s a bit too much at work and sometimes a bit too many cycles burned while making sure I don’t drop them.

So I started to look for something else.  I happened upon a YouTube video where someone was talking about fidget toys.  Fidget toys are much simpler toys that will become second nature with a little bit of practice.  One example are the ever popular hand spinners (just search “fidget spinner” on Etsy and you’re bound to get a dozen), which doesn’t seem appealing to me.  There are other sensory toys as well including the classic stress balls, nubby gel pads and so on.  The toys are often used to help children with ADHD or even cases of Autism.  So I did my research and happened upon some adult-centric toys.  I grabbed a few and tried them out.

The Rizzle Fidget Toy, made by Fidgetland, is a great stress-relief and focus toy.
The Rizzle Fidget Toy, made by Fidgetland, is a great stress-relief and focus toy.

The toy I found most appealing was a simple toy made from two key rings and some bike chain pieces.  I’ve tried a few, but the one I like the best is the Rizzle Fidget (affiliate link) hand-made by Fidgetland.  I like how the rings are smooth, unlike a keychain, and the size is much more appropriate for my hands.  It doesn’t make any noticeable noise and is not a distraction to others.  I have three now that I keep in strategic places.  I really do feel that playing with this thing does help me stay focused.  If you find you are always playing with things, you may want to give it a go.  But if you’re not sold on it yet, try getting a cheap one on Etsy.  But if you really find it to be beneficial, the Rizzle seems to be a bit more comfortable for my hands in the long run (especially on those longer days where I’m doing a lot of reading).

Clearing Your Mind

One of the things that I learned when I was first going through my focus therapy was that one of the reasons I kept losing focus is because I was not giving myself an opportunity to file away thoughts.  Sometimes it’s as simple as adding to your todo list or filing away data for later, as we’ve discussed above.  But that’s not always enough:  You need to give yourself mental breaks every once in a while so your brain can rest.  Or more specifically, your brain needs an opportunity to file those thoughts so you are ready for the next cycle.  This is, in part, why I find my lunch breaks so important.  But it’s also why I started meditating.

Somewhat related is the fact that I used to have sleep issues as well.  I’d stay awake all night with insomnia-inducing thoughts.  At roughly the same time I was seeing one therapist for my focus issues, I was also seeing a sleep therapist for my sleep issues.  It was my sleep therapist who made the connection at first:  My focus issues during the day were closely tied to my sleep issues.  And it wasn’t about how I was thinking about the things I never completed all night.  Rather, it was that the cause for both was pretty much the same:  I never gave my brain a break.  So I was taught a number of meditation techniques to help me sleep.  Likewise, I was taught by my other therapist a number of meditation techniques to help me focus.  Except I didn’t realize that either was actually meditation at the time.  I sort-of thought they were just mind hacks, nothing more.

Fast forward to today and I now know they were teaching me basic meditation.  Meditation is a mind hack, in a way:  You basically put your brain into a semi-sleep state where your brain can go ahead and file all collected data and grievances.  Through meditation, many people gain more patience, a more calm demeanor and better focus.  This is often referred to as gaining mindfulness.  So about a year ago, I started meditating on a regular basis using an app on my phone called Calm, which is also available online through any web-browser.  There are also a number of other great apps for meditating.  But beyond my sleep routine, I didn’t really know how to meditate, so Calm, was a good balance between instructional and practice for me.  Your results may vary.

Regardless of how you meditate, the benefits are difficult to see at first.  But once you start to get the hang of it, you will notice a number of benefits.  Personally, I try to meditate every day but it usually works out to about 4-5 times per week.  Ideally, I’d love to meditate more.  I do find that I’m much more relaxed in my decision-making (and I’m less nervous to make decisions).  I also find that I fall asleep more efficiently, even beyond the sleep hacks I’ve been using for years.  Curiously, I also find that I need less sleep.  But the most beneficial item is that I feel more focused and more effective.

Final Thoughts

My routine and my philosophies are not perfect.  There are still going to be days where I really can’t focus.  Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep, maybe it’s just allergies or I’m hungry.  A lot can factor into whether or not I can maintain focus at any given time.  But there’s no point in worrying about it if the bad days are mostly an anomaly.  So with the water-under-the-bridge mentality, I know the next day can always be better.  So with my Rizzle Fidget in hand and my “Chill” station running on Pandora, I know that tomorrow will be a better day.  And I’m ready for it with a whole bag of tricks.