What’s the number one skill of the 21st century, the one thing that will make you incredibly successful?

The will to focus.

Summer 2008 Photos

Focus itself is relatively easy. Turn off everything except the one task you need to be working on, and get it done. Power off your phone, shut off Twitter, etc. (unless of course those are the tasks) and burn down whatever needs to get done. That’s easy. What’s hard isn’t focus, but willpower.

The will to focus is different than focus. It’s much harder. The will to focus is the self discipline needed to willingly shut off and keep shut off all those distractions that take us away from what we know we need to do. It’s the little notifications we’ve eagerly accepted into our lives that tell us new mail has arrived, friends are chatting, buzz is happening, all holding the promise of something interesting or exciting. Our devices, our workplaces, our lives are centered around distraction. Every marketer is trying to create distraction. Every app, every mobile device wants to distract you, because distraction diverts attention, and attention is money.

There’s a lottery-like element to distraction that makes it especially compelling, and there’s a scientific basis to it. Is it junk? Is it a note from a friend? A text from that guy or girl you swiped right on Tinder? That extra bit of randomness adds an almost game-like quality to the notifications, increasing their addictive power (as any casino operator will gleefully attest to).

How do you develop the will to focus? Practice. Like breaking any behavioral habit, it requires you to practice doing it, first in little steps, then increasingly in length and frequency. Start with a simple minute of meditation a day, but as part of that, take the time to turn off things. No one will miss you for a minute, and you won’t miss anyone or anything for a scant 60 seconds. Develop that initial reflexive habit to shut things off for a minute a day, and then work up from there.

After a while, the will to focus will become second nature and your friends, colleagues, coworkers, and acquaintances will be baffled by how productive you are.

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