The single greatest skill of the modern era is the ability to focus. This comes from your willpower, your willingness to exclude everything that isn’t part of your goals. When asked, Michelangelo said of how he made his statue of David, “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” While generating the results you want in life isn’t necessarily easy, the same holds true. Chip away at everything that isn’t a goal.
Think about our society’s obsession with FOMO, fear of missing out. This term is entirely about a lack of focus, entirely about worried what might be happening, rather than focusing on what is in front of you that is happening right now. FOMO is the opposite of chipping away – it’s inviting in everything, it’s adding everything you possibly can, just in case you might miss something, and it’s terribly destructive.
In order to focus, what must you do? You must chip away at everything that threatens to distract you. Latest tempest in a teapot on Facebook bothering you? Block Facebook with a browser blocker and remove it from your mobile device entirely. Latest episode of mental junk food television consuming your thoughts? Turn off the TV and read something focused towards your goals.
Focus is the art of saying no. Focus is the art of denying everything and everyone that wants your attention for unproductive ends, or ends that serve someone else’s agenda.
So how do you build focus? There are two key components of focus, willpower and environment.
In order to solve willpower, you need to give your activities meaningful, emotional context. I am doing this activity because it means X towards my goals. That provides emotional understanding and motivation for everything you are doing. “I am working out because I want to live to see my child get married and my doctor says I won’t”. “I am working on this presentation because I fear being booed off the stage instead of cheered.” If you can’t provide an emotion-based context, don’t do it! That is an activity that you will be easily distracted from, and it may or may not even have any value if you can’t find a context for it.
Your focus becomes uninterruptible when you’re passionate about doing something, when you have a deep, emotional motivation for doing something. Interruptions, instead of being seen as welcome distractions, become annoyances that you want to chip away at. That’s when you know you’re working on something that matters.
That leaves environment. The lack of distracting factors in your environment is a conscious choice. Intentionally reduce everything that you know distracts you. Install a site blocker in your browser. Turn off notifications at all of your applications and devices. Put on headphones with no audio or better yet, acoustic earplugs made for airplanes and rifle ranges. Close your inbox. As Chris Brogan says, the inbox is the perfect delivery system of other people’s priorities.
If you’re just too tempted by the digital world, go analog. In meetings, bring absolutely no mobile devices, just a pad of paper and a pen. I have been doing this for meetings and conference calls, in order to force myself to give 100% of my attention to whatever is in front of me and nothing else. Write by hand if you need to.
Discipline your mind through the use of meditation to stay focused and on target. There are any number of excellent meditation methods out there. Find one that works for you. A meditation method is right for you if you find yourself losing time in it rather than being distracted or being interrupted. For some people, it’s sitting in a quiet room. For other people, it’s going for a run.
Focus isn’t just a state of mind or something you do. Focus is a lifestyle choice, just as fitness is, just as being well-read is. If you want more focus in your life, if you want to get to your goals faster and end each day feeling accomplished rather than frustrated, then change your lifestyle to be one about focus.
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