how to focus

Focus is underrated.

Let’s face it: even productivity nerds like us waste a lot of time. We spend hours each day flitting from app to app and device to device, cued by dings, buzzes, and little red circles with white numbers inside. It’s rare for us to spend more than a few uninterrupted minutes on a single task, even if that task is paramount.

There are many ways we can become more productive:

Ultra-productive people do all this stuff. But they’re also very good at something else: focusing.

Let’s talk about how to focus. Here are 6 tips!

1. Remember That Multitasking is a Myth

The science is in: multitasking is a myth. No matter how long our to-do list is, we can only work on one task at a time.

Imagine an hourglass turned upside down. There are thousands of grains waiting for their turn to pass through the opening, but only one grain at a time can make the journey.

Don’t try to multitask. Commit to one thing, and work on nothing else.

2. Choose Your Environment Carefully

Have you ever walked into a church, museum, or library and immediately lowered your voice? Like, without even thinking about it?

Of course you have.

Our brains associate certain places with specific moods and actions.

Upon entering a library, our brains say “Hey, this is a quiet zone. People are working. Maybe we should work, too. Keep it down, larynx.”

Entering our living rooms, our brains have a different message: “Ah, home sweet home. Kick off those tired sneakers and put on Orange Is the New Black. Turn up the volume, thumb. Ah, Red. You’re tough on the outside, but you’ve got a heart of gold.”

Yes, you can be productive on your living room couch, but you can also run a marathon in snow boots. The principle is the same: you’re working harder than you need to.

Choose an environment that encourages you to focus. When you really need to focus, it’s worth relocating to a coffee shop, the library, or even your home office.

Don’t swim against the tide.

3. Create Accountability

If you run into me around town and mention this blog, two things will happen:

  1. I’ll be genuinely flattered and will thank you for reading.
  2. I’ll casually mention that I post every Tuesday and Friday.

Why the second one?

Accountability is the only reason this blog actually happens. Writing is hard, and I would rather do easy things instead.

I know people will notice if I don’t make my announced deadline. Not thousands of people, but a few people. People I respect.

The urge to keep our word is incredibly strong, and no one wants to look like a flake.

Need to focus? Tell your plan to someone you care about. You only need to communicate two pieces of information:

  • What you’re going to do
  • When it’s going to be done

That’s it.

4. Insist on Structure. Create It If Necessary.

Have you ever had the following experience?

It’s 10 AM on a Saturday. You have no firm commitments. Your day is wide open. You’ve got two little tasks you want to get done, but you can do them later.

Fast-forward to 10 PM. You didn’t do the two things. You’re frustrated and bewildered. You had all that time! What happened?

Consider an alternate situation:

It’s 10 AM on a Saturday, but you’ve got a commitment from 12-5. You’ve got two little tasks you want to get done.

“Better get down to it,” you think. “No time to waste.”

You plow right through them and are done by 10:45. You’ve even got time for another cup of coffee before your commitment.

What’s the difference?


Make your plan before you start, and if your day has no structure, add some.

5. Don’t Ignore Distracting Thoughts. Write Them Down.

Let’s say you’ve done everything we’ve discussed so far. You’re in the middle of some focused work when your brain says “We’re out of eggs.”

“Leave me alone, brain,” you say. “I’m working here. Eggs can wait.”

Your brain is not amused. 30 seconds later, it interrupts you again: “Hey, did you get that? Put eggs on the grocery list.”

You press on.

2 minutes later: “Eggs eggs eggs eggs eggs eggs eggs.”

When an intrusive thought pops in, it’s worth taking a moment to record it. Indulge your brain, and write “get eggs” on a piece of paper. Your brain will now leave you alone, and you can get back to work.

6. Get Bored.

Neil Gaiman has to be bored to write.

This is closely related to choosing your environment. What distracts you the most often?

Facebook? TV? Email?

Whatever it is, you’re better off disabling it.

Think of it this way: imagine a writer locked in a room containing only a table, a chair, and a laptop with a single program: Microsoft Word.

What do you think the writer will be doing 15 minutes from now?

The closer we can get to the above scenario, the better off we are.

The ability to focus is crucial, but most of us can stand to improve. Pick just one of the above tips and try it the next time you sit down to do your work.