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10 Tips for Razor Sharp Concentration

10 Tips for Razor Sharp Concentration

Writing to-do lists and keeping a schedule may keep you organized, but does it really help you get more done? I believe that organization is important, but what you really need is focus. Being able to sit down and concentrate intensely on your work for a few hours. Even a half hour of focused effort can get more done than an entire day of distraction and multitasking.

Here’s some tips to get into a state of deep concentration where work flows easily:


1) Cut Off the Noise

It may be obvious that distractions aren’t helping your focus, but do you actually cut them out? I’ll admit, it can be tempting to put the e-mail alerts on, turn on the IM and answer every request sent your way. But in the end it is only preventing you from concentrating.

Getting into a state of concentration can take at least fifteen minutes. If you are getting distracted every five, you can’t possibly focus entirely on your work. Answer your e-mails at scheduled times. Request that people don’t interrupt you when working on a big project. If you are required to answer phones and drop-in’s immediately, schedule work when the office is less busy.

2) Structure Your Environment

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The place you work can have an impact on your ability to focus. Try to locate yourself so you are facing potential distractions such as doors, phones or windows. This way you can take a glance to assess sounds that would otherwise break your focus.

3) Clarify Objectives

Know what your goal is clearly before you start. If you aren’t sure what the end result is, the confusion will make it impossible to focus. Before I write any articles, I define the main focus of the article and get a brief mental picture of the structure. Unclear objectives often result in having to redo sections of work.

4) Divide Blobs

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Big blobs of tasks that have no clear start or end point destroy focus. If you have a large project that needs work, clearly identify a path that you will use to get started working on it. If the sequence of actions isn’t obvious, it will be difficult to concentrate. Taking a few minutes to plan not only your end result, but the order you will complete any steps, can save hours in wasted thinking.

5) Know the Rules

Get clear on what the guidelines are for the task ahead. What level of quality do you need? What standards do you need to follow? What constraints are there? If you are writing a program, get clear on how much commenting you need, what functions you want to use and the flexibility required. If you are writing an article, decide on the length and style.

If the rules aren’t clear from the outset, you will slip out of concentration as you ponder them later.

6) Set a Deadline

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Deadlines have both advantages and disadvantages when trying to force concentration. A deadline can make it easier to forget the non-essential and speed up your working time. If you give yourself only an hour to design a logo, you will keep it simple and avoid fiddling with extravagant designs.

Time limits have disadvantages when they cause you to worry about the time you have left instead of the task itself. I recommend using a deadline when:

  1. Time is limited. If you only have a day to complete work that could easily take weeks, chunking it into specific deadlines will strip away everything that isn’t crucial.
  2. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. If your task could easily expand to have new features or ideas, use a deadline to keep it under control.
  3. To avoid procrastination. A tight deadline can save you if you are worried about procrastinating.


7) Break Down Roadblocks

Roadblocks occur whenever you hit a tricky problem in your work. This can happen when you run out of ideas or your focus wavers. Break down roadblocks by brainstorming or planning on a piece of paper. Writing out your thought processes can keep you focused even if you might become frustrated.

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8 ) Isolate Yourself

Become a hermit and stay away from other people if you want to get work done. Unless your work is based on other people they will only break your focus. Create a private space and refuse to talk to anyone until your work is finished. Put a sign on your door to steer away drop-ins and don’t answer your phone.

9) Healthy Body, Sharper Mind

What you put into your body affects the way you concentrate. Nobody would expect peak performance if they showed up drunk to work. But if you allow yourself to get chronic sleep deprivation, overuse stimulants like caffeine or eat dense, fatty foods your concentration will suffer. Try to cut out one of your unhealthy habits for just thirty days to see if there is a difference in your energy levels. I’ve found even small steps can create dramatic changes in my ability to focus.

10) Be Patient

Before I write an article, I often sit at my desk for a fifteen or twenty minutes before I put finger on the keyboard. During this time I feel a strong urge to leave or do something else. But I know that if I am patient, I’ll stumble upon an idea to write about and enter a state of flow. Without a little patience, you can’t take advantage of flow when it rushed through you.

If you need strong concentration I recommend periods of 90-120 minutes. Any less than that and you will waste too much time getting started before the flow can continue. More than this is possible to sustain focus, but you will probably benefit from a quick break.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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