The Rituals of the Focused Mind

Focus is THE competitive advantage.

If you have it and are disciplined and knowledgeable about its use, you will be ahead of most of your colleagues. I work in corporations worldwide and witness the same thing in all of them. Mind-numbing, attention-sucking atmospheres that most employees fall prey to. It’s like a bell is rung the first thing in the morning. The barrage of attention-takers begins and they don’t cease until bedtime. This barrage includes emails masquerading as something urgent, pop-ups on smartphones, Jabber-like apps that make employees available at all times, unproductive meetings, phone calls, interruptions by colleagues, and the list goes on and on. If you are lucky, you may find time for a full hour’s worth of “real” game-changing work during each day. But, this only happens when you can focus your attention.

It has been estimated that one hour of focused time equals four hours of work in the messy distracted world that I describe above. Because it is unlikely that the corporate world will change significantly anytime soon, it is up to each individual to decide what they want to do. The opportunity is to make focus a personal priority. Here are some simple, but overlooked ways to get to at least a half hour of focused work.

1. Create an early morning ritual. Our brain is typically at its best in the morning for deep thinking. As the day progresses, distractions pile up. Create a ritual of arising a half hour earlier to either begin work from home while everyone is still asleep or get to the office before the masses arrive. That half hour of intense focus is worth about two hours of work once your colleagues arrive.

2. Find an empty office (with a window). Take yourself away for an hour with instructions to interrupt you only if it is an emergency. Find an empty office – the kind with nothing in it but a desk because nobody has claimed it yet. If you can find one with a window that looks onto nature, even better. A view of nature has been proven to make our brain more creative. With a window and no desk phone or piles of paper to distract you, you will have a valuable and productive hour.

3. Schedule time FOR YOU several times a week. GE’s Vice Chair, Beth Comstock does this and the time that she schedules is inviolable. She says she gets massive amounts of thinking and business done. Hang the proverbial “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door and get down to some great focused work. Lest you think this is solely for people of high office, I’ve found people at all levels who use this tactic and it works. The key is to keep it sacred. Do not allow yourself or others to violate the time, unless it is an emergency or critical to the business.

4. Work from a coffee shop. While a coffee shop isn’t devoid of distractions, they aren’t the kind that put our brain on high alert. Negotiate with your boss to do some work offsite. Make sure that you have the results to show for your time away and the likelihood is that your boss will be very happy.

5. Get very far away. Professor and author Cal Newport describes this tactic in his book Deep Work. When I read it, I recognized myself immediately and felt better about the $400 a night hotel I got on the water in Seattle to begin writing my book Activate Your Brain. In one week, I wrote over half of the book. Well worth the investment. Newport writes about JK Rowling doing the same thing while on deadline for one of her Harry Potter books. She stayed for a week at a posh hotel in London. She made substantial progress. Newport says the combination of getting away – completely away – and spending a good bit of money for the sole purpose of doing deep work creates enough of an external conscience to get moving and stay focused. He was right. This isn’t a boondoggle, it’s an investment in your focus and your career.

These are relatively simple tactics and some trickery to help you focus. While some of them may not work for your situation, remember that the main point is to deliberately carve out time to allow your brain to do its heavy lifting. The advantage will be yours to enjoy.

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