You’re at a networking event and the prospect you’ve been angling to meet is momentarily alone. Should you walk straight over, or should you pick up an hors-d'oeuvre, check your email and start a conversation with someone else? This is not a trick question. In fact, it’s like the choices we all face daily. Most of us succumb to distractions, procrastination or anxiety that slow or -- even worse -- prevent us from reaching our goals.
Why are we so easily distracted? Perhaps early humans who focused too intently on something to the exclusion of all else missed the saber tooth's’s growl and become lunch. We aren’t descended from them. We’re descended from the nervous ones who jumped at every noise and flinched at each movement. Regardless, "why'' matters far less than finding a way to overcome it.
Why aspire to laser-like focus?
Those who focus better achieve more. In the words of Bruce Lee, “The successful warrior is the average person with laser-like focus.” Remember the networking event? Laser-like focus gets you to your goal faster, whether it’s pitching that prospect, setting up the right structure for your startup, or anything else.
Is it better to pursue several goals in parallel? The Talmud teaches “Tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta,” Hebrew for “Embrace too much, end up empty-handed.” Perhaps that’s why Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all say that focus was the key to their success. They each decided what their most important goal was and pursued it single-mindedly. Concerned you can’t focus like that? This attention test video should prove you can.
What should you focus on?
To ensure you focus on the right thing, brainstorm top-down and write out all your important goals. For each one, ask yourself if you’re committed to it above all others. Once you answer “Yes” to one, ruthlessly say “No” to every competing goal, opportunity or priority. All those others have just become the enemy of your focus. Their siren song will lure you onto the shores of distraction. Ignore them until you achieve your focus goal.
Overcoming external distractions.
To avoid external distractions, prevent them from reaching your mind. If your environment is noisy, use earplugs or noise-canceling earphones to reduce the noise, or mask unpredictable external noise with familiar music. If your environment is visually distracting (with people walking by for example) face a wall, or add visual elements to your task until they fill your brain’s visual-signal processing bandwidth, and you’ll stay on-task.
Overcoming internal distractions.
Internal distractions are much harder to control. To reduce their impact, take a two-fold approach. Since one of the main obstacles to achieving and maintaining focus is stress, simplify your life, focus on the positive, be grateful for what you have and avoid people and things that irritate you. Your stress will decrease, improving your focus.
Second, learn to recognize internal distractions and refocus through meditation, which teaches you to become aware of your mind starting to wander. As you become more conscious of lapses in focus, it becomes easier to pull your mind back to your tasks. As a bonus, meditation also reduces stress.
Once you’ve addressed both internal and external distractions, the last barrier is uncertainty. If you don’t know what’s next, you hit a wall and lose focus. Avoid this by converting abstract goals such as “I want to become wealthy” or “I want to be successful,” to something concrete. Make it SMART -- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
However, just like a muscle, your mind gets tired after a long bout of focus. When fatigue sets in, let your mind rest, wander and recharge.
Remember to look up periodically.
The risk of focusing on one thing for too long is that you may miss an important change that would modify your focus goal. That’s why you should periodically pause, reassess, and if you’re still committed to the same goal, turn that laser back on. However, as long as you know your goal is still viable, laser-like focus is what will get you there fastest.