We’ve all had those days. You know the days I’m talking about. You have a million and one things on your to-do list, but instead of working on them, you find yourself thinking about last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones,” or whatever happened to the non-Justin Timberlake members of NSYNC or how exactly ice cream machines work…
Sound familiar? No worries, we’ve all been there. Learning how to focus is a skill we all need, and losing focus is a struggle that nearly every entrepreneur faces at one point or another. According to research from UC Santa Barbara, the average person’s mind wanders at least 30% of the time and sometimes as much as 70%.
Luckily, you’re not doomed to spend most of your time with your head in the clouds. There are time-tested, proven strategies you can use on a daily basis to help you learn how to focus, increase your productivity and knock items off that to-do list like the boss you are.
Here are five steps to regain your focus as an entrepreneur.
When you hear the word “meditate,” you might immediately conjure up an image of a bunch of yogis searching for nirvana. But before you tell yourself meditation is too “out there” for you, you might want to follow the lead of uber-successful businesspeople like Oprah, Jeff Weiner and Arianna Huffington and get your Zen on.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, mindfulness meditation refers to “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.” This originally comes from a Buddhist practice, but many of today’s devotees practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a secular form of mindfulness meditation launched in the late 70s, that teaches the practice of mindfulness sans the spiritual implications.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation are inarguable. A regular mindfulness practice can help you boost your immune system, increase positive emotions and (you guessed it) improve focus.
To get these benefits, you don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion for hours each day. You can enjoy all the feel-good side effects of mindfulness, including increased focus, starting with just a few minutes a day.
How to start mindfulness meditation
- Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed.
- Sit on a chair with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor.
- Focus on your breath.
- Feel your breath going in and out.
- Notice the thoughts that arise in your mind. Observe them, don’t fight them.
- Let the thoughts pass and gently return to your breath.
- Try to aim for five minutes.
- Practice regularly to make this a habit.
- Make progress patiently and try longer sessions.
That’s it! Now, obviously (especially at the beginning), your mind is going to wander. But imagine that your mind is like a stream and allow all your thoughts to float by. Watch them float away and then bring your attention back to your breath.
When you first get started, you might find it hard to focus. But don’t be hard on yourself! Everyone deals with unwanted thoughts during mindfulness meditation, especially when they’re just beginning their practice. Just keep bringing your attention and awareness back to your breath, and the more you practice, the easier it will get.
You can start off with just five or ten minutes, and then as you get more comfortable, build your practice up to 30 minutes or more.
For more tips on meditation, check out Headspace. This app, which is hugely popular in the business world, will teach you how to meditate in just 10 minutes a day.
2. Make lists
One of the biggest reasons entrepreneurs have trouble focusing is because their minds are like a tornado. At any given time, there are a million thoughts, business ideas and to-do items swirling around in their heads.
Focusing in the middle of a storm? Not so easy.
The best way to deal with this internal storm is to get your ideas out of your head and into the universe. By writing everything down, you can look at things more objectively, make a solid plan for your day and stop thoughts from taking over your attention.
How to make a morning list
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Write down everything that’s on your mind.
- When your timer goes off, stop writing and start organizing. Put your thoughts into different categories, like Personal To-Do’s, Business To-Do’s, Business ideas, or Calls.
- Look at each list and separate them by priority. For example, you might have a Today, This Week and a “Nice To Do” list.
Lists will help you visualize your priorities so you can create a plan of attack to dominate the day and clear your mind of tornado-like thoughts. Kick it old-school by doing this exercise each morning with good old-fashioned pen and paper. If you love tech, note-taking apps like Evernote or Wunderlist are great options.
Apologies to any couch potatoes out there, but if you want to increase your focus (and just be an all-around healthier, happier and more energetic person) you need to get moving and exercise.
There aren’t many things in life that will give you as many benefits—physically, mentally and emotionally—than exercise. I could write a book on all the amazing things that exercise will do for you and your business, but since we’re talking about focus, let’s stay… focused.
According to Dr. John Ratey, who literally wrote the book on how exercise affects the brain, exercise actually increases your focus for two to three hours after you finish your workout. That means an AM workout will have you feeling clear and focused straight through lunchtime.
If you want to increase your focus, start every day by getting up and moving. Any exercise will do. Lift weights at the gym, hit a yoga class, or go for a jog with your dog. Whatever is going to help you win the battle against the “snooze” button is fine. If you feel like your mornings are already jam-packed and an hour sweat sesh just isn’t in the cards for you, check out the 7 minute workout, which boasts all the positive benefits of a longer workout without the time suck.
Want to keep that hyper-focused and happy feeling going later on in the day? Take a break and go on a nice, long walk. Walking is just as valid an exercise as anything else, and taking a break from your multiple screens and spending some time outside can have huge benefits on your focus, your productivity, your creativity and your overall well-being.
Entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg are fans of walking throughout the day, and if it was beneficial to the genius minds behind Apple and Facebook, it’s probably safe to say, it’ll be beneficial for you, too.
Moral of the story: get moving, get focused.
Have you ever heard the saying “messy bed, messy head”? Well, the same thing applies to your desk.
If your workspace looks like a war zone of office supplies, old invoices and random junk, the only thing you’re going to be able to focus on is the sheer amount of stuff that’s taken over every available inch of desk space.
Even if you’re not consciously aware of it, clutter has an effect on your concentration. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that too much clutter inhibits the brain’s ability to focus and process information. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, your brain is too distracted by the sea of clutter you’re drowning in to get anything done.
But the opposite is also true. In the words of Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, “outer order contributes to inner calm.” And that inner calm will allow you to focus on what you need to get done instead of stressing about filing all the papers strewn across your desk.
To get a handle on your clutter problem, try Rubin’s “evening tidy-up” technique. Every night before bed (or every day after you wrap up work), take 5 to 10 minutes to clean and declutter your space. That way, when you tackle work in the morning, you’ll be able to start the day with that inner calm and focus.
If you feel like your clutter problem is approaching “Hoarders” status, you might want to call in the big guns. Hire a cleaner from an app like Handy to clean up your space or find a personal organizer on Angie’s List to come and tackle the problem and get you in a solid, decluttered space. Then, use the “evening tidy-up” method for maintenance and to keep the clutter from taking over again.
5. Take breaks
When all else fails and you are finding it literally impossible to focus, give yourself (and your mind) a break.
Often times, a wandering mind and an inability to focus in your brain’s way of telling you “Look. We’ve been at this for hours. I’m tired and need to rest.” The longer you ignore the message from your brain, the harder it’s going to be to focus and get your work done.
The next time you notice you’re spending more time daydreaming about what it would be like to be the next contestant on “The Bachelor” instead of finishing the presentation for tomorrow’s big client meeting, close the computer! Seriously, shut that thing down. Get up and go do something completely non-work related. Call a friend. Watch an episode of “Parks and Rec.” Take a nap. Do whatever you need to give your mind a break from thinking about work. When you get back, you’ll feel refreshed, recharged, and ready to tackle the task.
You shouldn’t wait until your brain feels totally fried to work a break in, either. Taking regular breaks can keep your creative juices flowing and keep your focus on point all day long. Try the Pomodoro Technique (or work for 25 minutes, break for five minutes), which has been shown to improve attention span and concentration.
Ready, set, focus
With these five easy steps, you’ll be well on your way to increasing your focus, coasting through your to-do list and being crowned the Productivity Champion of 2017.