Staying Focused with a Simple Method

“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”

Hagakure

By Leo Babauta

If you’re in a job where you could be doing a thousand things, staying focused for more of the day can become a big problem. We want to do too much.

Today I’d like to talk about thishard problem faced by anyone doing meaningful work.

If you don’t tackle this challenge, you’ll be left feeling scattered and unfocused, overwhelmed and disconnected.

If you can take it on … you can create an experience of getting meaningful things done.

How does that sound? Let’s dive in.

Staying Focused on Meaningful Tasks

I don’t think I need to go too much into the problem of feeling scattered and unfocused during the day — most of us are pretty damn familiar with that.

So how do we tackle it?

The method is fairly simple, though of course it’s so easy to be led astray from it (I lose this thread all the time). I’ve been advocating this for almost 14 years now:

  1. Make a short list. I recommend 3-5 important, meaningful tasks. And then a few more smaller tasks you’ll take on later in the day when you don’t have as much focus power. These are the tasks you’ll take on today (ideally make the list the evening before).
  2. Order the list, and pick the top one. If you spend time the evening before, or just a few minutes first thing in the morning, prioritizing your short list … you won’t have to think about it when the time comes to execute. This is really important. Don’t let yourself negotiate — pick the top thing on your list and don’t question it at execution time.
  3. Execute your ass off on this one thing. Focus on this and nothing else. Close off distractions. Don’t worry about everything else that needs to be done. This is the only thing in the universe. If you get interrupted, take care of the interruption (or put it on your list for later), and then get back to focusing. Pour yourself into it, with as much meaning as you can (more on this below).
  4. Repeat. When you’re done with the task or can’t work on it because you’re waiting on something, pick the next one on the list. When you don’t have focus power anymore (late afternoon for me), take care of the smaller, easy tasks that need to get done.

I keep one long list of tasks that I need (or would like) to do sometime (my backlog), and pick from that each day.

It’s important to keep the list short — you don’t want to have everything you could possibly do on the short list.

Let’s talk about the common problems you’ll face — especially the biggest problem of all.

The Common Problems (Including the Big One)

There are some key problems to know about and take on.

If you finish your short list tasks early, you could get more from your long list … or take the rest of the day off!

If you don’t get them all done (very common), just put them back on the long list or carry them forward to tomorrow’s short list. You only need two text documents (or Google docs) to do this method.

This method solves the very very common problem of trying to do too much — it asks you to only do a few things, and really only one thing at a time. You always know what that one thing is, so there’s no overwhelming number of choices.

The biggest problem, if you’re doing this method, is feeling like you don’t want to do a task, and avoiding by going to easy tasks or distractions. This is so common that there are a thousand books written about it. Don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s a human trait — just notice. It’s easy to notice with this method, because you always know what you should be focused on.

When you notice yourself avoiding something hard or uncertain … the method is to turn towards it. Turn towards what you’re avoiding. Open to the discomfort, embrace it as training and growth. Bring curiosity. Do it even when you don’t feel like it.

This is the training. The simple method makes it easier. Take it on, and see what happens.