Monday, March 24, 2014

Focus – How to Get It Done

When ever I find myself feeling frazzled by the distractions and never-ending list of to-dos, the answer to finding peace always come back to focus. “Focus, focus, focus!” my heart would say, while my mind is off racing in a hundred different directions.
Lately, when people ask me, “How are you?” my response has been “Busy”.
It’s true. I have been busy. Yet when I reflected deeper into why I’m busy, I discovered that I am mostly busy thinking about how busy I am.
I mean, yeah, I have a lot of tasks on my plate, but when I observed myself from a place of silent presence, I discovered that a huge amount of my time and energy was spent cycling through my list of growing to-do items in my head.

The end result is that I do get some stuff done, but not nearly as much as I could, if I freed up all this extra energy used in wasted thinking. If I was focused on the task without wasting energy and being overwhelmed, I’m sure that I would have had a better time doing it.
Can you relate? Isn’t it annoying how our brains do that?
Seriously, do you know anyone who’s not busy? I don’t. Even friends of mine who are on sabbaticals–people who are not working–seem to be busy. Doing what? I don’t know. Probably like me, they too are spending a lot of time thinking about being busy. :)
If you think about it logically, there really is no end to being busy. There are always things and unimportant-yet-urgent tasks we can add to the list to keep feeding into this loop of “insanity”.
The cycle of unproductive insanity caused by the illusion of “busy” can only be broken when we consciously and deliberately decide to put an end to it.

Personal Story

I started exploring into the topics of “busy” and “focus” recently after observing that I am not getting very much done in the form of results, both in my personal life and professional life. I’ve also observed that psychologically, I’ve been carrying this heavy feeling of uneasiness, because I am overwhelmed by all that I think I should be doing.
In my personal life, I am surrounded by clutter and disorganization. We moved into this house a year ago, and many moving boxes are still unpacked—ugly boxes in our closet, office, and the garage. Our guest bedroom has an entire wall stacked with boxes containing unknown objects of more “stuff”.
In a corner, I had stacked all the unused baby things my son has grown out of. My original intent was to list them for sale on “Craig’s List” (online classifieds), but I never got around to it. So for the past 6 months, every time I walk by and see the stash, it’ll add to the anxiety of “more tasks to do that I don’t have time for”.
In my professional life, I have created so many projects for myself that I am unable to focus on any one in particular. I’m dabbling in so may things, as a result, I’m not making very much progress in any one direction. Additionally, my focus is constantly being pulled away towards other shiny opportunities in the marketplace.
To avoid the pain of “not getting things done” and feeling overwhelmed, I found myself procrastinating, and purposely scattering my attention to unimportant actions that provided instant gratification and a way to escape from the illusions of this moment.
To distract myself–in between feeling overwhelmed with to-dos and taking a little action–I would browse random blogs, refresh facebook, and check email every 7 minutes.
Afterwards, I would feel bad for having wasted so much time doing unproductive things, that I’d work extra hard, and usually late into the night. This destructive cycle caused a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
This continued for a few weeks, until I finally hit a breaking point. In the problem solving article, I detailed the simple tool I used to regain clarity and perspective again. Through the baby steps I’ve taken in the past two weeks, I’ve had many personal breakthroughs and victories.

Focus Victory #1: “Craig’s List Stash”

On Saturday, I woke up and decided that I was putting an end to my “Craig’s List Stash” problem. I bounced out of bed, told my husband what I was up to, asked for his support, and got to work.
While he took care of our son, I put my imaginary blinders on (so I don’t get distracted) and focused on the task. In a matter of a few hours, I took photos of everything I wanted to sell, researched pricing, and put all the listings online.
By the time Sunday was here, every major item I had listed online was sold. I placed everything else unsold in a box to be donated.
It felt so good!

Focus Victory #2: Organizing My Office

Saturday evening, after my son was asleep, my project was to tackle my office, so that I can have a clean and organized space to think and work. Since this was the room I spent the most time in, it was important for me to feel peace and ease while being in here.
Instead of treating the task like an annoying hassle (what I used to do and end up dragging my feet to do it), I treated it like a gift for myself–gift of clarity—which motivated me to want to complete it. I felt determined, and gave myself an imaginary deadline, “One hour to get this place cleaned up!” I said.
I grabbed an empty box and moved everything from my desk surface to the box. I then picked up all the toys, books, and clothing off of the floor. In a matter of 10 minutes, I had a clean office space again.

The Power of Focus

In a similar fashion to the above two personal victories, I use the same steps to complete many of the to-do items I have spent many month cluttering my mind with. Tasks such as: getting all our light fixtures replaced (Jeremy did them), organize our closet, unpack moving boxes, de-cluttering the kitchen surfaces, moving forward with professional projects, etc.
The more I practiced these simple steps, the more I realized how much easier it was to just dive into focused action, instead of letting the thought rot in my head. I felt so liberated and empowered. I was no longer sitting around, waiting for the overwhelming thoughts to go away, I was doing something about it.
I learned how easy it was to hone-in my energy and just focus on one thing. Do that one thing with all my attention, and then it’ll be done! Simple. It’s all a matter of intention, decision, and discipline to follow through.

How to Get Things Done

I’ve distilled the steps I’ve been practicing to creating results into the following three steps.

1. Decision

Determination and commitment have power, and having them means that we’re not floating around like a flake.
If you just decide (decide right now) that you will do something, you will more likely take action. If you don’t make any decision, it will likely remain as a thought floating freely in your mind and it will continue to bother you.
Just decide to do one thing today, or decide that you will complete one simple thing this week.

2. Focus

Energy will go wherever we direct it. If we direct all our attention in one direction, progress will be made—this is the power of focus! If we direct our attention in a million directions, the energy given to each direction is so diffused and weak that no one direction will receive enough energy to proceed.
Think of it in another way. We’re on a lake, we want to cross the lake, and there are an unlimited number of boats next to the lake on our side of shore. If we took 2 boats, stuck each leg in a different boat, how long do you suppose it’ll take for us to get across the lake? A long time, right?
Similarly, if we took 4 boats, stuck each one of our arms and legs in a different boat, it would be impossible to cross the lake, right? The obvious answer is that it would be most efficient and effective to pick one boat, jump in it, and keep rowing until we get to the other side of the lake.
While this analogy seems obvious, this is essentially what we do in our lives. We live our lives trying to get across the lake using 4 boats, and we wonder why we can’t get anywhere, and we get frustrated.
No amount of frustration or feeling overwhelmed will make the 4 boats go away. The only solution is to pick one boat and start paddling. This is focus. Choosing one boat is focus. Choosing more than one boat is diffused awareness, and diffused awareness will take you nowhere.
Focused attention is the only way out.

3. Do It!

Once you’ve decided to do something, and decided that you will focus, the next step is to take action. Following our boat analogy above, taking action is the paddling step. Not taking action would be like sitting in a boat, and feeling anxious that you’re still not on the other side.
Once you start paddling, and if you keep focused on paddling, you will eventually get to the other side. Once you land on the other side, you’ll realize how easy it was to cross the lake, and you’ll likely wonder what took you so long in the past to simply: decide, focus and take action.
Getting results is easier than we think.

10 Tips on How To Focus

1. Set Boundaries

Decide in advance how much time you want to dedicate to doing something.
Personally, if I don’t set boundaries, such as “I will stop working at 5pm”, I will easily work until mid-night. Setting boundaries for myself tells my brain the urgency to focus, because my time is limited. By not doing so, I will waste a lot of time.

2. Do the Most Important Thing First

Similarly, I’ve created various rules for myself to better focus. Like the rule, “I won’t check email until I’ve written 500 words today, or I won’t check facebook until I’ve completed the day’s most important task.
This is effective, because not only am I setting boundaries, but also, prioritizing and making sure that tasks important to me always gets completed first.
Personally, if I check email or facebook first thing in the morning, it makes my brain feel scattered and unable to focus.

3. Block Out Sound

This might not be applicable to everyone. I’m pretty sensitive to sound and get easily distracted by random sounds. My solution is to block out noise, by wearing a noise-canceling headphone.

4. Remove Distractions

Clear off your desk where you work from clutter. Close browser tabs (especially the one with email). Turn off notifications. Turn off the phone. I’d even go as far as turning off the Internet for a period of time, to focus on offline work.
Commit to being distraction free for a set amount of time, during which you will only focus on one task. And once the time is up, reward yourself.

5. Create Motivation

Getting clear on your motivation to do things will greatly enhance your ability to focus and get things done. Make sure you know why you need the focus, and get clear on what will happen if you don’t focus.
Did you know that we are more motivated to avoid pain than we are to gain pleasure? So it might help to understand how painful it will be if you didn’t do something. This might be the push you need to focus and move ahead.
For example, when I was wanting to get out of the rat race, I was having a hard time to take action to create the kind of results that would allow me to quit my job. What motivated me most was visualizing an alternate reality where I was stuck in a job I hated for another 10 years.
That image truly scared me and gave me the motivation I needed to take massive action. This blog, for example, is the result of such a massive action. In my story, in less than 8 months of taking consistent focused action, I was able to quit my day job.
Alternatively, you can imagine what life will be like if you took massive action in one direction. Imagine your dream life. Visualize it. Make it real in your mind.

6. Do One Thing At A Time

Pick just one thing to focus on. At any one time, ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I can do out of my list?” Pick one and commit to yourself, “I will commit to focus on this for the next three months (or until it is done) and I will work on nothing else.

7. Create a Focus Ritual

We are creatures of habit. The more we do something, not only does it become easier, but also our brain knows to tune into it.
Writing, for example, requires tremendous focus. So I created a ritual around getting into the focused zone when I write. My ritual goes like this: I sit down with a hot cup of chai/tea/coffee, put on my headphones, turn on “Nawang Khechog” on the iPod, open a new Word document, and BAM, I’m in the zone!
This is a ritual I’ve created for myself over years of practice. The more I repeat my ritual (in the exact order of sequence), my brain is creating and strengthening neuro pathways to facilitate this, making it easier to arrive at the desired experience.
Go ahead and create a ritual where you will be focused. Take baby steps today, and watch it become easier over time.
The new ritual I am currently working on is to wake up early and write for 30 minutes every morning. (I’m still working on the how to wake up early part. *wink*)

8. Alone Time

If you are feeling overwhelmed and mentally cluttered. The best remedy is to take time out and reflect. It is important to do this alone, so you can connect with yourself, and learn to connect with the wisdom within you.
In spending quality alone time, learning, recharging and reflecting, you will gain clarity, understanding, and focus.
If you don’t know where to start, try the problem solving technique of “12 Answers”.
I also recommend meditation—a time where you can sit in silence, and become the silent observer of your mind’s turbulences.

9. Remember to Breath

As you go about your day, ask yourself, “Am I breathing?” then take a few deep breaths before continuing. Also ask yourself “Am I relaxed?” if the answer is “not really”, then stop for a second and take a deep breath.

10. Enjoy This Moment

After have written 150 in-depth articles on how to be happy, and how to live a good life here on TSN, my advice for you (and for myself) always comes back to this:
Enjoy this moment. This moment is all that we have. It is only in this moment that Life happens. Treasure it, bless it, thank it, and live it. Live it fully … regardless of what you’re doing.

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