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Italy. What a beautiful country. Before I even visited it, I was seduced: the food, the wine, the history, the style, the language – what’s not to love. I’ve long harbored fantasies of speaking fluent Italian in Italy, freely conversing with Latin intensity and big hand gestures, making even the most arbitrary conversation sound like a passionate call to arms. I’ve downloaded and used two different language apps. I’ve bought and listened to half a dozen Italian language audiobooks. I’ve watched Italian movies in Italian. But I still can’t speak it. Life is busy – there’s always something getting in the way and preventing me from really progressing with my Italian language learning.

But that’s precisely the point. If learning Italian was truly so important to me, it would be Italian interrupting my usual pursuits, not the other way around. That may sound obvious, but the day I admitted that to myself I was freed from a significant amount of anxiety and mental stress – not because my apparent inability to learn Italian was such a major factor in my life, but because I realized the extent to which this was a pattern in my general behavior. Like most people, I have a long list of interests and “I’d-love-to-do’s” – things that I want to achieve because they seem interesting, fun or fulfilling. Everything from learning how play the piano to walking the 88 Temples of Shikoku. Learning Italian has always been on that list, but getting honest about what is most important to me right now and into the foreseeable future helped me focus on what’s truly valuable to me.

The 21st century human is subject to unprecedented amounts of daily distraction. Managing this distraction requires conscious effort and focus – a critical part of improving productivity. By when I speak of focusing on what’s most important, I don’t only mean in the moment. I mean long term focus, the kind that keeps you committed to the most important goals in your life.

Here are 5 tips on how to do that:

  1. Get clear about what’s important

One of the pleasures of being alive in the 21st Century is that everything seems possible. The digital revolution and advent of elearning makes it possible to learn almost anything online. Our exposure to foreign cultures and tastes has been made easier and more immediate through the effects of globalization and relative reductions in the costs of travel. And if we need help achieving our goals, we can even access world-class coaching without leaving our chair. Suddenly, it seems, we can learn more, do more and see more than ever before. So, we try to do it all. We create wishlists and bucket lists and end up dispersing our attention across them: work, exercise, surf the net, spend time with friends and family, plan the next holiday, learn a language in the grocery line, play a game while waiting for the bus, dabble with guitar when we have 10 minutes free at the weekend. The trouble is we end up doing a lot, but not achieving very much, which has a negative impact on our long-term happiness and sense of self-worth. Results are only achieved with sustained focus and commitment on the things that matter, even though what matters will inevitably shift over time.

So, what’s truly important to you? My favorite system for answering this comes from über-investor Warren Buffet:

  • Write down 25 things you want to achieve on the foreseeable future. Don’t overthink it. Go with your gut.
  • Now identify the 5 most important things. These are not necessarily the most urgent.
  • Those 5 things are now your exclusive focus, not your ‘I’ll focus mainly on these and work on the other 20 in my spare time’. No. You spend all your time and attention focused on achieving these 5 goals until you’ve ticked one of them of the list, then you can add a new one in its place.
  • Regularly remind yourself of these 5 goals and why they are important to you. Keep them visible so that you see them often. Don’t just focus on WHAT achieving these goals will look like, connect to WHY you want to achieve them – what is the deeper meaning for you and your life.
  1. Get clear about what’s not important

Spend some time identifying where your extra time and attention have been wandering to. What has been pulling your focus away from achieving these goals? Be honest with yourself; if you have an illicit Candy Crush addiction, own up to it, no-one else needs to know. Do you watch TV series 5 episodes at a time? Are you hitting the snooze button every morning? Are you secretly inventing extra things to do so that you can justify skipping gym? Whatever it is, add it to the list.

This list is now a powerful weapon against distraction and procrastination. Don’t be ashamed of what’s on there – we all have our vices. Rather, use it to help you spot those times you are wavering from your top goals, and then recalibrate. Every time you do that it will become easier the next time.

  1. Stop multitasking

Despite how good you may believe you are at multitasking, it is not technically possible. The human brain is only capable of processing tasks sequentially, one after the other, not concurrently. Yes, it may feel like you’re doing 5 things at once, but you’re actually just flipping between those tasks really quickly. That flipping radically depletes your brain’s energy resources, leading to lower focus, easier distraction and less emotional stability. And, the more often you multitask the worse these effects get.

Pick a task and commit to focusing on it for a specific period of time eg. one hour, followed by a short rest before changing tasks. If you know that you have a bunch of small tasks that need your attention, then set aside specific time just for that and refocus on a single task later. Always do your most important work earlier in the day when your willpower and energy are highest. And get to know your working patterns. Come up with your best ideas at 4 in the morning or 10 at night? Keep time aside then for creative work.

  1. Get to know your anxiety

Important tasks can often raise anxiety, either because we know we’re not getting to them or, when we do commit to them, we are endlessly distracted. If left unrecognized, this anxiety can stimulate further anxiety.

Learn to anticipate these uncomfortable emotions. If possible, get curious about them, but at the very least acknowledge them, label them and know that, even though these feelings are just trying to protect you in some way, you are well and capable of achieving success.

  1. Improve focus

Easier said than done, but very possible. This actually has two parts: improving your faculty of focus and reducing distraction. Focus is like a muscle which is strengthened with regular practice, the most effective practice by far being mindfulness, which improves your ability to pay attention to what’s happening in the moment and make better choices about how to use that attention. Intelligent energy management is also key.

Distraction is constant and the only way to manage it effectively is through taking action. Have important work to do? Serious about getting it done? Silence your phone, close down email and close your door if you can. If this is difficult, start with 10 minutes at a time, with the aim of working towards one hour pockets of distraction-free work. The results will astound you.


Photo by Kazuky Akayashi on Unsplash