Set up an environment where you can’t not work
By Michael Thompson
The future doesn’t belong to the smartest person in the room. Nor does it belong to the strongest or the fastest.
The future belongs to the people who focus on what’s in front of them instead of being distracted by everything around them.
This includes not only the work we do, but also the people in our lives. After all, no matter our title, we all have the same job: to be good to the people around us — and this becomes seriously difficult if you’re head is on a swivel.
As someone with ADHD who has a tendency to jump at every ding, ping, and ring, I’ve tried just about every trick in the book. Much has been said of late about binaural beats. I think we also all know by now we need to take more breaks and I can’t stress enough the importance of getting a consistent good night’s sleep.
But if you’re looking to make the switch from easily distracted to highly focused, below are 7 unconventional, yet extremely practical tips that can help you to do just that.
1. Make it hard to not work
Whenever Tim Urban, creator of Wait but Why, needs to get work done, he stands on a step stool, places his phone on a high shelf, and then puts the stool in another room. He does the same with his router if the task he’s working on doesn’t require the internet. His reasoning: The effort it takes to access these distractions is just as unappealing as working — so he works.
According to a study performed by Microsoft in 2015, the average person’s attention span is 8 seconds. The odds are high in 2021 this number will be even lower considering in 2000 it was 12 seconds. If you want to improve your focus, set up an environment that makes not working hard. Putting your biggest distraction of all, in a place that demands effort to retrieve it, is a smart place to start.
Quick but important aside: If your goal is to be more present with your friends and family, follow the same logic, and hide your computer when you’re done working. Lock it up in the trunk of your car or put it under your bed. Out of sight doesn’t automatically mean out of mind — but it helps.
2. Stop doing your to-do list at night
Many people I know do their to-do list before going to bed or first thing in the morning. Then they complain about always working. Don’t make things harder than they need to be. Get clear on what you need to do the next day before you finish your work. It will free up a ton of headspace so you can truly disconnect at night while allowing you to jump straight into your work the next day without wasting your valuable morning brain space.
“I want to get in the zone today!” “I gotta find my flow!” We say these things when we talk about work. But imagine how much your life would improve if you brought that objective into your relationships as well. Planning your next day of work — while you’re still at work — is a simple yet highly underrated way to help you connect with the people that matter most to you.
3. Bring a 5-minute mindset into everything you do
“They say think big, have a compelling vision. I say think small and do something super cool by the end of the day. Most people see excellence as some grand aspiration. Wrong. Dead wrong. Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all. It’s the quality of your next five-minute conversation. It’s the quality of your next email. Forget the long-term. Make the next five minutes rock!”
I love this thought from management legend, Tom Peters. It’s one of 3 quotes I have hanging up on my wall in my office. It serves as a constant reminder that focus is indeed life’s true currency.
Make a commitment to write the best email you can in the next 5 minutes.
Make a commitment to listen as hard as you can in the next 5 minutes.
Killian Jornet, a guy who has literally run up the tallest mountains in the world, accredits the 5-minute mindset to part of his success. After all, no matter how much we may not want to do something or continue, we can usually always do it for 5 more minutes.
4. Write out your (short) to-do list on individual notecards
If you want to improve your focus, steal a line from legendary business coach Dan Sullivan and cap your to-do list at 3 tasks each day. It will help you gain clarity on the tasks that truly move your needle forward while weeding out the ones that don’t.
But don’t write them in a notebook or in your phone. Instead, take your time to physically write them out on individual note cards and leave only the one you are working on visible to serve as a reminder to zone in on it.
When you’re done with a task, move the task from your “to-do” pile to your new “done” pile. You’ll feel accomplished at the end of the day. Plus, after a month your large stack of “done” cards will prove that you’re indeed moving forward so you stop beating yourself up for not doing more.
5. Save the worst work task till last
Your ability to step away from work determines the quality of the work you do when you start your day. To make things easier, make sure the last thing you need to do each day prior to winding down is painful. This may sound odd. But if you want to spend more quality time with the people you care about, it seriously helps if you’re dying to finish your work.
Then, to make sure your head isn’t still in the work clouds when you’re supposed to be in family mode, do something outside of your office doors to either shock or soothe your soul. Sitting down to either meditate or do nothing at all is never a bad idea. The same goes for going for a walk in the grass or taking a shower. Everywhere we turn we’re encouraged to have a morning routine to prime ourselves for the work day ahead. It only makes sense to do the same after work to get in the right mindset to play.
6. Put your worries down on paper
Breaking out a gratitude journal is a healthy practice. After all, you’ll never make room for more in your life if you don’t appreciate what you already have. But there’s also value in flipping this practice on its head and starting a worry journal.
Get whatever is distracting you or stressing you out onto a piece of paper. Then steal a line from Melody Wilding, LMSW, and reserve time each day to worry on purpose.
You may find that when it’s time to get back to work you focus better on what’s in front of you instead of getting hung up on the stressful things around you.
7. Imagine it’s the last time you’ll do something
My father-in-law came home from a hike and said something that made the whole room tear up: “Today I had to say goodbye to my favorite mountain.” But instead of seeing this as a sad thing, this realization brought this experience into sharp focus. Five years later, if you were to ask him about that day, he’d be able to tell you about every single detail.
The next time you find yourself procrastinating on something, imagine it’s the last time you’ll have to do it. Pretend it’s the last time you’ll speak to your boss or send an email to an annoying client. Whenever I have to change my son’s diaper, this simple thought not only snaps me back to the present moment. But it helps to turn a mundane task into something memorable as we laugh and play instead of rush and complain.
If we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s that life can change on a dime — and many of these changes are out of our control. Whether we fight to focus on what’s in front of us instead of worrying about what’s around us, however, is a choice.
It’s not easy to do all the time. But there’s a lot of value in embracing exercises that make it less hard.
Like my friend Rafael Sarandeses said, “Time isn’t our greatest asset, it’s our presence.”