Have you ever been in the middle of working on something really important--like a report your boss wants "yesterday" or a presentation you have to give at the next staff meeting--only to have your mind drift away...right in the middle of it?
Perhaps you start worrying about another project with a deadline that's fast approaching...you know, the one you probably should be working on right now but can't because you've got to get this one done first.
Or maybe your mind wanders to something more personal, such as the snacks you forgot to put on your grocery list for your kids lunches this week or the dimensions for the wood pieces you need to pick up after work so you can finish your deck this weekend.
No matter what it is that has popped into your mind, one thing is clear...your focus is now gone. And you're likely going to face some repercussions as a result.
The Consequences of "Lost" Focus
Of course, the most immediate and noticeable result of lost focus is that your current project is probably going to take more time than you had anticipated or planned. This can easily put you "behind", leaving you to struggle to get it done in time without missing your deadline.
But research also shows that losing focus can actually affect your contentment with life. In fact, Harvard University researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert's 'Track Your Happiness' and resulting study (PDF) analyzed samples from 2,250 adults and discovered that 46.9% of people's time is spent thinking about things other than what they're actually doing at that moment...and this causes unhappiness.
"In conclusion, a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost."
As if that isn't bad enough, lack of focus can also affect you on a much larger scale.
For instance, if you have your eyes on a bigger goal (like owning your own company within the next five years or losing 25 pounds), not being able to concentrate on the steps that are necessary to get you there will make it harder -- if not impossible -- to reach.
In other words, not only do you risk missing deadlines when you're unable to focus, but you also risk missing out on your dreams.
So...what can you do to improve your focus and avoid all of these negative consequences in your life?
Think of Your Brain as a "Tool"
Start treating your brain like a high performance instrument and not just a place to store things.
"Your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device."
- David Allen, GTD
Imagine that all of that grey matter in your head is a living calculator that can solve complex tasks (without necessarily storing them) versus being a computer with a hard drive and tons of storage "space".
What usually winds up happening is we try to "keep" everything in our brains. For example, at any give moment our minds are filled with:
- All the different tasks we're supposed to be working on
- All the things we should be doing
- All of the information about unfinished assignments
- Details about upcoming appointments
- Things we have planned with our kids
- And all of our other miscellaneous obligations, loose-ends and task details!
As a result, we tend to forget things. A lot of things.
Think about how often that's happened to you, how many times you've been in the middle of something and thought, "Oh my God, I forgot to book the flight!" or "Ugh! I never returned that call!"
While constantly going over these things in your head may seem like a good way to make sure you don't forget anything, it really squanders your brain's capacity to think.
You become unable to concentrate fully on your task at hand because, whether you want it to or not, your brain is forever trying to work out all of these different unsolved problems...and reminding you about them...usually at the most inopportune times.
So how do you start "freeing" up your brain?
4 Simple Ways to Go From Overwhelmed to Accomplished!
1) Do a Brain Dump
The goal of a brain dump is to all of the "clutter" out of your head and onto paper. Clear your mind so you can truly be productive and start get your "thinking clean."
2) Map and Categorize the Important Stuff
Create a mind map to create a simple system to manage your overall goals (both big and small picture).
3) Use a Kanban Board to Visualize and Prioritize
A Kanban board will help you visualize what you're working on and limit your "work in progress" so you don't get overwhelmed or discouraged.
4) Employ the Pomodoro Technique to Focus on "Right Now"
The Pomodoro Technique will help you work with time rather than against it and focus on getting your most important work completed. Here are the five simple steps:
- Choose a task (ideally your most important one)
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on your task until the timer rings, then put a checkmark on a tracker
- Take a five minute break (you just completed your first Pomodoro!); then
- Repeat steps 1-4 three more times, followed by a 15 minute break
Capture the "Magic" of Focus
When you begin to free up your mental space, to use your brain in a thinking capacity instead of a storage capacity, you're better equipped to concentrate on the task at hand...and that's when the real magic happens.
"Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus."
- Alexander Graham Bell
That's when you start to achieve dreams because your focus becomes as strong as a magnifying glass in direct sunlight.
Want to go further? Check out this rundown of my simple productivity system (for complicated people). It goes into greater detail about how to use each of these tools to help you truly work smarter (not harder!).