Your goals may hinge on your ability to train your mind and focus better. Whether you aim to get in better physical shape, improve your relationship, or increase profitability for your company, your ability to manage your attention can make all the difference.
To Focus Better, Build Up Concentration Slowly
I travel the globe helping leaders learn to focus better and improve their concentration so that they can achieve their most significant results. What I see is that when it comes to focusing, people are often their own worst enemies.
The leaders I work with are high-achievers, and so they often try to improve with an all-or-nothing mentality. For example, someone might try to go from checking their phone every few minutes to trying not to check it at all, through sheer force of willpower. When they fail, they give up completely and go back to checking their phone constantly.
But just like you wouldn’t go from never lifting weights to trying to bench press three hundred pounds, you can’t go from a life of distraction to one of intention and focus without doing some reps to build your mental focus over time.
Use These 16 Mental Shifts to Improve Focus
With this in mind, I’d like to share some small mental shifts you can make that will help you focus better in the long run. You certainly don’t need to attempt all of these to see an increase in your overall concentration and improve your productivity.
Just pick one mantra that resonates with you most. Implement the subtle strategy I describe, building up your reps slowly over time. Once it becomes a habit, then pick another subtle mental shift to work on from the list.
1. I will learn to manage my attention.
It sounds so obvious: If you want to improve your brain’s ability to focus, you should practice doing so. But what does a practice of attention management look like in real life? It can start with simply being more mindful of your surroundings. If you go for a walk, try not to listen to a podcast but instead notice the trees or the barking dogs. If you’re at work, try to become more aware of where your focus is at any given moment.
Try to work your senses with the “5 things” game. When you’re on your walk, try to see five interesting things. See if you can smell five different scents. Notice five things you can feel (the sun on your face, for example?), and five things you hear. Can you even taste five things? Is there a child selling lemonade on your walk? Can you taste salt in the air if you live near the beach? Focusing on your senses is a great way to ground you in the present moment.
2. I want to better control my life.
Often my clients are stressed. They tell me things like, “I’m always putting out fires at work,” or, “My family needs a lot—I never get any time to myself.” But the truth is, when we don’t prioritize our own well-being, we really can’t take care of anything or anyone else as well as we could. So say good riddance to guilt and commit to leading a proactive, rather than reactive, existence, one in which you put your own priorities first. Gear up to learn the skills to get back in the driver’s seat of your own life.
3. I can set boundaries with other people.
There is no way to improve focus without decreasing distractions. Often these distractions come from other people, who are well-meaning and just need our attention for a minute or two. But these distractions pile up to derail our days and divert our attention from what we most want to accomplish. The answer? Learn to set boundaries with other people. There are many low-tech strategies for doing so. If you work in an open-office space, use a funny “Do Not Disturb” sign. If you work from home and have children, set up a dry-erase board for them to leave you messages when you’re in deep concentration.
4. I will let team members (or my children!) make mistakes.
One of the reasons leaders are frequently distracted from their own important work is that they are trying to prevent direct reports from making mistakes. But this is to the detriment of their own ability to focus deeply. Worse, this approach prevents direct reports from learning the most on the job. People learn more by making their own mistakes than by being told upfront what to do. So I suggest mentoring in hindsight. Parents can also use this technique by letting children make mistakes (within reason) and then discussing the problem and solution with them on the backend.
5. I don’t owe anyone an instant response.
Our “always-on” digital world is leading to an epidemic of burnout in the work world and at home. No one old enough to carry an iPhone is immune. But as long as we continue to feel communication debt whenever we get a message (whether via phone, text, or chat), we’re inviting stress into our lives.
Instead, make a mental shift that in order to focus better, you understand that you don’t owe anyone an instant response. Give yourself 24 hours to respond to email. If you’re at work, coordinate with your team members to set a communication policy that allows the whole team to focus better on their most important priorities.
6. I provide thoughtful answers.
By giving ourselves extra time to respond rather than firing off the first answer that comes to our minds, we can improve the quality of our responses. This is as true in our personal lives as it is in our professional worlds. When we take a beat to reflect on a request, we’re often able to give a more thoughtful answer that our customers, clients, or family members will appreciate much more. This builds our reputation capital, which is what I call the good word-of-mouth that spreads about us and our businesses.
7. I am a mindful listener.
In our hurry, hurry, hurry world, a person who listens mindfully is a rare treasure that co-workers and friends recognize and value. But how can we be mindful listeners who are truly focused on the speaker? When we interact with someone else, we can embrace the silence, rather than rush to fill the void. Silence is the key to cultivating our ability to stay present and being more thoughtful in our conversations.
8. I control my technology, not the other way around.
These days, most of us exist amidst a never-ending series of rings and dings. Our technology tries to steal our attention all day long, and, usually, it wins. Becoming the boss of our technology starts with a mental shift that says, “I am the boss of my technology and not the other way around.” We need to really want to control our tech in order to follow through with the changes that will allow us to do so. Once our tech works for us, and not the other way around, we can unleash its extraordinary powers in service of achieving our most important results. (Sign up here to get my detailed guide on how to control your tech once and for all.)
9. I respect the fact that my body and mind are connected.
These days, there’s a lot of focus on the mind-body connection, so most of us are aware that we can only achieve peak productivity mentally if we are also improving our physical selves as well. But then again, sometimes we can know this fact without actually taking the time to pay it the respect it truly deserves. When we respect the mind-body connection, we don’t try to work while we’re fueled by coffee and candy, and we don’t try to stay up all night and then work the next day, too. Instead, we eat healthy snacks throughout the day and prioritize rest.
10. Even when I don’t prioritize a “workout,” I still need to move.
Oftentimes, I’ll work with leaders who tell me they’re so busy, they have no time for physical activity. But focusing better and improving concentration does not always require a full hour at the gym, and another hour to shower and dress after (but regular exercise absolutely helps!).
Research shows that we can improve our concentration and focus simply by moving for ten minutes before we sit down to work. So don’t let the perfect (the full workout) be the enemy of the good (a 10-minute walk around the block or up and down the office stairs). Get up and move whenever you can throughout the workday. This will improve your ability to focus.
11. I’ll start the day by focusing on my own priorities.
Many of us start our days by checking email. But this is a big mistake if we want to learn to focus better and improve our concentration. We need to recognize our inboxes for what they truly are— a hamper full of other people’s priorities.
Instead, we can get more done when we start our work days by using 60-90 undistracted minutes to concentrate deeply on making progress toward our most important goals. If we must check email first thing in the morning, we can do it on our mobile devices. This will prevent us from getting “sucked in” and writing lengthy replies.
12. I’m trying not to interrupt myself.
It sounds strange, but when you think about it, we often interrupt ourselves with our own thoughts. How often do you sit down to complete a task when you think, “Oh! I forgot to load the dishwasher,” or, “I need to call so-and-so back. Right now!” Before we know it, we’ve derailed our own attention. Practicing attention management can train our brains to stick to one task.
13. I like to single-task, not multitask.
Even though it often feels like we’re getting more done when we do two or more tasks at once, research shows this is not the case. Instead, multitasking causes us to feel more stressed and frantic. As we shift our focus between tasks, we take more time to refocus on any given one. All in all, this “multitasking” leads to a decrease in our ability to concentrate and achieve results. So,next time you’re tempted to “get a little real work done” during a Zoom meeting, keep the research in mind. Instead, attend to one task completely before turning your attention to the next.
14. I can get more done in two focused minutes than 10 unfocused minutes.
Use the two-minute rule of time management to get more done — just make sure to use the two-minute rule correctly. Many people misinterpret this rule to say that whenever a task takes two minutes or less, they should go ahead and do it. This bias toward action is great, but it can also undermine your productivity and focus.
Instead, heed this caveat: The two-minute rule is meant to be used during processing time. Let’s say we set aside a specific block of time to ‘process’ (i.e. take action on) our email. We would apply the two-minute rule only to tasks related to email and not to tasks related to analyzing our quarterly results, or some other task on our list.
15. Sometimes the best thing I can do for my work is not work.
Research shows that after 50 hours of work in a week, our productivity (and ability to focus and concentrate) decreases. With that in mind, I often tell clients that the best thing they can do for their work is not work. In order to unleash our genius, our brains need to truly disconnect from work and do something else — a playful hobby, sleep, or take a vacation. By shifting the focus of our minds, we increase our powers of concentration. So take rest seriously and, for the sake of improving your ability to focus, use all of your vacation days.
16. I will notice my progress.
Acknowledging our progress as we improve our focus and concentration can keep us motivated to make more changes. So recognize progress by tracking which of these subtle mental shifts you are making, and the actions you are taking as a result. For example, if you commit to working less, write that down.
Maybe you start by working 49 hours per week instead of 50. Record your progress, however incremental. The next week, if you work 48 hours, write that down, too. Soon you’ll be able to see big strides toward your goal of improving your concentration. Share the good news with a friend or coworker. It will help keep you motivated in continuing to build your ability to focus better.
How Will You Improve Your Concentration and Focus?
If you commit to making one or two of these mental shifts, I’m confident that, over time, you will see noticeable differences in how well you can train your attention to accomplish what you set out to do. Just as we talked about being the boss of your technology rather than the other way around, I know you can be the boss of your own attention, too.
As you make progress on training your brain to focus, you’ll be able to achieve your goals more quickly, and with far less stress.