“My only ritual is to just sit down and write, write every day.”
I chose eight, ’cause I like eight. Eight is the number of new beginnings. Retaining focus on a project, task, or goal for me requires that I regularly reinvent a new way to see my actions toward or completing any of the things I am responsible for. I stay focused when I am able to see into the various angles and rhythms of what is set before me to accomplish. That keeps it fresh and regenerative for me, so that I don’t lose interest and wander from it completely. I do believe that if you have carefully considered how something plays into your life plan and purpose and you set out to begin it, you should finish it. It sets you up to trust yourself. Another thing that Americans regularly avoid that directly affects focus and concentration is good sleep. Don’t neglect the basics and think you will have peak performance. When you are rested, you are better able to handle temptations and stressors that take you off task and out of your game.
As you consider the things I’ve compiled below, think on the why of your task. Purpose breeds focused, intentional, and deliberate action over a long period of time or until the purpose is achieved. Then, consider getting a good night's sleep before you enact your plans to take over the world.
A Few Focus Rituals
Please note that this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, nor am I suggesting you do all of these. It’s a list of ideas—you should try ones that seem best suited for your situation, and test them out to see what works best. Oh, and the thing about rituals, they aren’t easily dismissed. When you set yourself in a pattern that has significance and produces positive results, you are more likely to include it in your regular daily practices. Rituals have a way of empowering you even when you are feeling less than inspired.
1. Morning quiet. You start your day in quiet, before the busyness of the world intrudes on your peace of mind. If you live with others, you might want to wake before they do. The key to enjoying this focus ritual is not going online. You can turn on the computer if you just want to write. You can have coffee or tea and read. You can meditate, do yoga or some other workout, go for a run, take a walk, or sit quietly and do nothing. I like to listen to the Daily Audio Bible Podcast with its smooth, ambient music playing under the inspirational reading of God’s Word. The key is to take advantage of this peaceful time to rest your mind and focus, however you like.
2. Start of day. Begin your workday by not checking email or any other distractions, but start a simple to-do list on paper or with a text file. On this blank to-do list, just list your three most important tasks. Or if you like, just list the one thing you really want to accomplish today. This helps you to focus on what’s important. Even better: continue this focus ritual by starting immediately on the top task on this short list of most important tasks. Set your focus singly on this important task as long as you can—ideally until it’s done. Now you’ve started your day with focus, and you’ve already accomplished something great.
3. Refocus ritual. While the start-of-day ritual is great, there are lots of things that get in the way to distract you, to mess up your focus. So every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, then you may take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of most important tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day to bring yourself back. It’s also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present.
4. Alternate focus and rest. This is almost like intervals in exercise—alternating between periods of hard exercise and rest works well because it allows you to do some pretty intense exercise, as long as you allow yourself some rest. Focus works much the same way: if you give yourself built-in periods of rest, you can get some great periods of focus. There are many variations on this, but some ideas might include: ten minutes of focus followed by two minutes of rest; twenty-five minutes of focus then five minutes of rest; forty-five minutes of focus then fifteen minutes of rest. You get the idea. You’ll need to experiment to find the length and mixture that works best for you. Some prefer short bursts and others like longer periods of undisturbed creativity.
5. Alternate two focuses. Instead of alternating between focus and rest, you could alternate between two different focuses. For example, you could work on two different projects at once, or study for two different classes at once. I’d suggest not switching too rapidly, because there’s a short period of adjustment each time you switch. But you could work for ten minutes on one thing and then ten on another, or stay focused on one as long as you are interested in it then switch when your interest lags. The great thing about this method is that switching to a new project can help give your brain a rest from the other project, and it can keep you creating for much longer before getting distracted.
6. Communicate first then blocks of focus. Set a timer and give yourself forty-five minutes to do email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, and any reading you would normally do. Then use an Internet blocker to block these distractions for a couple of hours (up to three to four hours if you like) while you focus on creating. Then another forty-five minutes of communicating and reading, followed by another block of distraction-free focus.
7. End of day. At the end of each day, you might review what you did, think of what can be improved, remind yourself to disconnect for the rest of the evening, and think about what you’ll focus on tomorrow. It’s a good time to reflect on your day and your life in general.
8. Weekly focus rituals. While it’s not necessary to do a complete weekly review of everything you’re doing, have done, and plan to do, it can be useful to schedule ten minutes every week to quickly bring your work and life back into the right focus. I suggest you review your projects to make sure you’re not letting them get out of hand; simplify your to-do list as much as possible; review the focus rituals you’ve been doing to see what’s working and what isn’t; and basically reflect on what you’re doing with work and life and whether anything needs to change.
The rituals above are just ideas—you should find the ritual that works best for you. There are an almost infinite number of possibilities.
*This blog post was adapted from Leo Babauta, Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction (n.p.: n.d.), public domain (http://focusmanifesto.com/) (accessed January 19, 2011).
What helps you stay focused and creative?