#058: How to Create More Mental Focus [Podcast]

Though we live in a very exciting time in history, it is filled with distractions. Regardless, you and I still have to get real work done. That requires focus.


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/_IB_

But what if mental focus is not something you either have or don’t have? What if it’s something you could create, on-demand, whenever you need it?

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Here are ten tactics I use to create more mental focus when I need it:

  1. Block off time on your calendar.
  2. Isolate yourself in a quiet place.
  3. Turn the room temperature down.
  4. Get comfortable.
  5. Take email and social media software offline.
  6. Put on music that helps facilitate concentration.
  7. Have something on-hand to drink.
  8. Avoid high glycemic carbohydrates.
  9. Set mini-goals.
  10. Set a timer and take predetermined breaks.

In a world of distraction and competing demands, mental focus is a scarce yet precious commodity. If you want more of it, you will have to be intentional about getting it.

Listener Questions

Alex Barker asked, “How do you regain mental focus after a long day at work and then with the family?”

Joseph Consford asked, “How do I keep from getting side-tracked from rabbit trails of my own making?”

Paul Hunt asked, “How do I keep my mental focus on the project at hand when I really would rather be working on something else?”

Sharad Verma asked, “How do you focus when you are forced to multi-task?”

Timothy Moser asked, “Do you have any tips for increasing focus when trying to read in the midst of distractions?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Question: What’s your “recipe” for creating more mental focus when you need it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://www.toddliles.com/ Todd Liles

    Michael, I follow a similar focus process as you do. In addition, I give myself distinct moments when I can turn off the creative side of my focus. Such as, switching my focus to my mind / body connection at crossfit. The creative pause allows me to refocus.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Breaks are critical!

      • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

        A bit dated, but I’ve found great value in “The Power of Focus” by Canfield, Hansen, and Hewitt. They suggest taking a 15-20 minute power nap during the day to recharge and maintain maximum energy and productivity throughout the day.

  • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

    My focus has skyrocked since becoming intentional about my morning routine (thanks to your podcasts). Get enough sleep and a regular exercise routine does wonders for creating powerful focus.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Jon, I completely agree that intentionality is a critical component of success in virtually every area – including the ability to focus!

  • Ogutu Ochieng

    If one could focus on a task for just 2 hours a day for a month, he would be a master!

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Interesting observation Ogutu. How would your premise stack up against the Outlier concept purported by author Malcolm Gladwell? Gladwell’s underlying idea is that to achieve true mastery – where your performance pushes to be viewed as an outlier among a normal bell curve distribution – the individual must practice 10,000 hours, equivalent to about three years.

      • Ogutu Ochieng

        Consider someone who have never driven a car before. If he practices for 2 hours a day for a month without break, after one month, others who have never driven before will consider him a “master”, not in the sense of Gladwell’s mastery but in the sense that he has mastered 20% of the skills needed to perform 80% of the driving he will ever do.

        • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

          Fair enough – I actually like your innovative use of the “20-80″ ratio, I’ve never heard it applied to learning a skill. Provocative!

  • http://www.charlesstone.com/ charles stone

    Michael, neuroscience also informs us about focus and attention. Dopamine in the brain helps with focus. Your number 9 actually is a great way to get small dopamine bursts. When we set and reach small goals, dopamine goes into our reward/motivator center which helps with focus and motivation.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Charles. I am familiar with this science. It’s probably worthy of an entire post. It drives so much of our behavior—good and bad.

      • http://www.charlesstone.com/ charles stone

        I recommend a great book that captures the essence of how neuroscience impacts leadership-Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Another by a Christian psychiatrist, Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson looks at how neuroscience helps inform emotional healing. The brain is really big these days.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          Thanks for those recommendations!

        • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

          You’re absolutely right. Brain research (and books) are hot right now. I hear conversations about this everywhere I go.

    • rabbimoffic

      I’d also recommend Willpower, by Roy Baumeister. He’s devoted his professional career to studying the way we can focus and get things done. He has a whole chapter on David Allen’s methodology and unpacks the famous marshmallow experiment done at Stanford in the 1970s.

  • Lisa

    For me, regaining focus is more about rising earlier than the rest of the family. Andy Traub & his book, Early to Rise (Esp his emails!) were so helpful!


    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Awesome comment Lisa – and I think it jives well with Michael’s idea of blocking out time on the calender creating the “alone zone” to help you shift and control your attention.

  • Michelle White

    This is such a timely podcast for me! I have set a deadline for studying for two significant exams that is quickly approaching, and have triaged my calendar to make time. My problem is that when I sit down to study, I get very distracted by my thoughts about things I need to do and other things I would rather be doing. I feel I need to set aside 2-3 hours for focused study time several times a week. This is hard. But I like this statement: ” It’s the focus you bring to your work that is the real difference-maker.” Connecting this task to the big picture of being well-prepared for my career is also key.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Michelle, I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding the distractions that leech into the time blocks we set aside.

      One of the tactics I use is that whenever I have to buckle down and focus on a deadline or engage in personal meditation, I have a blank legal nearby and when one of those distractions appears on my internal-mental screen – I write down a 5-7 word description of it on the legal pad.

      Once it’s written down, I’m free to flush it from my mind.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

        I have a similar procedure, Tor. I first learned this from David Allen.

        • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

          This simple tactic has increased my productivity by leaps and bounds and helped me maintain mental clarity through the day. I have a whiteboard in my office for intermediate term tasks / projects, and I have a scratch pad on my desk for those “oh…don’t forget about that” tasks.

      • Michelle White

        I’ve done that before, and I am doing it tonight… it works! I am getting a few ideas from my reading, and this is actually a great way of keeping me engaged in the reading.

      • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

        GREAT idea! I do a similar thing when I do my “brain dumps” – it is almost as if getting it out of our minds and on to paper gives us room to free up our creative thoughts and productive nature.

    • rabbimoffic

      Echoing Michael’s reference to David Allen, one of my favorite saying’s of his is “pay attention to what has your attention.” If your psyche is telling you to think about something else, figure out a way to get it off your mind, which is usually writing it down and putting it in your inbox. That makes it easier to focus on the task at hand.

  • http://forthisisthetime.com/ Esther Aspling

    I need to get better at this, especially at home. I’ve been without internet for over a week at home and have had to head out to coffee shop offices around the city. I’ve totally been more productive at those sites, but I really don’t want to spend the money on drinks. Not to mention I’m still in homeschooling mom phase and I can’t shirk those duties.

    Great advice!


    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Esther, I applaud the fact that you’re homeschooling – that takes a tremendous amount of energy, commitment and focus! Kudos to you!!!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Changing up your location can definitely increase productivity. But then if you go to the same coffee shop, it becomes rote and you’ll need to change up again. I know this. :) The good news is even moving to a different room or chair in your house can help. Sometimes I move out of my office to the deck or kitchen and have a much more productive afternoon.

  • Andrew Inge

    I have a question about audio books. When listening to them while running or driving, how do you take “notes” about things you want to remember? I can see remembering one or two points until you are home again, but when you have several things you want to keep in mind?

    • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

      That’s a great question. I’ve paused a recording, or played it over several times to grab the point I wanted. I’ve created a voice recording on my cell phone, or written a quick word as a reminder. As a visual learner, this is one I still struggle with at times. However, if I don’t listen at all, I won’t be able to consume any of the valuable information.

      • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

        That is a great suggestion. I have found that audiobooks do require repetition, but given that I listen when I am not free to do much else, it works.

        • Jane Harris Recchia

          Great topic, Michael! I’ve made it a goal to listen to podcasts as I drive to work, and encounter the same issue – I tend to drift off because a word or phrase will send me into the “rabbit trails” of thought. Then a word or phrase will bring me back, but by then I’ve missed the entire point. So … I find I have to listen to my podcasts a couple of times. Although not all podcasts or books merit note taking, when they do, I’ll listen a second time at my desk where I can take notes easily. I think I’ll keep a pad of paper in the car to jot down ideas … or the spot in the audio cast I need to return to later. Lots of good ideas from all of you.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I don’t. If I find I need to take notes or highlight, I buy the Kindle edition and do it after listening to that section. Mostly, however, I am not concerned about regurgitating what I’ve head. I am mostly after the stimulation to my thinking and the new ideas that are born in the process.
      I also use a little app called Note. I can dictate a note I want to remember and then with one swipe, it sends the note to Evernote. I used it twice this morning on my run.

    • Michelle White

      I have found that having my calendar or notepad in my car is very helpful for jotting notes at a traffic light or parking lot. I have been known to put a podcast on pause until I get to the next traffic light to write it down. If it is really good, I will re-play the podcast (I don’t currently have any audio books) when I get home.

  • joanna

    I’ve found eliminating the temptation to clock-watch and think about how fast or slow the task is going helpful for focusing, particularly when dealing tasks that are monotonous but need focus. My work computer doesn’t let me hide the start bar so I’ve taken to sticking post-it notes over the clock in the corner of the screen to cut the distraction. Not constantly seeing the time also makes the shifts feel less like they are dragging on forever.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      It’s interesting Joanna, but when I’m truly focusing on a project or a writing deadline – I find that time goes by EXTREMELY fast without my noticing. I’ve heard athletes and other professionals explain the phenomena as being in “the zone”. Have you had that experience? Just curious….

      • joanna

        Yes absolutely, The primary situation I had in mind is a temp job I’m working at the moment to make ends meet. It is a decent job at a good company, but it is extremely repetitive and outside my main areas of interest. Not something that gets me in the zone, but requires focus regardless.

  • Joan Stoneking

    I love using Pandora to create different moods while I am working! I have a classical station, an instrumental, and a French music station (I’m learning French in my not-so-spare time!). What are some of the stations that are helpful to you when it’s time to focus?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      My favorite right now is The Native Flute Ensemble. It is native American music, which I love. I also listen to Classical Guitar Radio and Baroque Radio. I like all kinds of music. My only requirement is that it has to be instrumental.

      • Joan Stoneking

        I love the Classical Guitar station too. Sometimes I need soothing music and sometimes I need to have GO music. Tonight started as instrumental and has changed to he Toby Mac station :) BTW, this podcast was super helpful to me today. I listened to it this morning and then resolutely closed my door (instead of feeling guilty) and cranked. Thanks!!

      • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

        Agreed Michael – I find music with words are too distracting. That Native Flute Ensemble sounds awesome. I’ve got a Pandora station that I enjoy that’s based off the violin/techno sounds of Lindsey Stirling. She is amazing!

      • Michelle White

        As a flutist, I really appreciate the beautiful sound of the Native Flute. If you like that, you might also like Hawaiian Pan Flute music. Brad White (no relation) plays indigenous wooden pan pipes. http://panflute.net/pan/albums_flash/voy2frameset.html

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          I thought about buying a pan flute.

      • Henry Cooper

        I love all styles of music myself. I’m always open to any genre. I play trumpet by the way, my music and stuff can be heard thru http://soundcloud.com/henrycoopermusic and http://www.youtube.com/imthebrother

        Always a fan of instrumental music as with some jazz, quiet, easy listening and classical music.

  • Keith

    Anyway you’d share your Pandora “Mental Focus” stations?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Sure. My favorite right now is The Native Flute Ensemble. It is native American music, which I love. I also listen to Classical Guitar Radio and Baroque Radio. I like all kinds of music. My only requirement is that it has to be instrumental.

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Love Native Flute Ensemble. :)

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          I knew I liked you. ;-)

  • Earth Lover

    Michael, Thank YOU so much for this podcast on Mental Focus – came to me exactly when I needed. Technology is absolutely blissful when we can use it to serve us, whereas I find myself enslaved to it most of the time, and so, the idea of disengaging myself from emails/ social media/ phone calls etc., is fascinating, and I intend to put it into practice. Much gratitude for all that you do and for generously sharing practical ideas. Cheers :)

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      I agree EL – finding the discipline to “unplug” and disconnect is a necessary action. I’m not sure if you read it or not, but Michael wrote an awesome post last July about his unwired vacation week:


  • Kwin Peterson

    I’ll second your response to Timothy about using a noise generator. I recently downloaded a white noise app which makes all the other noise around me unintelligible and therefore not distracting. The app I use has multiple soundtracks so I can create a distinct sonic room for each project.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Kwin, I have a portable one I take with me when I travel on business. I have a tough time sleeping on the road but a “sound machine” helps a bit….

    • Bill

      I agree. White noise, or some kind of soothing background noise it great when trying to focus or even relax. I use an app called AmbiSci 300 by Tesla Software. It has several background sound choices including white/brown/pink noise, ocean surf, and night time noises. And, Michael, it even has airplane cabin noise!

      • Kwin Peterson

        Because I have done some good work while on a plane, I thought I would like the “airplane cabin” setting on my app; but I don’t. I guess it comes with too much baggage :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prime3coaching/180794405305000 PRIME3COACHING

    Scheduling “Appointments for Ourselves” is such a critical piece of success. I’m glad that you reminded me of the importance of this. So many times as a coach and speaker I spend my time feeding into others and sometimes I forget the importance of having time to myself. Also, one thing that helps me get extremely focused is putting on my Bose noise cancelling headphones and jamming out to techno. We all have our tactics don’t we?!

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Prime, Just curious how you refuel after coaching sessions – which can be extremely draining….

      • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prime3coaching/180794405305000 PRIME3COACHING

        You might find this funny but if I have 3 coaching sessions back to back I will literally play a game of FIFA in between each of them. Or if I am not at a place I can do that I will put on music and dance. The key is letting your mind go somewhere else so it is a blank slate for the next client and you can give them your best!

        • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

          Good stuff – thanks for the insight!

  • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

    I love these suggestions and follow a similar routine.

    I learned an interesting lesson about how I focus too.

    One my clients has a virtual environment. I do my work for them in that VE for security reasons.

    But the thing is…when I expand it full screen, I am somewhat locked in. No distractions.

    No email.

    No social media.

    No…anything other than what I am working on.

    If I am writing content for them or doing anything for them, I am totally focused. And incredibly fast at what I do.

    • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

      That is great Matt – imposed focus is powerful. I have also noticed this works with creating a sense of urgency.

      How do you think this ties into people who say they “Work Well Under Pressure”?

      • Ogutu Ochieng

        Working under pressure only destroys your health and you end up with headaches. I think it is a myth. If i was hiring and the candidate stressed he only works well under pressure i would not consider him/her. It is a classic Parkinson’s Law, an assignment will take as much time as allocated to it. I like your post on procrastination. Spot on http://jondharrison.com/2013/04/05/procrastination/

        • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

          Thanks Ogutu – I love your reference to Parkinson’s Law.

  • Marcus A. Cylar

    Michael, I am one of your newest followers (just over the last 2 weeks), and God has truly put you in my life at just the right moment! Thank you! Every blog post and podcast has been exactly what I needed to take my life and ministry to the next level, especially this particular podcast, as I actually have ADD and have struggled all my life to focus.

    I’m currently half way through a doctoral program, so the disorder hasn’t negatively affected my achievement overall, but I indeed struggle mightily to get things done in a timely fashion. Your tip about unplugging from all email/social/non-work-related sites when working on assignments, as elementary as it may seem to some, has been helpful to me already today, and moving forward, I pray my not succumbing to my need to respond in realtime to every “ping”, something extremely difficult for me, will help me dramatically increase my productivity.

    God is truly using you. Keep up the great work!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Marcus. Welcome aboard. I’m glad you are finding value here.

  • 48DaysDan

    Loved this podcast. The single most important thing that has expanded my productivity has been working in Uninterrupted Focused Blocks of Time. I’ve been laughing as I watch the temperature in my office today. 69 Degrees? What are you – a reptile?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      The worst part is, the air conditioner in my office is being replaced, so it is HOT up here now. Think sauna. However, in my mind, it’s 69°. ;-O

      • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jonathan Harrison

        Change your thinking, change your internal thermostat….

        • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

          Ha! Exactly.

  • rabbimoffic

    In the Hebrew language, the word for focus is the same word as “the point.” The lesson for me is that we are most productive when we focus on the most important point in our work–figure out what the key task we need to do is, and getting that done. Sometimes doing a little thinking before we get into doing (another David Allen tip) saves huge amounts of time.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great perspective Evan! One of my favorite books on prioritization is “Winning Every Day” by Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame football coach and NCAA champ.

      He follows a W.I.N. strategy which breaks down to “What’s Important Now” – the acronym came to him on a rafting trip in the Colorado River when his boat capsized and he was submerged.

      At that moment, none of his money, fame, successes or anything mattered – the most important thing at that moment was his next breath. Powerful concept…..

    • Ogutu Ochieng

      A good angle at looking at it. When we were young, we would use a magnifying glass to focus the suns rays and burn grass. Focus is a powerful tool and teaches us that we achieve nothing by spreading ourselves too thin by doing multiple projects at a go! Thanks Michael for this post. I have always wanted to master the Python language so this post have challenged me to dedicate two hours every night for it. In a month or two i think i will have achieved this goal…

  • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

    I often joke that I’m not competitive, I just hate losing! I especially liked the tip on setting a timer and competing against yourself.

    When I’m working on a project in the office, I typically put on some music and wear my ear-buds. It lets my coworkers know that I’m “plugged in” to what I’m working on and helps keep out distractions.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great idea Sean, that type of “unspoken barrier” can be useful to stem the tide of interruptions. I’ll have to steal it….um, er…I mean borrow it for my own workplace ;-)

      • http://www.seannisil.com/ Sean Nisil

        Happy to share!

  • http://www.alexbarker.org/ Alex Barker

    Wow! Thank you Michael for answering my question. I will try this tomorrow! Waking up at 4:30AM won’t be easy. Let’s do this.

  • Darlene @ {In Pursuit}

    Having instrumental music in the background works wonders for me. I am amazed at how much I can write when I use my Pandora. And the tips for the ‘surf’ playlist, thanks. I love it. It is absolutely relaxing.

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    Good music in the ears is a huge one for me! I also do the planned breaks and when I take my breaks I do some sort of physical exercises to keep my body awake and alert. I’ll do push-ups, dips, pull-ups, lunges, whatever I can easily do without any equipment.

  • Ralf Kaiser

    Some amazing “pearls of wisdom” Michael…thank you!

    I use kanbanflow. It has a Pomo built in, it is so easy to use (the easiest in my humble opinion).

    And easy means I use it!

    When I chose it, I decided I didn’t require an extensive project management system. Rather, just a simple tool to record what needs to get done, Pomo it, and DO IT!

    The Pomo on it keeps nice stats. And now they have a global tracking system too. That taps in to my competitive nature. :-) Luv it.

    Here is something else I have found that works. Dr Oz has a 7″ workout on his site. Its incredible. So during one of my longer Pomo breaks, I will do that once a day. Easy!!

    And I am not affiliated with kanbanflow or Dr Oz in any way!

    Just sharing two ideas that work for me.


  • http://www.smartselfdevelopmentplan.com/ Jantje

    Thank you for sharing your tactics, Michael!

    In addition to the app you mentioned, I could also recommend “SelfControl” which keeps you off these unproductive sites, if you happen to work on a computer all day and still want to remain focused.

  • http://www.ricardoequips.com/ Ricardo Butler

    I finished this podcast and I laughed when you talked about the productivity on the plane. Believe it or not I get most of my work done just taking the local city bus rather than driving. Just going to and fro from my normal places that’s 4 hours. Two hours there and two hours back. I knocked out a whole book in a week on the city bus. lol!

  • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

    Michael, spot on podcast! Focus is a critical key in becoming a high achiever.

    Besides the above suggestions which are wonderful by the way (I haven’t tried music or temperature adjustments yet), I loved your suggestions on journaling has helped me to remain focus on my larger goals as well. Something I coach folks through that are looking to become high achievers, but struggle with focus is to also try visualization – it was something I learned from U.S. Olympic Committee sports psychologists and has helped me stay laser focused on achieving my goals. I will be referencing this podcast in my group coaching Iron Focus Academy.
    Many thanks for doing what you do. Keep up the GREAT work!!!
    Live Beyond Awesome.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Jen. I am a big believer in visualization too!

  • http://www.ArtsyShark.com/ ArtsyShark

    Excellent suggestions, Michael! I also find that a little “white noise” in the background can help me focus, and is very calming . . . I ran across a website at RainyMood dot com which has a loop of the sound of a summer thunderstorm. I turn the volume on low and have good results with that.

  • Henry Cooper

    In order for us to renew our minds and for us to re-balance and re-vamp, we sometimes have to unplug or disconnect ourselves all other distractions. It’s just a way of life. I loved the idea we need our space, needed some quiet time within. Sometimes we have to erase or eliminate any noise or distractions that comes within us whether in our job force or in life. Think Romans 12:2 from the Bible.

    The only for that to begin is by exercise, prayer, mediation and yes motivation and encouragement.

    There’s a difference between doing things online as opposed to offline.

    I greatly recommend Time Tactics of Very Successful People from Mr. Greissman, truly the most reads I ever read in my life.

  • Henry Cooper

    Anybody believe in Karma? What really goes around comes back at you. It’s the truth. And you are always your own environments, your own person. Life is what you make of it and you only live one life. Why waste it and just enjoy life. Life to me is always good and everlasting, but yes it is fast and short if we play it safe or end up in the wrong spot we don’t want to end up. Don’t ever sell yourself short and that’s the reason why we needed a podcast episode like this one folks. Thanks again to Mr. Hyatt and for those giving out their best suggestions.

  • http://about.me/revchadbrooks chadbrooks

    One of my own hacks for staying productive is realizing when during the day I am more prone to “rabbit trails”. For me it is around 2:30. I wrestled with trying to power through this time for a few months before I realized I needed to just take advantage of it.

    I now keep a “bored” list of really simple tasks. These aren’t throwaways, but necessary things that need to be done. I can zone out while taking care of a few of them. Some of them are just a stack of 2 minute tasks and others can take 30-45 minutes. I do a few of them until I get my focus and clarity back and then I start my larger work again. I find my focus is back when I am able to switch gears for a few minutes during this downtime.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      That’s also a great time for a short nap. That’s what I do. ;-)