I can’t imagine living in a more distracting time in human history. Hundreds of cable channels, millions of Web sites, and the constant pinging of email and social media all compete for our attention. But if you are like me, you still have to get real work done.
A few weeks ago, I had to prepare for a board meeting. I really needed an extended period of time to review the material and prepare my presentation. In doing this, I realized that I go through a similar pattern whenever I need to increase my mental focus and get a lot of work done in a short period of time.
Here are ten tactics I use that may help you:
1. Block Off Time on Your Calendar
I schedule time on my calendar for special projects. Following Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s recommendation in Rework, I call this “The Alone Zone.” If some asks if I am available, I reply, “I’m sorry, but I have another commitment at that time.”
2. Isolate Yourself in a Quiet Place
I try to eliminate all the distractions I can. While I generally practice an “open door policy,” I close my door when I have something important to get done. I even hang a sign on my door that signals to my family and co-workers that I am in project mode.
3. Turn the Room Temperature Down
If the room gets too warm, I get sleepy and lose my edge. As a result, I intentionally turn the thermostat down to 69°. After years of testing, I have noticed that this is the temperature at which I am the most productive.
4. Get Comfortable
When I need to get a lot done, I dress comfortably. For me that usually means jeans and a loose shirt. Even in the office, I kick off my shoes. I don’t want anything constricting my blood flow or distracting me.
5. Take Email and Social Media Software Offline
When you are constantly checking email and social media, you can fool yourself into thinking you are working. Therefore, I take my email software offline. I also put my phone in Do Not Disturb mode. I do leave my web browser open, because I have to use it for research. I’ve also used services like Freedom to block specific apps and websites with minimal effort.
6. Put on Music That Helps Facilitate Concentration
Certain music really helps me concentrate. When I wrote my first book, I created a playlist of instrumental music that moved me. Listening to it became a powerful ritual. It got me into the writing zone quickly and made me more productive. It still works for me today.
7. Drink Caffeine in Moderation
Various studies have shown that caffeine can have a positive effect on your mental focus, provided you consume it in moderation. In addition to caffeine, “the neuroactive amino acids … help increase your mental focus and alertness by supporting your brain’s ability to receive and send messages to and from the nervous system.”
8. Avoid High Glycemic Carbohydrates
Nothing makes me sleepy faster than foods containing white flour and sugar. Breads are the absolutely the worst. Low glycemic carbs—darker vegetables, for example—are fine, because the sugars are released slowly. But high glycemic ones spike my blood sugar, and then I get sleepy.
9. Set Mini-Goals
I try to focus on one project until I am done. If it’s a big project, I break it into smaller goals. This usually means something I can finish in three hours or less. I personally get a rush from accomplishing a task and checking it off my to-do list.
10. Set a Timer and Take Predetermined Breaks
I am competitive by nature. If I set a timer on my iPhone and determine in advance how much time I will spend on a task. I will work hard to beat the clock. Not everyone is like this, but it works great for me.
In a world of distraction and competing demands, mental focus is a scarce commodity. If you want more of it, you will have to be intentional about getting it.