How to Create the “Extreme Focus” Habit (without Feeling Overwhelmed)

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So you want to be able to snap into focus and stay there for however long it's needed. It would certainly take a lot of work, right?

What if I told you it could be achieved it in less than 30 minutes, without having to constantly motivate yourself, or pushing with willpower, but with just some work upfront?

Would you believe me?

Bad focus habits are common:

  • multitasking
  • being online 24/7
  • jumping from one task to another

Even if you're able to focus, it takes one pop-up, phone beep or flash of notification to spoil your focus in an instance.

The ability to focus is a complex skill.

If you really want to improve your attention and concentration, you need to discover where your specific difficulty is first.

Generally speaking, your focus problems may simply come from insufficient/wrong motivation. Things like:

  • Distracting environment
  • Tired/uncomfortable body
  • A busy, wandering mind

The most common culprit of those difficulties is our environment, and particularly – technology. 

I'm a victim of the modern ‘multitasking and short attention span disease'. I have a low threshold for boredom and poor willpower. But when I sit at my desk to write or record a video, I just get on with it.I still struggle to keep going for longer than 60 minutes at the time, but even if I take a short break, I can snap back into focus and carry on.

What’s my secret?

My focus habits – little routines that fit into my life, without relying on motivation and willpower, but using the environment to make me do it, whether I ‘feel like it ‘ or not.

I want to share my secrets with you, so you don’t have to spend years discovering what works and what doesn't.

1. One little step at the time, but in a series

As a reader of Develop Good Habits, you already know, it's important to concentrate on one change at the time.

But focus is a complex, multi-layered skill, which takes time and effort to develop. How can you move one step at a time? By creating a series of little steps, which one-by-one get you to your goal. (Read this post if you want to learn how to develop focus to achieve your goals.)

I'm talking about SJ's habit stacking idea – building a logical sequence of quick and easy routines, summarized in checklists, completed in less than 5 minutes and joined with other habits.

And here is how you can develop your laser-sharp focus routines.

2. Pick your cue/trigger smartly

As you know, habits are formed in a self-reinforcing loop:

Cue (Trigger) – Behaviour (Routine) – Reward.

In my experience, the biggest enemy of habit formation is… life. Because, when you're busy, stressed, with depleted willpower, it's harder to stick to your decision to change your habitual behavior.

With my poor willpower and lousy memory, I need fail-proof cues to prompt me to carry out the new routines. If you're using habit stacking approach, the cue for the first routine is even more important, because the whole sequence depends on it.

When it comes to focus, I find environment-based cues most effective. My work requires a laptop/computer, that's why I chose the action of sitting at my desk/table and opening my laptop as a trigger to ‘snap into focus'.

Pick a cue, which is logical, well anchored in your way of doing things, difficult to miss or forget. If you require a certain setup or props for your job, use them to trigger your actions. It may be the moment of opening your laptop, turning your computer on, or grabbing your pen.

If you still find it hard to remember what you need to do before you sit down to work, put it on your calendar. If you schedule your tasks (which I recommend as an effective time management strategy), add a little note to self on going through the checklist, so that when the reminder pops up on your screen (or you check it in your paper diary), you'll remember what to do. This can help you get through the initial period before your new habit is well incorporated into your daily routine.

3. Create an if-then plan

Once you know your trigger/cue, create an action plan using if-then logic.

Implementation intention, which is the proper name for this strategy, can turbo charge your chances of succeeding at habit building.

The simplest if-then plans look like that:

If (I see/hear/smell/feel or carry out an action-based cue), then I'm going to (carry out my new behavior).

If you're working on reducing your tendency to browse the Net when you should be studying/working, you can start with the following sentence:

When/if I open my laptop to study/work, I close down my Internet browser and disable the Wi-Fi.

4. Design a checklist

But what if you forget what you were to do and in what sequence?

Habit stacking approach has a perfect solution to it: a checklist.

So when you sit at your computer, open your laptop, or grab your favorite pen you may go through the following steps:

  1. Turn off all notifications on your computer, mobile phone and any other electronic devices within earshot.
  2. Put your phone(s) on silent.
  3. Clear your desk of unnecessary items.
  4. Make sure you have all you need for the completion of the task at hand.

Write it down – don't trust your memory. Put your checklist somewhere visible: pin it by your desk, stick it to your laptop cover, or computer screen. Every time you go through your routine, check the steps off in your head, aloud, or physically crossing or ticking them off as you go.

[To-Do list apps are a great place for checklists)

5. Practice, practice, practice.

Once you know what to do, practice it.

Repetitions strengthen the habit loop. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t forget to reward yourself. Rewards are key in forming the habit – they reinforce the loop. Create a repertoire of small, enjoyable rewards. Try not to rely too much on extrinsic rewards. A good pat on the back, a sense of accomplishment and pride can be more powerful than a bar of chocolate or a round of your favorite game.

The Habit Stacking approach eliminates the stress of having to remember what you need to do and reduces the pressure on your willpower and motivation. You change your behavior one little step at the time. This is perfect for developing good focus habits. Just remember, not to be too eager. Make sure your new routine is well embedded in your daily schedule first before you add the next one. Keep adding those quick actions, one by one, but be mindful of how much time the whole sequence takes. SJ Scott recommends you don't go beyond 15-30min, to avoid feeling overwhelmed and as a result risking not doing it at all.

If you want to be able to snap into focus and remain in ‘the zone' for as much as you like, don't procrastinate any longer.

You know what you need to do. One little change at the time.

Go on, pick your cue and go from there.

The world of laser-sharp focus, turbocharged productivity and success await!

About the Author:

Joanna Jast is an entrepreneur, blogger, Quora Most Read Writer, instructor and the author of Laser-Sharp Focus: A No-Fluff Guide to Improved Concentration, Maximized Productivity, and Fast-track to Success. Grab a copy of her Free Laser-Sharp Focus Quick Action Guide and start improving your focus now.

11 thoughts on “How to Create the “Extreme Focus” Habit (without Feeling Overwhelmed)”

  1. It looks like you have a good strategy, Michal. On one hand I like to have a good internet connection, but on the other – you’re right, if there is no Wi-Fi, there is one big distractor less.

    I used to travel on noisy planes (short haul) and carry a pair of noise-cancelling earmuffs – worked a treat, also when trying to focus in busy airport lounges.

  2. Thanks for all the interesting and actionable tips, Joanna! In addition to your tips, I’ve also found that site blocking software that help you stay on track (most of them have some kind of a free plan) are a great way to keep out concrete distractions online.

    • Hi Camilla Hallstrom

      Site blocking software can be indeed very helpful. However, there is risk that if you’re not addressing the underlying issue, there will always be another website you will be attracted more than to your task at hand. Or even if you cut your Internet connection completely, you may get distracted by other things in your environment.

      For me, it’s always about making sure I am addressing the underlying issue, not just a symptom.

  3. Thank you Joanna, great content. I like to have check list with daily routine and tasks. If you have a direction you can focus on what you have to do. The more your practice, the easier it gets.

    • Thanks Dan.

      I agree, having a to-do list helps you focus. Ideally, I want to have a to-do list for tomorrow before I go to bed. I need to practice on getting that done more often 🙂

  4. Focus has always been a bit of a problem for me. I like the idea of creating a checklist and routine for sitting down when it’s time to work. I think that makes a lot of sense for getting into the right mindset.

    The big problem for me is just that I usually just have a have a lot running through my head, even while I’m supposed to be working on other things. I’ve found that the best course of action, at least for me is to acknowledge it, take a very quick, short note, and then move on with what I’m supposed to be working on. During my next break, I’ll look through my list of things I wrote down, and allow myself to think about them more deeply. If I don’t acknowledge a thought the first time it pops into my head, it tends to steal more of my focus than if I just make a quick note, and promise myself that I can think about it more fully at a later time.

    • Forrest,

      Thanks for adding your ideas. I like that one. The important point (IMO) is to “clear” the thoughts from your head. If your mind knows that you will take action when you have a chance jotting it down will work wonders. Thanks for sharing this thought with others.

      Steve

    • Forrest, this is a great tip – thanks for sharing. I do it, too. I have what I call ‘Idea notebook’ (I’m on vol. 9 now)where I write down any creative ideas that pop into my head while I’m working on something else. And I keep a sticky notes handy for any to-dos.

      I agree, once you’re in the zone, losing focus can be quite costly. It does take some discipline though, so well done on being able to master your mind!

      Joanna

  5. This will be great for me to implement into my daily routines because I often look at everything I have to do at once and can’t focus on one thing at a time. Working for a start-up can sometimes feel like there is never enough time to get anything done and while there isn’t enough time to get everything 100% completed, I’m sure these tips will help me get something 100% done rather that everything 50% of the way there.

    Thanks for the insights!

    Shawn

    • Thanks for the great comment Shawn.

      I am sure working on a startup is hectic as hell. Not exactly in the same biz, but with creating an extensive course on writing, keeping this blog, writing books, managing editing/formatting/translations, writing new books and marketing, I feel I get s similar pull of far too many things to do in the time I have. The strategy Joanna wrote out is almost exactly what I use and I find it very helpful in getting stuff accomplished.

  6. Shawn and Steve – I agree with you wholeheartedly. Whatever it is running your own business, particularly early on when you’re by yourself or with a small team is an organisational and ‘directional’ challenge.

    One thing at a time is a very effective strategy, assuming, we work on the RIGTH thing. Prioritisation is crucial. And for that I recommend S. Covey’s Important vs Urgent matrix:

    Urgent Non-Urgent

    Important I II

    Not Important III IV

    The key tips are: do stuff from I and II, but try to reduce I by working preventatively (Usually II); limit III and dump IV (unless it’s actually leisure time and then shift to it II)

    Joanna

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