Feeling Distracted? 3 Simple Tips to Help You Focus

Tips to help you focus

by Mark Tewksbury

Great Traits is currently taking 40+ people through a 12-week leadership training program. Last week, when we looked at the characteristics of world-class teams we asked our participants to identify which they felt they had with their teams and which they felt needed work. Overwhelmingly, the ability to focus on what needs to be done emerged as a huge gap.  You can’t be world leading if you are getting distracted and unable to focus on the task at hand. Not terribly surprising given all that we are living through, but it did give me pause to think.

In my old way of life (read pre-covid), I spent hours each week on airplanes traveling back and forth for work. What I hadn’t realized was that traveling so relentlessly had given me something unexpected – a place where I could focus my attention.  My usual route from Calgary to Toronto took 4 or 5 hours depending on weather and, although I don’t miss that gruelling routine of weekly travel, I do miss my time on airplanes.  I can hardly believe I am saying it as I write it, but those hours were my time. No cell phone.  No connection to internet.  Sometimes hours passed in minutes as I put my attention to writing, or reading, or whatever I decided to focus on.  I felt like I was in the zone and was completely absorbed by the task at hand. 

“Those hours were MY time.”

Now that I am not traveling, I have not made that same time to knuckle down and put my attention where it needs to be. In fact, this strange paradox has happened: I seemingly have more time because I am at home more than I have ever been, yet I feel less focused than ever.  Now that I am home all the time, there are endless distractions (at least the US election is beyond us).  So many things compete for my attention I often end my day feeling scattered, slightly overwhelmed, like I didn’t quite get done.  

So back to the program. Our participants had a great discussion around how common and frustrating this inability to focus has been. We discussed some solutions and the top three are surprisingly simple but you must find the time to actually FOCUS on applying them. Here they are:

  1. Prioritize.  What needs to get done first?  This simple idea has really helped me. First, it helps me understand all the things that need to be completed and gets them out of my head and onto paper so I feel less overwhelmed, and secondly, it forces me to prioritize where to put my focus. I ask myself, “What is the right thing to focus on that will lead to great results?”   Once you take one action, you figure the next one out.
  • Do one thing at a time.  Research shows that multi-tasking doesn’t actually work.  Your brain can only focus FULLY on one thing at a time.  It reminded me of when I was growing up and juggling swimming and school. When I was at school I focused on school, when at swimming focused on swimming and I managed to excel at both.  It worked.  
  • Make a ‘focus practice’.  As I have realized, without my usual training ground, focusing requires practice and conscious effort. To help me, I started setting a 30-minute timer before diving into my first task.  Then, like my days on planes, I don’t allow myself access to any emails, social media, or phone/zoom calls during this time.  I am reminded how quickly time goes when you are absorbed in one thing and that when necessary I can focus on the task at hand with full concentration.   But it does take conscious effort!

Take some time to reflect on how well you are able to focus on what you really need to. Are you distracted? Have you lost your ability to concentrate and get the RIGHT things done? Do you find it difficult to concentrate? Are you constantly being interrupted? Challenge yourself to use these 3 simple tips to get you back on track. You will love how good it feels when you do it.

Mark Tewksbury is co-founder of Great Traits.  The Virtual Corporate Champions Program (VCCP) takes individuals on a high-performance leadership pathway they apply in their workplace over 12 weeks.  The next VCCP begins January 11, 2021.