Limiting the stream
The stream of news, information, and messages we get these days is enough to drown us. It’s staggering in its volume. It’s a wonder anyone can find any focus with an information stream like that. The more connected a person becomes on the Internet, the more distractions they face in their day. Just a couple decades ago, most people’s distractions consisted of the phone, the fax machine, incoming memos and paperwork, solitaire, and actual people in their offices.
These days, people who work online face much more than that. With so many distractions, it’s impossible to truly focus on the important. We try to drink the stream, but it’s too voluminous and never-ending to take in this way.
We do it consciously, with intent. Social networks, blogs and news sites you read, different ways to communicate and consume information… these tend to build up as you spend time online. You build them up without much thought, but you end up being consumed by what you consume.
It’s crucial that you admit to yourself: you can’t read and consume everything. You can’t do everything, respond to everything. Not only would the attempt take up all of your waking hours, but you’d fail. There’s too much out there to read, too many people to potentially connect with and respond to, too many possible projects and tasks to actually complete.
It’s impossible. Once you admit this, the next logical argument is that if you can’t do and read and respond to everything, you must choose what you’ll do and read and respond to, and let the rest go.
Creating an uncluttered environment
Imagine you’re trying to create your masterpiece — a work that will change your life and perhaps make the world a better place in some small way.
You’re at your computer, making it happen, at a desk piled with clutter, surrounded by clutter on the floor and walls, in the middle of a noisy workplace, phones ringing. A notification pops up — you have a new email — so you open your email program to read it and respond. You get back to work but then another notification pops up — someone wants to chat with you, so you go on IM for a little bit. Then your Twitter client notifies you of some new replies, and you check those. Then you see some paperwork on your desk you need to file, so you start doing those.
But what happened to your masterpiece? It never gets done in a cluttered, scattered workspace like this. Now imagine a different workspace: a clear desk, with only a couple of essential items on it. A clear computer desktop, with no icons to distract you. There’s nothing on the floor around you, and very little on the walls. You have some nice ambient music to block out surrounding noise (perhaps using headphones), and there are no notifications that pop up to interrupt you. All you have on your computer is one open program with one open window, ready to work on your masterpiece.
The difference is striking, and it illustrates the importance of an uncluttered workspace with few interruptions, when it comes to focusing.
This is true not only of an office workspace, but of anywhere you want to focus: at home, outside, at a coffeeshop where you want to do some work. The less clutter and distractions you have, the better you’ll be able to focus.
A simple system for getting amazing things done
It’s three simple steps. It can’t get any easier.
Step 1: find something amazing to work on
Every day, first thing in the morning, figure out Something Amazing that you want to work on today.
It can be anything: a big project at work, creating your own business, learning programming or web development skills, writing a song, taking photographs, anything. It should be something that excites you, that will change your life at least in some small way. It should compel you to work on it because you’re inspired, excited, motivated.
Some people are lucky enough to know what that is every day. Others haven’t found their passion yet, and that’s OK. You don’t need to make a huge life decision today. All you need to do is pick something that sounds fun — it could be a project you have at work, or a potential hobby, or learning a new skill, or learning how to start your own business
Step 2: clear away everything else
Here’s the thing that will help you achieve that something amazing: clearing away distractions. You’re going to clear your desk — shove everything in a drawer or box if you have to, and leave only the papers necessary to work on your Something Amazing, and a couple of other essential items (phone, pen & pad, etc.).
You’re going to clear your computer — close all programs, including your browser, that you don’t absolutely need for this task. It’s also crucial that you turn off all notifications on your computer that might distract you: email notifications, Instant Messaging (IM), calendar notifications, anything. Make your computer as distraction-free as possible.
Also turn off your phone, Blackberry, iPhone, and anything else that might distract you from your Something Amazing. Finally, clear away meetings and anything on your task list that will interfere with this one task. You can get to those other tasks later, but for now, you’re going to work on nothing but this one amazing task.
Step 3: focus on that Something Amazing
OK, everything is clear. Now you just need to focus on that Something Amazing — that one task you chose that you’re excited about, that’s going to change your life in some small way.
Do this as soon as you can in the day — not after lunch or late in the day, but as close to First Thing as you can. Either before you go into work or as soon as you get into work and can clear your desk. Don’t wait until later, or things will pile up and you’ll never get to it.
This is actually the step that most people have a problem with. They get the urge to check email or make that phone call or… do anything else, really. No! Stop yourself, take a deep breath, and remember why you chose this task. You’re excited about it. Feel that excitement, and focus.
Do your best to either finish this Something Amazing, or a good chunk of it. If it’s a big project that will take days, months or years, just finish a chunk that’ll take at least an hour or two of your day.When you’re done, bask in the glory of your accomplishment.