Creating freedom by creating structure: a concrete approach to improve your focus in work & private life

Pepijn Lochtenberg

‘Attention makes everything better' is the slogan of a large Swedish company. I can think of some examples where this doesn't apply (and I'm happy that I'm able to distract myself during a dirty job), but in essence, it's true. 


If you can manage to be fully focused doing the things you do in your work and private life, it will definitely help you to be productive, to stay energized and to be satisfied by your accomplishments.


Focus like a Pro

Deliberately focussing your attention on the things that matter to you

An essential step to live a focused life is dedicating your focus of attention to a certain task for a certain period of time, both in work and in private life. I’ll call this 'setting the course'. 


In a previous blog, I wrote about determining what is important to you: taking charge of your own focus. In this blog, I will explain how you can put this into practice in your daily activities. 


First, I would like to share with you what I notice when I talk to people about their distractions. I want to show you that timing (when do I focus my attention on certain tasks) is essential in the conversation about focus and distractions.

Is this a distraction or something you want to focus on?

When I ask participants at the start of a training about their biggest distractions, they are always quick to name them. 

Chances are you recognize quite a few of these distractions:

your mailbox distracting you from working on that one important task that keeps getting left behind; 

your playing children distracting you from reading your book; 

the phone ringing, while you are absorbed in the article you‘re writing;

the parcel delivery that rings, distracting you from your online meeting. 


Strangely enough, all these examples of distractions are sometimes the very things you want to focus on: 

  • Answering a question from your client using e-mail; 
  • Watching and enjoying your children play;
  • Helping a colleague on the phone with a problem; 
  • Opening the door for the parcel delivery boy who brings you your latest purchase.
  • So activities, events or apps are never by definition linked to focus or to distraction. It depends on what you want to focus your attention on at any given moment which category it falls into. 


You can't tell if something is a distraction until you have determined

what you want to focus your attention on in a moment


Thoughts about an important task in your work can be a huge distraction from a romantic dinner with your partner, and thoughts about a private situation can be a huge distraction from your work. 


So it's about consciously choosing what to focus your attention on for a certain period of time. 

  • Working with full attention on an important task, without dwelling on thoughts about the mail. 
  • Paying full attention to Netflix, without feeling guilty that there is still work to be done. 
  • Being with your partner, with full attention, without dwelling on thoughts about work. 

As I said, this starts with determining your course: what do you want to make important in your life. The next step is to translate this into your daily activities. You know that if you keep your resolutions vague, they will be doomed to fail...

Consciously choosing how to organize your time

The following five steps will help you stay on track. Structure and planning will play an important role in this, which may give you the feeling that this is at the expense of your sense of freedom. 

My advice: go through the steps and do the experiment. Experience shows that your sense of freedom will actually grow enormously as you break free from the iron grip of the constant interruptions that guide our working lives. 


1) Your calendar rules

You need one place where you can write down for yourself what you want to give your attention to and when. Your calendar is the most practical option. A digital calendar is the most flexible, but a (large) paper calendar will also work fine. 

Your calendar will be leading for what you want to give your attention to at certain moments, both at work and at home. From the start of the day until the end. It offers you an overview and clarity that your time in the day, your time in the week and your time in the month is not unlimited. It forces you to make conscious choices about where to spend your time and attention. 

2) Timeboxing your day

Make blocks in your calendar for which activities you want to give your full attention at which moments. When arranging your calendar, I recommend the following blocks: 


Appointments

Meetings, (phone) appointments, conversations with clients, etc.

Most important task of the day

Which task will have the greatest influence on the satisfaction of your day? Give this task its own time slot. 


Immediate actions

A block to work out the most urgent actions from your to-do list and actions related to your appointments. 


E-mail and other incoming messages

Put one or more blocks in your calendar to answer mail, voicemail messages and incoming messages. Determine the number of blocks based on how important it is for those around you to get a quick response to their messages. Outside of these times, leave your mailbox closed. 


Breaks

Plan regular breaks and make them important. Make sure you take 'real' breaks for your brain and that you get moving. Read more about the importance of breaks and tips for timing in the blog 'getting more done by taking more breaks'.

 Key private activities

Plan activities with your loved ones and friends, moments for yourself and sports. 

3) Plan your blocks smartly

Plan the most important tasks at the beginning of the day, so you will be energetic when you get to work on them. Tasks that require less depth, such as answering blocks of messages, are best planned at the end of the afternoon. 


Especially in the beginning: plan generously. You’ll have a human tendency to underestimate how much time a task will take you, so take this into account. Also put any travel time before and after appointments well into your calendar. 


After an appointment, plan a quarter of an hour to carry out actions resulting from the conversation or to do your administration. 


4) Focus on your behavior within your block, not on the results

At the start of your time block, set a timer (preferably an old-fashioned timer) for the duration of your block. Agree with yourself that in this time block you will only work on this task and afterwards evaluate whether you succeeded. For superficial tasks, choose short blocks (max. 30 minutes). For Deep Work, create longer blocks (45 to 90 minutes). 


Separate the result of your activity (finish the article, read three chapters of the book, send the quotation) from the focused work on the activity. 

Trust that if you focus on your task, the result will be maximum in the moment and in the long term: 

High-quality work = Length of time x Intensity of Concentration

(Cal Newport, 2016)


5) Stick to your blocks, unless there is a fire

The temptation will be there to check your email or your phone during a time block in which you planned to work on your most important task. Especially at a time when you experience a task to be difficult, exciting or boring, this temptation will be strong. Practice the willingness to stick to your plan. 


When you focus your full attention on the task at hand, you maximize the chances of a good result. 


And of course, if there is a fire: extinguish or flee. In other words: if you are needed somewhere immediately for an important task, then that comes first. And do it with full focus of attention.

Good luck!

Pepijn Lochtenberg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.

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