It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Before getting to the question of ‘how do I focus?’, I ask myself ‘why do I need to focus?’. When talking about productivity it’s simply because I need to get things done! Why do I need to be productive about getting things done? Because time! There never seems to be enough of it and it is a precious commodity that I need to use wisely. Time. Save time, have more time, use time wisely. It all comes down to time but there’s a direct link between time and focus.
It’s easy to argue that the ability to focus is one of the most important abilities to master. Especially when you want to get things done and general productivity. Writing things down, tagging, categorizing, etc. all help and are a part of the process but that’s just it – they’re a part of it. I like to place emphasis on the part after I have written things down or used some task manager via web or phone. It’s nothing new I think. I’ve been hearing about things that seem to have the same basic idea which again is to focus. So just write down, take note, save, clip, etc whatever you think you need to work on or look at later and forget it for now (it’ll be there wherever you saved it so don’t worry about it now).
If I have an hour to spend, I need to focus in order to make the most use out of that time. Now assuming I’ve written down all the things I need to get done – great but I only have an hour! If I have a lot to do I sometimes end up procrastinating especially if I know I don’t have much time and I assume I won’t get much done anyway (I have a masters in rationalizing my way into procrastinating). Obviously I need to look at it from the time perspective than the ‘sheer amount of stuff I have to do’ perspective. It becomes more manageable that way.
Okay so back to my hour. Focus on the hour. Just this hour. Not the other 23 in the day. What can I do in this hour? Well here’s my list of stuff I need to get done and I have a vague idea of how long each item in the list will take. What I can do is pick a bunch and throw them at the hour and see what fits. It’s pretty hard to calculate the perfect combination that will fit exactly in that hour but an easy way is to pick the smallest tasks first. Besides being easy, it also has the bonus of having the highest potential in terms of productivity if it means finishing as many things on my list as possible. It’s also a great option if you really do only have that free hour in your day to work on something outside the scope of what you do during your day. Or if you have just an hour before getting ready to go out or meet someone. You want to be on time and you want to make the most out of this hour and not just lounge around since you know you have to go in an hour anyway (my #1 excuse).
For example, I’m working on a big project. It’s overwhelming to think of all the different parts to it and the amount of work I have ahead of me. But I just think of the next hour. I break big tasks up into chunks (I’m pretty sure that’s a well known idea by now). Now I just go through the ones that I think will take the least amount of time until I have an estimated total duration of one hour. Those are the things I’m going to focus on. Forget everything else. One by one I get them done. Maybe I went a little under an hour, maybe I went a little over an hour but by focusing on just this one hour I managed to get a lot done. All those little tasks add up!
Going by the smallest tasks first isn’t always what you want especially if some things just have higher priority. Just factor that in. Want to put something in the front of the list even though it’s longer? Go ahead! As long as you stay focused. You’ll get it done and you’ll get the smaller things after it done too. By focusing on small chunks of time you’ll know if you’ll have time to finish this task – if not but you really need to work on it maybe it’ll push you into breaking this task up into smaller chunks (bonus!). This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to waste time going through your list and applying some complex priority system to it. The idea is to be able to prioritize in the moment and to not slow down. This might take some practice so maybe slow down a little at first but try to train this ability so it becomes second nature.
Why do you focus?