There is nothing that I like better than to get totally lost in something I am doing. Reading a book, drawing, and especially writing. I love the feeling of being in a flow and getting through something without being aware of the time passing. I understand now that that is something other people call ‘focus’. It can be hard finding and maintaining that focus, or flow. I don’t have to tell you that these days there are many distractions that seem important, but really aren’t. How do I do it?
Focus and in the flow
How I focus on getting things done is not always a sure way to actually getting things done. But with the following methods I try to make it as easy as possible for myself. I have to warn you though: it still takes effort. There is no magic spell that will get all your work or study done for you. I know: I too have looked for it.
To make it happen, I try to get ‘In the zone’ or get in the flow. These things indicate the same thing. You are happy doing what you are doing, it is going well and you are not distracted. Distractions can’t get hold on you, because you enjoy what you are doing. And that is the hard part, because it is rare that you get to do things you really enjoy enough. But my trick is, that I try to find something in my tasks I love to do. Sometimes it can be as easy as wanting to tick off an item on my to-do list. And sometimes I just really enjoy writing an article or updating a spreadsheet.
Start by creating an overview
Most projects I start are huge. I can feel overwhelmed and not motivated to even get started if I see the mountain of work I have to do. There is nothing fun about that! But by breaking down projects to tasks, I create steps that are easier to take. The smaller the bits of your project, the more control you have over the next step without being taken out of your zone. Plus: you get that accomplished feeling of ticking off a lot of things on your to-do list!
When I wrote my essays for my courses, I first broke down the subject into four or five sections. Then I would break those down into arguments, to easily show what I wanted to get across with my essay. I broke down the arguments in paragraphs that made sense. By breaking down my 3000 or 6000 word essay into bite size and defined paragraphs, I had a lot of control over the whole essay. It was even easy to spot where I was getting off track or when I need to switch around arguments or sections. I handle all my projects that way.
All the bits, the little tasks, help me create an overview of the work I have to do. Making a plan with those tasks is easier than just starting somewhere random with a project.
Plan as much as you can, even time for distraction
So when I have my tasks, I start planning. I can roughly see how much time I will need to write, or research, or contact people for more information. Because the tasks are small, it is relatively easy to see how much time they will take. I am never too optimistic though. I rather add extra time to a task than to have to rush a job.
And in order to stay focused, I also plan for … distraction. This works for me. To have 10 minutes to browse for a recipe, or to take the dog out for a walk, or even to watch an episode of a sitcom for 20 minutes. I recharge that way and my mind is ready for the next task after relaxing a bit.
No point in adding a distraction in the form of a deadline that is too close. Or to have too much time so you feel better about working less hard. Planning tasks and time to do them in should be realistic. And I know it is tempting to use the extra time as a reward to not work on the next task on the list, but if I win 5 minutes by finishing a task early, I go to the next thing on the list.
Don’t stress by giving yourself too little time, don’t indulge in giving yourself too much time. This is something I learned through trial and error. There was something to be said for being able to finish those essays in 4 hours, but it’s not something I could keep up for the entire year. I now know how fast I can work as well as where I may run into things that take more time than I hoped for.
Ah, the tricky one. Find something – anything – in what you have to do that you really enjoy. Even if it is just ticking off items on your to-do list. Do something special for yourself for your lunch break. Do not see it as a reward, because that implies you don’t always have a right to take care of yourself. By finding something that makes you feel better, regardless of how well you are doing, you will have an easier time staying focused. At least, that works for me. I never punish myself for not sticking to my planning. I just work around the problems and issues, until I can pick up the next task.
Keep focusing on what you have to do by motivating yourself. If things are too hard and you can’t get things done the way you want: change your plan. Change things until you feel you can do it. Sometimes you need to identify a problem and find a solution. It happens that I find out halfway through a project that some tasks are useless, or can’t be done. I try not to run into a wall, but to find the best solution. It can be as easy as just scrapping that one task from the project. If I am lucky, a new task has already been put on the list anyway. New things do come up as you are going along. Great! More work!
Motivation can be very hard. So if I find something I enjoy in the tasks I have to do, it is easy to stay motivated. If there is nothing in the project I enjoy, I seriously consider either slipping in something I do love to do, or to simply skip the whole thing. Life is too short to fight yourself to stay motivated.