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How to Stay Focused: A 5-Step Routine to Get Into the Zone

I’m 99% useless. But that 1% when I’m not…

I’m dangerous.

What’s the difference?

FOCUS.

When I’m focused I get things done.

And I do my best work.

I’ll waste a day trying to finish a blog post… Then, 2 hours before the deadline, I get IN THE ZONE and everything comes together.

What if you could get hyper-focused on demand?

Here’s what I do.

The Crazy (And Not So Crazy) Ways I Stay Focused

I just released a new episode of Planet Derek – my daily vlog. In the video, I talk about how I stay focused:

It’s truly amazing the difference focus makes in what you can get done.

For example, I decided at the end of June to create a new product. We launched it on July 24. What happened in between?

This:

Green means DONE.

The deadline was TIGHT. But my team and I got hyper-focused on this one project – and we got it done.

It’s undeniable:

When I’m focused, I get my most impactful work done. This is true at every level. Whether it’s a big project or a small task.

Here’s what I mean:

When I first started Social Triggers, I knew I needed an audience. So, I focused on one thing and one thing only: building an email list. That’s how I got 26,778 subscribers in 13 months.

So, it doesn’t matter if it’s a small task like “write a blog post.” Or a big goal like “build an audience.” Or a big project like creating a new product.

FOCUS is what helps me get things done.

It’s not just me, either:

Andrew Carnegie was one of the most successful business leaders in American history. He says…

Concentration is my motto – first honesty, then industry, then concentration.

Another influential business mind, Peter F. Drucker, says…

Concentration is the key to economic results. No other principle of effectiveness is violated as constantly today as the basic principle of concentration.

However, Drucker’s quote also hints at the problem:

Our ability to concentrate is RAPIDLY declining.

I agree. And I’ll take it a step further…

I believe the secret to success is not about being more productive. It’s about being LESS DISTRACTED.

You must know this from your own experience, right?

Every day we’re bombarded with interruptions. Emails. Texts. Slack messages. Facebook notifications – they’re all fighting for our attention.

This endless bombardment with new information leads to cognitive overload. Basically, our brain is spilling over with too much information.

So if you’re struggling to stay focused, I don’t blame you.

In fact, I blame evolution…

The Dopamine-Distraction Loop that Kills Your Focus

More specifically, I blame dopamine, a chemical in our brain.

I’ll explain.

Dopamine is responsible for our “seeking” behavior. This is actually crucial for evolution. We seek out new information, so we can learn and… STAY ALIVE.

But here’s where it goes wrong:

Our brain wasn’t built for the internet. The sea of distractions makes seeking new information TOO EASY.

Just look at this:

TOO. MANY. TABS!

Does your browser ever look like this?

It’s because new information is too easy to get.

It goes down like this…

You see a Facebook notification. Sweet! Dopamine in your brain makes you seek out what it’s about. So you click to check. Then you get instant gratification in the form of a “like” or a new message. Now your brain is learning that seeking out this new information makes you feel good…

…and suddenly you’re stuck in a dopamine-induced distraction loop!

And it gets worse:

At the same time, the distractions “help” us avoid the annoying, difficult work we SHOULD be doing instead.

So procrastination “pays off” twice… We don’t have to do the difficult stuff AND we get a little bit of instant gratification.

The result? Endless research. Planning. Brainstorming… But with no tangible outcome.

In short:

The lack of focus completely DESTROYS your productivity.

Seriously. When people can’t focus enough to read even a short paragraph… or put down their phones WHILE THEY’RE DRIVING…

It’s a problem.

But there’s good news, too:

You CAN break free from the distraction-loop.

Just imagine if you could get into hyper-focus mode on demand…

You’d get more done. You’d do more impactful work. You’d reach your big goals – one clear action at a time.

But how?

In his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” Daniel Goleman writes:

“Attention works much like a muscle – use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

So…

The more you learn to focus, the easier it will be to get into that state.

The question is, how do you START to develop this “muscle” in your brain?

It’s a fascinating topic, so I’ve started to pay close attention to my own behavior. Plus, I did a deep-dive into the research that can help you improve your focus.

Here’s what I found:

The Science of Focus: How to Take Back Control of Your Brain

First, what we mean by “focus” is just one of four types of attention.

Specifically, it’s “sustained attention” most people struggle with: the ability to focus on one task for a prolonged period of time.

The good news is that research shows that focus really is like a muscle. Specifically, scientists found that magnetic stimulation of specific areas of the brain can train your brain to focus better.

Research also seems to confirm what I suspected all along…

Focus is as much about SUPPRESSING DISTRACTIONS as it is about steering attention to what’s important. In fact, the brain has an active suppression mechanism to avoid being distracted.

Now here’s the challenge:

You don’t gain more focus by “willing” it. You can’t overpower your brain to ignore distractions and confusing thoughts by just telling yourself to “Concentrate now!”

I wish it were that simple. But it doesn’t work. Or maybe it does… but it’s short-lived because your willpower is limited.

What you need instead is a PROCESS that will allow you to get into the zone – whenever you want to or need to.

You need a “Focus Routine.”

Now, I can’t tell you exactly what your Focus Routine will look like… But I can tell you mine – and then help you create yours.

My Personal Focus-Routine

As I mentioned, I’m talking about “sustained attention:” the ability to concentrate on an ongoing task (reading, writing, coding, etc.).

However…

My focus routine starts before I sit down, put my head down, and start the actual work.

Why?

Let me quote Drucker again:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Focus is crucial.

BUT…

Focus on the wrong thing is a complete waste of time.

That’s why I start my Focus Routine with…

Step 1: Get your priorities priority straight

This has always bothered me.

Why say “priorities” when it’s really just ONE priority?

That’s what the word means. The ONE thing that comes before everything else. Forget priorities… Get your priority straight!

So, take a moment and PAUSE.

Then, like my friend Tim Ferriss suggests, ask yourself:

What is the ONE thing I need to get done today to make it a good day?

And then, focus on THAT.

Sure, it’s okay to work on more than one project. But not at the same time! And not until you reach a real milestone. Or at least complete a task.

Why? Because no one cares about unfinished business. Or half-done work. The only way I know how to get anything done is to focus on one thing at a time.

There’s also interesting new research that suggests switching between tasks is bad for creativity, too.

So, even though my better half claims she can do 5 things at once… Multitasking doesn’t work. People make more mistakes and perform slower when they try to do more than one thing at once.

Choose the one thing you want to get done today…

…and aim your focus there.

Step 2: Shut off external distractions

Once you’ve got your priority straight, it’s time to get to work.

And there’s one simple way to be less distracted:

TURN OFF THE DISTRACTIONS.

Close all your tabs.

Heck, close your computer unless you really need it. (I often do my “thinking” with just pen and paper.)

Put your phone on airplane mode.

Or flip it over, so you don’t see any notifications.

It’s really simple…

When you turn off the cues, you won’t get sucked into the distraction-loop.

Step 3: Get into the ZONE

Now comes the tricky part.

You know what you need to do.

You turned off those external distractions.

But how do you get into the ZONE? That state in which you’re fully immersed in whatever you’re doing. Complete focus.

I use one particular way to get my brain to pay full attention. And it’s backed by research from Stanford and the School of Psychology from the University of Wales:

What these studies show is that SILENCE is the best environment for sustained attention.

But we can’t all go to the library…

Most of us work in a busy office. Or a coffee shop. Or at home where there’s noise from kids, neighbors, and the street.

So, the next best thing is to DROWN OUT the noise.

How? By listening to music.

But not ANY kind of music…

The studies show that repetitive, calming music is best. Also, music without lyrics is better than music with lyrics – no surprise there.

I usually go with classical music or repetitive electronic music that’s not too loud. And I play the same song on repeat. Try it!

After a while, you won’t hear the music anymore. You’ll be completely focused on the work in front of you.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

Steps 1-3 help me break free from the dopamine-distraction loop.

So far, so good.

But now I want to get into a focus-loop – I want to STAY focused…

So here’s what I do:

When I start a new task, I often set a timer.

Usually for 30 minutes.

It’s a trick to get myself into a focused state. You see, my first goal isn’t to stay focused for hours. I just commit to 30 minutes.

But once I get into the zone, and the 30 minutes are over – I just keep going. Either I set another timer. Or I turn the timer off and just keep working.

I reset the timer or keep going until I’m done or reach a milestone.

This is exactly how I get my most important work done.

Try it!

But there’s one more step to my focus-routine…

Step 5: Take a Break

Remember, focus is like a muscle.

You can’t sustain your attention forever. That’s why it’s important to take a break when you reach a milestone in your work.

When I start to lose focus after a time of “sustained attention” I often go for a short walk.

If you want to take it a step further, consider this:

A theory known as ART (Attention Restoration Theory) looks exactly at how you can refill your ability to concentrate. And the answer is surprisingly simple…

Spend time in nature!

My “nature place:” Central Park

So, try to avoid busy, bustling areas. Give your brain a chance to relax. A short walk in a park is a great way to regain your focus.

And that’s it.

That’s my Focus Routine.

Now the question is:

What’s yours?

If you agree with me that your ability to focus is a key to success in whatever you do…

…create your own Focus Routine and start building your focus muscle.

Start with the 5 steps I laid out here. And then, make it your own.

Let’s hear what you come up with in the comments.

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1 comments Leave a comment
Ali Imran

Good one

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