Last week, I was at the Platform Conference in Colorado Springs. It was fantastic! I had a great time. The speakers were brilliant; the Broadmoor was gorgeous, even when it was 15º and snowing; and I enjoyed connecting with many wonderful, talented people who are trying to be heard in a noisy world.
One of the great things about the long weekend was that it was a complete change of pace. I got to leave all the distractions of everyday life behind and focus on learning how to be a better communicator. I was on vacation out-of-state. I wasn’t checking email. I was only checking Twitter for tweets with the conference’s hashtag. For three days, this was my entire world, and I was able to focus at a much higher level than I usually do.
There are four stages to increasing your focus. They work best when done in order—it doesn’t make much sense to isolate yourself physically when people can still interrupt you electronically. These can help you whether you need to go heads-down to meet a deadline, or you’re trying to step back and see the big picture while making long-range decisions.
Stage 1 — Attention
The simplest thing you can do to increase your focus is to manage your attention. Turn off the notifications on your phone and computer that are constantly pulling at you. You should have minimal notifications enabled on your phone anyway, and when you need to go heads-down, turn them off completely. Enable Do Not Disturb, put your phone into airplane mode, or turn it off. Incoming email, texts, tweets, Facebook messages… they’ll all wait.
You can also enable Do Not Disturb on OS X to suppress notifications from popping up. Some apps will still play sounds, so you may also need to turn the volume all the way down.
Stage 2 — Insulation
In the second stage, you increase your ability to focus by adding active barriers to keep distractions at bay. Send your phone to voicemail. Shut your door. Or better yet, go find an empty office where you can hide while you get work done.
Ambient noise, like a fan or the chatter of a coffee shop, can help you tune out audible distractions. If you like listening to music, use a service like Focus@Will, where the music is specifically designed to be tuned out. Listening to music you know and love will distract you, since you’re going to want to sing along.
Noise-canceling headphones can help tune out repetitive noises and help you focus. They work best with regular, steady noises, like fan noise or the sound of an airplane’s engines. Use them by themselves, or with the ambient noise of your choosing. Wearing headphones also sends a signal to coworkers that you’re busy.
Stage 3 — Immersion
Immersion is how we learned our first language, and it’s a great way to learn a second one. When you spend as much time as you can focused on one thing, you get to go deeper than your normally can. You don’t lose momentum from constantly changing gears. Eat, breathe, and sleep it. The longer you can stay immersed, the more you will be able to gain new insights compared to when you can only snack on it.
I should mention that this is the opposite of “multitasking”, which we are terrible at. You’re better off focusing on one task until it’s complete, then focusing on the next one. Don’t flit about like a hummingbird.
Stage 4 — Congregation
This is where you can really see progress. Get together with others who are focused on the same thing. This can be a study group, a mastermind, or a club. Conferences bring together a large and diverse audience who all have a common interest, and you spend several days working together, encouraging and teaching each other.
Birds of a feather flock together, not just because like attracts like, but because the members of a flock will take on the attributes of the other individuals. This is why it’s so important to pay attention to who is in your reference group. Your mother was right—you’re going to start acting like the people you spend time with. Want to throw off the shackles of 9-to–5? Keep company with those who have successfully built careers for themselves, doing what they love, and truly believe they can change the world, not the guys who hang out at the water cooler complaining about what a jerk their boss is.
Once you have removed the distractions from your life, whatever stage you go to, be intentional when you let them back in. Some, you won’t be able to do much about. Vacations end, and other roles will need your attention. But we tend to let our phones interrupt us too much. Only turn back on the notifications that you absolutely need. End commitments that you dread picking back up. The more time you spend caught up in the thick of thin things, the less you can focus on the things that mean the most to you.