How to train your mind to focus

Things can’t interrupt you without your permission. Focus requires mastering your mind — distractions are just an excuse to stay in our comfort zone.

Photo: Edith Soto via Flickr

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.” — Zig Ziglar

The world is not distracted; our minds are.

Yes, we have more options than any generation before us. But that’s an excuse, not the real reason, why our minds wander all the time.

The enemy of focus is not distraction, fear is.

We are afraid of what we can’t anticipate — our brain wants to be always in control. We avoid experimenting because we fear failure. We let distractions hijack our attention to avoid confronting uncertainty.

Being focused requires mastering your mind — distractions are just an excuse to stay in our comfort zone.

The anatomy of the focused mind

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee

Focus is not something you have — it’s a skill you gain by training your mind.

That’s why the term “Distraction Era” is deceiving — it puts the problem in the outside. Things can’t interrupt you without your permission. Focusing your mind prevents external stuff from hijacking your attention.

Turning off your phone’s notifications helps but is not enough. It’s like hiding a bottle from an alcoholic and expect that person’s craving to go away. You must attack the cause, not just the symptom.

What causes your mind to wander? Do you fill your calendar with meaningless tasks? Do you use being busy as a reason to avoid focusing on what matters?

Busyness has become a socially acceptable excuse — it’s an easy way out for not paying attention.

Everyone wants to win. But having clear goals is not enough — you must develop the right mindset. Train your mind to perform better, not just to win. Winning is about doing fewer things, better. That’s the difference between having a goal and achieving one.

Winners emphasize achieving over doing — they have a laser-like focus.

7 ways to focus your mind

1. Focus with a Purpose
The mistake most people make is lacking a clear purpose — they want to be more focused, but don’t know what for.

Avoidance is the mother of distraction. If you don’t have a concrete reason to stay focused, your mind will jump from one thing to another. Training your mind to pay attention requires something to focus on.

This Harvard Business Review article suggests an ABC method to prevent distractions from hijacking your focus — it’s like a mental brake pedal. Become Aware of what is causing the distraction and, most importantly, why. Breathe deeply; create a pause and reflect on what’s going on. Choose your next move thoughtfully: Stop or go? Accelerate or slow down? Left or right turn?

Focusing requires having an intention for your attention.

As you start your day, write down what is essential and what you want to achieve today. Bring awareness to your mood and emotions. Also, list anything that can get in your way — not just potential distractions, but what you need from others to achieve what you want.

When you don’t have a purpose, it’s easier to get distracted. Conversely, having a clear ‘why’ will help you stay focused.

2. Solve A Real Problem
Most of the times, we are doing meaningless work. We jump from one task to another without accomplishing anything. We end solving the wrong problem and lose our focus.

Organizations want to drive change, but their teams get exhausted, as I wrote here. By fighting one fire after another, they lose perspective — they can’t discriminate the symptom from the real problem.

“Urgency wrecks productivity. Urgent but unimportant tasks are major distractions. Last-minute distractions are not necessarily priorities.” — Thomas Oppong

You have to decide what your priorities are — focus on what will advance your daily, weekly or monthly goals. Learn to say no to the rest. Productivity is not about doing more but about doing what matters — do fewer things, better.

Focus on important things and suppress urgency. Those who lack focus are busy fighting urgent, but irrelevant, fires.

3. Eliminate Other Options
When you don’t have choices, it’s harder to get distracted. Author Daniel Pink disconnects himself from the world every morning, that’s how he can focus on writing. The author commits to a daily quota — he can’t leave his office until he has written a minimum amount of words.

“I give myself a word count quota. The key for me is I don’t do anything else until I hit that number. I don’t check emails. I don’t bring my phone to my office. I don’t talk to anyone before I hit that number,” Daniel Pink shares on Hubspot Academy.

Create rules where you can’t start a new activity until you finished another one first. In a good day, Pink leaves his office at 10–10:30. On a bad day, he might stay ‘disconnected’ until 2 or 3 PM.

When you eliminate all options, it’s easier to focus on the only thing that’s left.

4. Set Deadlines
Deadlines are more than bringing your goals to life. Yes, committing to a specific date increases your chances to achieve an objective. However, the power of deadlines lies in creating a constraint.

Limitations benefit both creativity and productivity — by challenging ourselves, we increase our focus. Not only you commit to a shipping date; deadlines channel your adrenaline and energy toward one single goal.

Deadlines help close cycles; it creates a cadence of finishing and starting. I was able to self-publish my first book in 90 days, not just because I had a cutoff date — I’ve turned challenging myself into a habit.

Author Tim Denning sees deadlines as an excuse for celebrating.

“This deadline not only gives me a hard stop to be done writing by, but it also gives me something to look forward to. It makes all the pain and sweat of writing worth it. It’s how I celebrate.” — Tim Denning

Using deadlines smartly can motivate you instead of adding more pressure.

5. Leverage Your Mental State
When your work and your mental state are not aligned, they create an emotional dissonance. Focusing is hard. Dealing with this stressful feeling becomes an additional distraction.

Adapting your work to your mental state increases your focus. Not understanding and being aware of your various mental state harm productivity. I use five categories: Creativity, Analysis, Socializing, Doing, and Learning. David Kadavy uses seven as he explains in this thorough post.

I align my work with my mental state depending on the moment and energy level. For example, my creativity hits its low between 11 AM–3 PM. That’s when I do research, marketing, client stuff, etc. Conversely, I write or design new workshops late at night or early in the morning.

“To get the most out of your creative energy, carve out space for creative work. To make that space, you need to make space for the other types of work, too.” — David Kadavy

Focusing is not about productivity but riding along with your mind. Learn to understand the types of work you do and align them with your mental states.

6. Declutter Your Mind
Your mind is like your desk — the messier it is, the bigger the chances you’ll wander around.

I always tell my clients, “Get rid of the post-its. Clean your whiteboards before you leave the office.” Most companies spend a lot of energy and time brainstorming, and then get stuck — they want to keep all the ideas.

Focusing is the art of sacrifice — choose one thing and get rid of the rest. Anything that’s not essential quickly becomes a distraction.

“Freedom without discipline is foolish, discipline without freedom is insanity.” ― Ilona Mialik

Cleaning your mind is like tidying up your office or room — it boosts your behavior and mood. When we free our minds, we find balance.

Choose one idea and implement it — get rid of all the other post-its.

7. Measure Less
That everything can be measured doesn’t mean you must measure everything. Living in an information abundance world requires discernment — don’t use every resource available just because it’s free or easy to get.

Tracking all your goals and results can quickly become a distraction. It steals more than time — it shifts your attention from acting to observing. Monitoring goals is a passive behavior — it doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome.

Checking your social media stats regularly, won’t increase your posts views. Having weekly or daily sales review meetings won’t bring you more customers.

“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.” — Vince Lombardi

Information abundance is not the enemy, lack of ownership is. Some people hide behind data analysis rather than being accountable for the decisions they make (or not).

Focus on active behaviors instead. What are the tasks that will impact your results? Measure the final impact, not every step of the journey.

— — —

Lack of focus is avoidance. Get past the fear of the unknown — choose what you want to achieve and eliminate all other distractions.

Train your mind to have a laser-like focus. Get rid of the post-its.

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This article first appeared on Medium.

Gustavo Razzetti|is the CEO of Liberationist, a change leadership consultancy that helps organizations become more innovative