During the school year, I typically have a roughly seven and a half hour window in which the house is empty and quiet and I can focus on my writing and other work tasks. While I definitely do work outside of that block, the reality is that I want to get as much value out of my work time as possible, because if I’ve got time blocked out to work, it’s better for me professionally and personally if I make the most of that time.
That’s true of almost any job. The more productive you are when you’re at work, the better off you are in the long run. You become more valuable at work. It becomes easier to convince your boss that you deserve a raise. Your skill set becomes sharper. You’re likely involved in more resume-worthy projects. It becomes easier to get a new job as well, likely one with better pay.
The same thing is true with personal projects as well. If you can get more value out of that time, you can spend less time on the things you don’t really enjoy but have to do and spend more time on the aspects of life that really provide value for you.
The key factor is focus. Ideally, if I’m focused on a task, I drop into what’s known as a “flow state,” in which I lose track of time because my attention is so focused on the task at hand. During those periods, I get a ton accomplished.
Over the last couple of years, I have experimented with a lot of factors to figure out how to efficiently get myself to focus on a task really well, even when it’s not something I’m naturally excited to do. I’ve found a process that works really well almost all of the time, and when I actually stick to it and use it, I’m incredibly productive.
Here’s what I do.
Start of the Day
A big part of being able to successfully focus on tasks during the day is starting off the day well. Here are six things I do each morning, usually in the thirty to forty-five minutes I have before other household members start waking up, that really set the stage for being able to focus on things later in the day.
I drink a lot of water. I do this right when I wake up. It’s the single most effective thing I’ve found at making me feel more awake quickly in the morning. If I start with coffee, or if I drink nothing at all, I’ll drag on in a sludgy morning state for a good hour or so, which isn’t helpful for me or anyone else. I just go downstairs, pour myself about 32 ounces of water, and drink it over the next five minutes, usually while flipping through a magazine or reading something on my phone.
I stretch and do a bit of moderate exercise, to get the blood flowing. After I drink water, I do the second most effective thing I’ve found for waking me up: a bit of mild stretching and exercise. I touch my toes and hold it for ten seconds. I spread my legs apart for a bit and touch the opposite foot with each hand for ten seconds. I bend back as far as I can for ten seconds. I’ll put each foot up on the counter, one at a time, and bend over to touch my toes for ten seconds. I’ll then do a little bit of exercise, whatever I feel like. Sometimes I’ll do planks. Sometimes I’ll do pushups. Sometimes I’ll put on shoes and jog around the block. I just do something to get the blood flowing, and I feel really good afterwards.
I take a shower. Sometimes I’m a bit sweaty after exercise, so I’ll usually stop at this point and brush my teeth and take a shower. Again, it’s a “feeling good” thing (along with the basic hygiene).
I meditate on my breathing for ten minutes. After I shower and get dressed for the day, I’ll sit down for ten minutes in a comfortable chair, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing for ten minutes. I’ve come to view this as a mental counterpart to the stretching and mild exercise; it’s basically the equivalent of stretching and flexing for my mind, getting it in better shape for focusing. The benefits of this tend to build on themselves – one session isn’t transformative, but making it a daily habit definitely creates improvement.
I review my to-do list for the day. At this point, I just go through the things I need to do today. I usually prioritize it a little bit and, if you’ve been reading other articles on here lately, you know that I also ask myself about the long-term consequences of each of those actions. Usually, I try to figure out what I’m going to do in the morning, because I usually block off a solid segment of time for work between breakfast and lunch.
I eat a protein-rich breakfast. My only real requirement for breakfast is that it has plenty of protein in it. That usually means some eggs or egg whites or some yogurt for me. Protein is the key ingredient here, as it seems to really help in terms of focus for the rest of the day.
Just Before a Task
Now, let’s roll forward a little bit and look at what I do when I’m settling in for a task and I want to focus well throughout it.
I turn off my cell phone. My cell phone is the number one source of distraction in my life. I went through a period where it constantly stayed on, with the little chirps of notifications constantly distracting me and stealing my train of thought. No more. It’s extremely rare that the distraction of a notification is worth breaking my focus when I’m trying to get something done. It can wait. I turn my cell phone off entirely when I’m bearing down on a task.
I close browser windows and turn off wifi. My work involves writing, and the best environment for me as a writer is one where I can’t just click instantly over into a web browser and get distracted and where the computer isn’t giving me notifications and chirps like my phone does. The easiest way to do that is to just turn off wifi and keep my browser window closed. The only program I keep open is the program I use for writing. If I do need to look something up, I launch a browser, connect to wifi, look up that item, turn off wifi, and leave my browser open while I use that information, then close it.
I put on some ambient noise, like this. I have several long audio files of ambient noise that I use as background noise when I’m writing. I find I write far better with some gentle random background noise than in complete silence. The random gentle background noise keeps me from getting distracted by the occasional random noise from outside; without the gentle background noise, outside noises can be really distracting. I focus far better when there’s gentle random background noise like that.
I have a cup of coffee and a cup of green tea on hand and drink from both. If I drink coffee alone, I feel a bit agitated – I focus, but it’s a jittery focus that I can startle right out of. If I drink tea alone, I feel very mellow and not anxious at all, but I can’t focus well. Drinking both gives me the best of both worlds – I can focus really well without the jitteriness. I usually sit down with a cup of coffee (straight black) and a cup of green tea and drink them both.
During a Task
What about when I’m actually working on something?
I force myself to stay on task for a little while, even when it feels hard. The first portion is the hard portion for me, because it’s the time when I’m not really “in the flow” yet so I can really feel the effort it takes to stay focused. I just make myself push through this part because I know that if I do it, eventually I’ll get engaged and lose track of time and get deep into the task. I just have to make myself push through that first part, and I can only do that with minimal distraction.
If I suddenly drop out of a “flow state,” I take a break for a little while and then restart. When I drop out of that “flow state,” I know that it’s going to be tricky to jump right back into it, so I usually take a break. I use the bathroom. I move around a little. Maybe I’ll go on a short walk. I’ll usually stretch a little and refill my coffee and tea.
End of the Day
How I end the day is important, too. There are two key things I try to do each day that will help with focusing the following day.
I prep my to do list for the next day. I write down the big three things I want to accomplish, along with a bunch of littler things to do as time allows. This sets the stage for the next day. My intent is to use most of my focusing efforts on those “big three” tasks.
I go to bed early so that I get adequate sleep. Sleep is perhaps the most important aspect of all in terms of quality focusing, so I try to get plenty of sleep. Ideally, I prefer to wake up without an alarm, which means that I need to go to sleep fairly early to be up an hour or so before the rest of the family. I usually try to be in bed by 9:30 and read for half an hour before falling asleep.
How Does This Make Money?
So, what does focusing have to do with money? I alluded to it a bit at the start, but the real benefit is productivity – the amount of work I can produce in a given amount of time.
When I really focus, I can fall into a “flow state” in which my productivity is at a maximum. Words flow from my fingers. Ideas click together. I fix things and solve problems and take care of tasks.
If I’m in that flow state a lot during a given day, that means I suddenly have more free time. I’m able to get done in, say, five hours what would normally take me eight or nine hours – sometimes, I’m even more efficient than that.
That gives me free time that I didn’t have before. I can use that free time for additional money making projects (I’ve had one on the back burner for a while). I can use it to take care of frugality projects that I might otherwise skip or just pay someone else to do. Sometimes, I just use that extra time to enjoy myself – on a week of really good focusing, for example, I’ve been known to play a solitaire board game on the dining room table on a Friday afternoon, which helps a lot with stress and feeling happy about life.
I sometimes use the same focusing techniques on personal tasks, too. I use it when engaging in lifelong learning for personal growth or when I’m about to exercise, for example. Doing so greatly increases the value I get from such activities.
In short, having some tools in my personal toolbox to help me focus makes me more effective professionally and personally, and being more effective helps me to produce higher quality work at a faster pace, which either gives me more free time or greater opportunity to take on more money making projects.
I hope that some of these tools help you in the same way.