Focus is like a muscle.

For one day only, try to do just one thing at a time.

When you're on a phone call, only be on that phone call. Don't let yourself use a computer, or let yourself scroll around on your phone while talking to other person. Just be on that call. Sit and give it your full attention.

When you're going out for a walk, try to walk without any music or headphones in. Experience the walk as best you can. Pay attention to your steps, and to the sounds and sights and smells around you, if any.

When you're working in a program on your computer, try to use it full screen. Try to start and finish it before moving onto anything else.

Try to only keep one tab open in your browser at a time. Read an article start to finish before moving to the next one.

If you're watching a television show or movie, pay attention to only that screen. Try not to add in a second screen like your iPad or iPhone. Just watch the show.

If you're talking to someone in person, just talk to that person. Give them your full attention. Don't hold your phone in your hand, or check your watch, or do anything to draw attention away from them. Listen to them as if they hold all the secrets of the universe and you're learning from them. 

In other words, really try your best to do just one thing at a time. Give anything you do your full attention. It probably won't be easy -- it's not easy for me to do, and I try to do this every day.

But it's amazing what a difference it makes. To work on that focus. 

Focus is like a muscle. It's really hard to use. It's hard to stay focused, especially in a world that has so many rewarding distractions like notifications, likes, hearts, comments, breaking news, multitasking apps, etc.

If you work on your focus though, you'll begin to find deeper meaning in what you're doing. You'll notice things you would have missed entirely. You'll feel calmer, your brain won't have to work as hard to constantly move between different things and try to keep up. You'll find that you retain more.

As you grow your focus skill, you'll find it's easier to get things done. It's easier to start something and finish it. It's easier to make progress

Try your best to be present in each moment, and stay focused in those moments, and see how it feels.

The fear that prevents us from focusing

Courage.

I recently took a trip to Thailand for 3 weeks, and decided to backpack the trip. I bought one of those 70L bags, and started packing. I thought everything that went into it was important. I kept imagining these random scenarios and telling myself: "Yea I could see when I'd use this". Or "This is super important, can you imagine if X happened and I didn't have this??"

Several days into arriving, I immediately regretted all of these choices. Of everything I packed, there was really only about 75% of it that I truly needed. The extra 25% was killer -- that bag goes on your back, sometimes all day, and literally weighs you down. Shedding even just a few pounds would have made a huge difference.

That's what we do to ourselves all the time with our projects, and our work, and our lives in general. We tell ourselves these stories that everything is important. We are really fearful of getting rid of certain things, afraid of what might happen if some strange scenario comes up. We walk around with lots of weight on our minds. It slows us down, it keeps us tired, and it prevents progress.

If we had the courage to say no to projects we don't care about, and if we had the courage to prune and edit our task lists, and our commitments down to what we truly cared about, then we'd be more nimble. We'd be lighter. We'd move with ease through the craziness of life, not worrying so much about all those little things. We'd go farther, and we'd make more progress than ever before. 

When you think about your personal heroes, are they people who are doing a million little things or are they people who are all in on one or two major things? At least for me, it's obvious: The people I admire most are those that give themselves fully to their craft, to their passion, and to their purpose. They don't let distractions come in and take away from what they're meant to do. They don't say yes to projects just to please others. They don't compromise what truly matters to them just because they're afraid of saying no.

The best way to start to focus is to start with honesty. Get rid of the fear that tells you to keep everything on your plate. Get rid of the fear that says people will be mad at you or hate you for saying no, or for taking yourself off something you aren't interested in. They might be mad at first, but as you begin to make meaningful progress on the things you do care about, you will start to shine. You and your work begin to meld together and it's obvious to anyone that sees you that you're going places.

Ask yourself honestly: What am I committed to today that my heart isn't really in? What did I say yes to only to please someone else, and not because it's helpful or meaningful to me? What can I get rid of, and it won't be the end of the world? 

When I did this exercise a few months ago, I cut out a lot-- both physical items in my room that served no purpose anymore, and commitments that weren't really adding anything to my life. When I started to strip away these things, I felt a much stronger sense of focus and purpose in the morning. I woke up with a certainty of what I was going to do that day, without any worry of all those other minor things. I didn't have to ask myself: "What do I need to do today?". I just knew. I knew because I only had that one thing I needed to do that day, and I'd get up and do it. It was (and is) a beautiful thing.

Finding your focus means finding your why. I write about it all the time-- finding your why is ultimately finding your purpose. What is it that drives you? What is that you can't separate yourself from? What makes you, you?

It can be a tough question to answer because we have so many distractions and inputs from other places clouding the truth. We think we need to go meditate on a beach for 3 days to figure it out. There is a simpler way to arrive at the answer: Declutter your life. Reduce the distractions. Try to cut things that don't matter, and see how it feels. Keep cutting until you're down to one or two things that inspire you, that get you up in the morning excited to tackle the day. 

 

Focus on what matters. Filter out what doesn't.

 

Focus.

Imagine you have an empty glass, and you need to fill it with water so you can have a drink. You're thirsty, you need water to live, and this glass will help you achieve that goal, right?

Now imagine you have a few options to fill that glass of water to keep you healthy:

1. In option one, you can fill it from a filtered pitcher of water. It pours nicely and neatly, you can control it, and you get a clean glass of water.
2. In option two, you can fill it from a sink. It's arguably less clean, but still drinkable, and it comes out quickly so you need to cut it off fast so you don't spill.
3. In option three, you can fill it from a broken fire hydrant that is spewing out water at full speed. You struggle to approach it because of how fast the water is coming, and even when you place your cup in front of it, the water just spits back out because of how fast it's coming in. You end up with just a few drops of water that stick to the edges of your glass, and you remain thirsty.

I think we live in scenario #3 every single day with the amount of information we take in. I know my days typically look like this: I wake up, grab my phone, and start reading and checking on personal email, Twitter, Facebook, app installs, blog stats, app stats, ranks across the globe, work email, messages in various apps, Instagram, the news... Often I spend so much time in this loop I restart it once more to see if anything's changed. And this is even before I've moved an inch out of bed.

Finally I get up (about 20-30 minutes later), take the dog out, shower, & get ready for the day. As I eat breakfast, I have an iPad or computer in front of me reading even more-- blogs, news, Facebook statuses. Then it's time to walk the dog, so I put on headphones and listen to podcasts giving me even more information.

I come back home and now it's time to work, so I put on headphones again and listen to music while I try to work. It's hard because every few minutes I feel compelled to check my email or app stats, or IM someone on Google Talk, or check the news.

By the end of the day, I feel so fried and I'm not sure what work I've done--if anything. I was busy all day long but certainly not productive. Not meaningfully productive, that's for sure. I had absolutely no focus because my attention was being overwhelmed with data. Just like with that fire hydrant, I was getting way too much and as a result, I was thirsty and starving for something REAL.

When I had this 'aha' moment, everything changed. I made myself way more aware of this terrible habit, and started to make changes. I now have a rule: No screens for at least 30 minutes after waking up, and no screens for an hour before sleeping. I also have a rule of not having any screen time while I eat, allowing me to more mindfully eat (and thus eat healthier).

I cut down on blog reading time dramatically to just 30 minutes a day. I use that time as leisure time: Time to catch up on news I care about, but I not so much that I obsess over it. I don't need to check those sites every fifteen minutes. Just once a day, if at all.

When I sit down to work, I focus on my work. I try to go full screen with apps so I don't get drawn into clicking somewhere else. I generally don't have any IM apps open so I don't get distracting notifications flying in on my screen. I turn off my mail notifications and I silence my phone or put it in DND mode. When it's time to write, I go a step further and write in a separate room without any distractions. Even if this a walk-in closet, it's better to create a distraction-free zone for those times you need extreme focus.

When I made these changes, my life started to feel fuller. Happier. Healthier. More balanced. More focused.

I switched to scenario #1, where I filtered all the data. I figured out what was actually important to me, and what fulfilled me. I realized so much information I was receiving every day was useless and I could live much better without it. I'm still informed, I'm still reading what I like to read, but I'm doing it in a much more controlled manner.

Challenge yourself to make changes like this-- even for a day. See how you feel at the end of the day. Maybe instead of 30 minutes after waking up, only go 10 minutes without touching your phone. Pick up a book instead or simply sit and breathe. Do something that keeps you present, rather than takes you away virtually.

We live in an amazing age of information, but as a result, we need to work to filter what comes in, otherwise it's just too much. Make February your Focus month. Start with focusing your attention each day. We'll keep writing about the other ways Focus is important throughout this month. Sign up below to get the latest.

 

 

The only way to go is forward.

Forward.

The mountains are ahead of you, but you are here, right now. How do you get from here, to the top of those mountains? 

By making progress. Even the fewest steps a day takes you far in a year's time. 

We often make excuses. We say things like "when this finishes, I'll have more time". We say that in a couple of weeks things will settle down and we'll have more time then. 

Those excuses are lies. And they cheat us out of progress. 

Want to write a book? Write for fifteen minutes a day. Or five minutes. Or one minute a day.

Want to run a marathon? Start a training program and walk out your door and move.

Want to play the guitar? Take it out of your closet and put it near your couch or bed or desk, where you can grab it and practice it every day, even for 30 seconds at a time.

Want to start a business? Sell your product, even if there's no way to scale it yet, even if you have no idea if it will work, even if there's a million reasons it will fail-- Just try it out and see what happens. 

There is no better time than now to start your next thing. Create the space for it. Create the time for it. I'm certain you can find it. Even if you spent just 1 hour a week working towards your goal, you'd be 52 hours into it by the end of the year. And years go by so. fast.

What mountains are waiting for you? And what are you waiting for?

Make progress every day. Achieve your goals. Live the dream. You totally got this.

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This post was beautifully illustrated by Megan Roy.

 

Making progress is hard work and that's great

I have several friends who all have goals that they've shared with me. I know these goals really well, and it's because they've had them for a while. A long while. Unfortunately, the years have gone by and no progress has been made on them. I can be the exact same way, and honestly I think it's perfectly normal to have goals that just sit on a shelf collecting dust. Why is that? Why is it seemingly so important to have these goals, but not important enough to actually make progress on them and achieve them?

I think two things are at play here: The first is that these goals might not be that important at all. They may not matter in the way that we think they do-- they may just be these ideals we think we should have, but they aren't personally meaningful to us. Without having a really strong sense of why we want to achieve those goals, we'll never be willing to put in the work. Who wants to wake up at 5:45am and run for an hour every day if you don't really care about finishing a marathon? After that first day of the alarm going off, you'll never set it again. It's so much more enjoyable to sleep in, especially at first. (Seriously, mornings and sleep for me are sacred.)

The second is that putting in work toward a goal is not easy. It's work. It's often really hard work, especially if it's something you want to get really good at. I've started a new project this year with this blog, which is to write at least once per week-- with the goal of having 52 posts by the end of the year, each one part of a bigger theme of achieving goals and adding a sense of purpose to work. Now that I'm on week 3, I can tell you it's already not easy. Setting aside the time to write is difficult. Knowing what to write is equally not easy. Writing something that I want to publish at all is probably the hardest part. No part of doing this is easy--and I'm only on my third post of the year!

But this goal really matters to me: I've wanted to write a book for ages, and I realized this is one way to get to that goal. It's to write and write and write. Alongside that writing, it's reading other people's writings and practicing the craft. There's no secret to becoming a good writer--there's just practice. Most skills in life are like muscles. The more you use them, the easier it gets, and the better you do it. I've learned that lesson this past year with my spinning/exercise habit I got into, and I'm applying it all over my life with things like my coding, writing, and my startup life in general.

Whatever goals you have, especially the ones you've had for a while, sit down and ask yourself this question first: Does it really matter? Why does it matter, or can you retire this goal? If you just drop it as a goal, how do you feel? OK with that decision, or like you're filled with regret about it? 

Next, if you really want to have this goal still, ask yourself the next question: what can you do to make progress on it? Seriously, what's one small thing you can do right now to make progress on it, even if it's as small as opening up a document editor, or moving the guitar out of the closet and into your living room? How much time can you set aside each week? Can you commit to one hour per week to kick things off, and see how that feels?

You'd be amazed at what you can accomplish after just a few weeks of working an hour a week-- and how good you'll feel with that progress. It will snowball and before you know it, you'll have a new habit and a new level of skill and you'll feel your goals are truly achievable. It's an amazing place to be.

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Having Confidence to Create

Confidence.

We all have that voice in our heads-- the one that essentially narrates our life. It's the one that we hear when we're debating doing something--even little things. We debate whether or not to send a text message to someone we like, or what we should have for lunch. We also debate much bigger things in our minds, like taking a risk on starting a business or going full time with a side venture, or whether we should quit our jobs and become a freelance developer.

That voice, if you haven't noticed, is really contrary. In one moment it will tell you you should do something, and in the next it will immediately give you reasons why you shouldn't. Mine sounds something like this all the time:

I should write a blog post about ______. No but that's a stupid topic, why would anyone want to read that? Well it's interesting and meaningful to me, and I bet I could write about it in a way that other people would enjoy. No, it's going to be bad and people are going to hate it. 

I'm sure you're familiar with some type of dialogue like this in your mind. It's because that voice in our head isn't necessarily one of reason: it's often one that just chatters on incessantly, ready to take any view. What's worse is that when it says negative things, we are more likely to listen to those particular things rather than the positive side of things. Why? Because we have a negativity bias. 

Evolution has basically taught us that bad news or negative information is more important than positive information. The news of finding food or water is great, but the news that a tiger or lion is nearby and might kill you is far more important to our immediate survival. Our brains seek out that kind of negative information to protect ourselves. This is great for when we lived out in jungles and forests and mountains, but it's pretty bad for creativity and freelancing and entrepreneurism. It's what Seth Godin basically describes as the lizard brain.

When we hear that negative information in our mind, we are way more likely to listen to it rather than all the positive stuff we're trying to tell ourselves. As a result, that blog post never gets written, that painting never gets completed, that book never gets published, and progress stops. We stay in stasis, never creating, never shipping and as a result never changing. We find comfort in the lack of change because the brain really likes predictability. 

I bring all of this up because I believe it relates 100% to confidence. Confidence is what we can create when we learn to stop listening so intently to that inner dialogue. Confidence is a result of understanding that the voice is going to tell us all kinds of things, but we don't have to listen to it-- we still get to make the decision, in a place deeper than our voice. 

We can override whatever negative things it's telling us and we can go after what we know in our hearts we want. I think that's what sets apart those that find great success, and everyone else. They learn to go after what they want, and to push and fight for what matters. They find confidence in themselves to learn the skills, to work harder than everyone else, to be disciplined, and to achieve their goals.

When you're debating going after some new thing, like starting an exercise routine, building a new business, becoming a freelancer, or whatever it is that matters most to you, try not to listen too intently to your inner dialogue feeding you all kinds of negativity. Instead, dig deeper and find that confidence to go after it. Find comfort in your discomfort and start to build your better tomorrow. 

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Progress is made by showing up every day

Progress isn't made in leaps and bounds like I used to think. It's made by showing up every single day and putting in the work. 

Progress is something to fight for. It's made despite all the slowdowns and despite all the barriers that stand in the way. It's made in fits and starts and it's hard. 

That's what makes it so rewarding---because very few people stick with it. It's always easier to just 'go home'. It's easier to sit on your couch and watch Netflix, or play video games. It's easier to put down the weights in the gym when you're tired, to stop running because you'd rather walk, to stop learning something new and stick to what you know--all these things are what most people do. That's what makes them most people. Our brains often betray us and walk us down the path of least resistance. 

You have to ask yourself this question: Do you want to be like most people, or do you want to be you, 100%, unfiltered? 

Do you want to keep showing up, keep making progress, and discover uncharted territory?

I remember when I would learn about explorers in middle and high school-- people who set out and discovered new lands and new waters and literally mapped the Earth. I recently felt sad thinking that with today's technology, there's no part of the Earth that some human or machine hasn't discovered. I felt there were no adventures left to have as a result. I was wrong though, because I was thinking only of geographically discovering things. I wasn't thinking about our own personal journeys-- as individual people, and as a collective group of humanity. People continue to do new and 'uncharted' things all the time, and some are lucky enough to push humanity forward as a result. They don't do it overnight, like popular culture might have us believe--they do it through determination and working harder than everyone else. They do it by making progress towards what they believe in every single day.

Set your destination, grab your tools, and get moving. The world is waiting to see what you do next.