Note: This is the fourth post in a series exploring C.R.A.F.T. , an acronym designed to help you create a life you love. You’ll also enjoy the previous posts: Clarity, The 3Rs, Action and Accountability.
Once you decide to take action, you’re filled with motivation and optimism. You happily get started and make progress. But then hours, weeks or months later depending on the project, you’ll encounter the “messy middle”. Things get hard. You’ve lost the enthusiasm of the beginning but aren’t close enough to see the finish. This is the most common time to give up. Projects go unfinished and goals are abandoned.
You lost focus.
This happens for several reasons:
- You’re not having enough fun.
- You’re stopped by fear.
- You’re overwhelmed or distracted.
Usually it is a combination of all three.
So you take the day off. Then another day off. Then you decide it’s the perfect time to clean the cobwebs out of corners of the garage. (The same cobwebs that never bugged you before.) Or you decide it is critically important to alphabetize your spices. Or you think you need to do something else entirely and flit from thing to thing without ever finishing anything. Or you decided to write a post on staying focused and the universe throws endless distractions your way (sheesh…but on the upside, I’ve recently tested all of these strategies and can verify they work).
Knowing how to prevent a loss of focus, recognizing it when you do, and knowing how to regain your focus is a huge aspect of crafting a life you love.
21 Strategies to Stay Focused, Have More Fun and Minimize Fear
1. Enjoy the process.
If you aren’t enjoying the process, you’re more likely to give up. This is what happens to people who force themselves to go to the gym everyday even though they hate it. Or those on the restrictive diet that is immediately swapped for old eating habits as soon as the goal weight is achieved. To be successful and create lasting change, learn to enjoy the process.
2. Get curious.
How do you react to the messy middle? What’s your tendency? Boredom? Distraction? Overwhelm? What do you tell yourself? Notice how you try to rationalize your behavior. Notice if you are self-critical. Notice if you numb out. Curiosity helps you step outside of yourself and your emotions. Consider yourself a personal science project. What works? What doesn’t? The best system is the one that works for you.
3. Make it a game.
Approaching your goals as a game make them more fun. I’ve got a competitive spirit so I enjoy creating ways to do things better or faster. I mentally map out a route around the grocery store to avoid doubling back. Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness applies ideas from video games and has ways for his readers to “level up” as they become more fit. Gamify your goals.
4. Break your goals into doable chunks.
If something feels too hard or massive and overwhelming, you’ll be more likely to give up. Break things into smaller and smaller chunks until they feel doable. This post on action and accountability details this further.
5. Know thyself.
Knowing yourself is key to staying focused. Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project puts “Be Gretchen” as one of her 12 personal commandments. She doesn’t try to be someone she isn’t and instead embraces who she is and her personal preferences.
Gretchen believes that people prefer to work either as a sprinters or marathoners. Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, marathoners are like tortoises and prefer to work steadily over time. Sprinters are like hares and love the thrill of the deadline and perform better when working in intense bursts. Both sprinters and marathoners procrastinate so don’t confuse sprinting with procrastinating.
People can operate in either mode but generally prefer marathoning or sprinting when working. I enjoy sprinting when housecleaning (it’s a way to gamify, see number 3) but otherwise I prefer a marathon style of working.
In my job as a helicopter pilot, I have to complete computer modules on various safety related topics each quarter. They’re dry and boring. I complete one a day until I’m finished (marathoner). Some of my coworkers sit down and do them all until they’re finished (sprinters). This personally sounds like torture to me but they’d rather just get through them.
One way to determine if you are a marathoner or a sprinter is to think about which method sounds more fun or would give you less anxiety. Don’t try to force yourself to work in a way that isn’t effective for you just because others tell you it is the best way. Be yourself.
6. Use a timer.
I’m a huge fan of timers and use them in two different ways. First, I use them with tasks I dread. I can do anything for 20 minutes, so I’ll use a timer for things that are boring or are difficult and intimidating. After 20 minutes if I feel able to do another 20 minute block, I will. If not, I’ve made forward progress and I’ll pick it up again later (marathoner). The second way I use a timer is to ensure I don’t get lost down a “rabbit hole”. I can geek out for hours on small minutia on my website or get lost surfing the web. The timer forces awareness of how much time I’ve spent on a task and allows me to refocus on the things that really matter.
7. Use the 52 and 17 Rule to work smarter, not harder.
A study by Draugiem Group found the most productive employees weren’t those that worked longer than their less productive counterparts, instead they worked smarter. Specifically the most productive people worked intensely for 52 minutes and then took a break for 17 minutes. Most importantly, when the most productive people took breaks, they did things that were completely unrelated to work. No surfing the web or checking Facebook. The most productive people took a walk, had a non-work related conversation or read a book. You can find our more about the study here. Stop pretending that grinding away all day is productive. Focus intensely on your work for blocks of time and then get up from your desk, leave your phone behind and move around while you take a break.
8. Set clear intentions.
What is the exact thing you are trying to accomplish for your work period? Clearly defining what you intend to do to “move the needle” towards accomplishing your goals, will help you stay focused. The more specific the better.
9. Eat well, sleep well and exercise well.
Anytime we sacrifice one of the basics (adequate sleep, good nutrition, or regular exercise) we are at risk for losing our resolve. When things get difficult, the basics become even more important. Your brain won’t be able to handle challenging or creative work without them.
10. Measure your progress.
Tracking your progress can be hugely motivating and effective. We know that weighing oneself daily is more effective at keeping weight off than weighing oneself weekly. As business guru Peter Drucker says, “You can’t manage what you can measure.” Keep track of your progress on a calendar or journal. What did you do? What have you accomplished? You might feel discouraged when you look ahead at how far you have to go. Measuring your progress will help you see how far you’ve come as well as help you see patterns for what worked.
11. Treat yourself.
Accomplishing your goals is challenging work. You’ll be uncomfortable. Studies show that giving yourself a treat boosts self-control. Enjoying a treat is a tradeoff for all your hard work and effort. By giving yourself a treat now and then, you’ll be able to ask more of yourself. My most recent treats have ranged from looking at cabin plans to taking a bike ride to having tea with a friend.
12. Preserve your willpower.
Willpower is finite. Schedule the things that take the most willpower earlier in your day. Save rote, easier tasks for later in the day (email, paying bills, cleaning).
13. Develop grit.
Grit is defined as “stick-to-it-ness”. The “grittier” you are, the more you’re able persevere when things get difficult. Many of these strategies help prevent things from feeling like a grind. Even with these, there will be times when you just have to grind your way through. As the final part of earning my Master’s in Teaching, I had to complete comprehensive exams. We had a week to write four 10 page research papers. Near the end of the week my brain was mush but I still had one more paper to go. Grit (and visualizing a seatbelt holding me to my chair) allowed me to finish. Develop your grittiness.
14. Identify your fears.
Fear is often a reason we give up. We mistakenly connect our self-worth to the results we produce. We’re afraid of failure (or success), rejection, hurting someone, being exposed or made fun of, or being alone. Identify your exact fear in relation to where you’re stuck. Once you’ve identified exactly what you are afraid of, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
My most common fear is a fear of rejection. I’m afraid of sharing my writing in case people don’t like it. Knowing this is my exact fear and knowing that regardless of what I do, some people probably won’t like my work while others will like it helps me realize that even if my worst fear does come true, nothing that bad will happen and life will go on.
Thinking about your fear and what the worst is that can happen will help you soothe your inner critic and allow you to make progress.
15. Outsource tasks you hate.
I talked to a blog reader recently who was feeling bogged down by transcribing interviews. She enjoyed conducting the interview but found the transcription tedious and boring. As she said, “It’s my kryptonite.” Everyone has tasks that are their kryptonite. Just like superman, don’t expose yourself to them. They take away all your power. Let someone else help you. Hire a virtual assistant. Trade time with a friend and help them with a task they hate.
16. Create a buffer.
Stop beating yourself up for what you aren’t doing. It doesn’t help and only makes you feel bad about yourself. Having a buffer in your schedule and your to-do list will give you the space to manage some of the inevitable distractions. Consider scheduling periods where you can go “all out” and other periods where you might need to slow down a bit. I’m much busier at work in the summer and all I want to do during my free time is be outside so I keep my summer goal list very minimal. I’ll ramp things back up in the fall and winter when it is easier to be inside and do more coaching and writing projects.
17. Avoid bright, shiny object syndrome.
When things get hard, we often get distracted by bright, shiny objects: a new idea, a course we just have to take, or the closet that has to be cleaned out. We shift from doing the work that really matters to the thing that captivates our attention. (Squirrel!) There are often new distractions that occur daily. Today’s distraction was the 10 week old puppy that my coworker brought to work.
Here’s the thing: take the break and play with the puppy but then put your bum back in the chair and get to work. You have the knowledge you need. Most times the goal you chose is the right one as long as it is a “should-free” goal. Goals that are “shoulds” aren’t really about ourselves. They’re about looking good or pleasing other people. This type of goal won’t give you the motivation you need when you’re in the messy middle. For now, don’t worry about if you’ve selected the right goal, just keep making forward progress. We’ll ensure you’re pursuing the right goals in the final step of C.R.A.F.T. acronym.
18. Get social.
Share the experience with others. Invite them along for a run. Have them quiz you before the big exam. Show them the Powerpoint you’re making at work. Making something social helps you stay focused and will provide you with the accountability and feedback you need.
19. Choose your distractions.
What are your common distractions? Where do you get stuck? It is unrealistic to completely focused all the time. You will need to take a break. Choose distractions that are beneficial. Choosing to go for a short walk or calling a friend can be a more productive and restorative break than mindlessly surfing the internet. Plan ahead so you have a strategy in place to catch yourself before you spend hours doing things that don’t really matter.
20. Remember your purpose.
Having a clear sense of purpose (and remembering it!) is critical to staying focused. It is easy to get lost in the weeds when you lose sight of the bigger picture. Taxes are a prime example. With apologies to the CPAs out there, taxes are incredibly boring. But doing your taxes quickly and correctly can bring in resources that may be used to forward your mission in life. Reminding yourself how your day-to-day tasks relate to your bigger vision will help you stay focused.
21. Celebrate small wins.
Celebrating small wins build momentum. It helps you see what you’ve accomplished. It helps you recognize progress. It builds neural pathways for success.
As someone with a pretty big comfort zone, particularly in relation to physical activity, it was surprising to both myself and a friend when I said, “I’m not doing it.” We were mountain biking along the blueberry patch trail at the Alyeska Ski Resort and we had just ridden up to a huge corner ramp. Until that day I’d never ridden a mountain bike boardwalk but had managed the first part without too much. When we got to the corner ramp, I stopped my bike and thought, “No way”. My friend passed me and rode the ramp with ease before calling back and encouraging me to try it. I shifted from side to side debating.
It wasn’t quite as intense as the photo but it sure felt like it.
He rode it again even slower. “You’ll be fine,” he encouraged. After more discussion, I finally agreed to do it as long as he stood near the ramp and would attempt to catch me if I started to fall. I pedaled around it reciting a litany of, “Oh god, oh god, oh gods” while he responded “No worries, no worries, no worries.”
I made it! Then he encouraged me to do it again. The next time around it was much easier and I filled the rest of our ride with an endorphin fueled chattiness. I’m still celebrating my small win.
Small wins and accomplishing things that have us feel uncomfortable add up to big results. Find ways to give yourself a safety net as you take on difficult things. My friend may not have been able to prevent me from falling but it made me feel a lot better about trying the ramp.
CRAFT Your Life
The C.R.A.F.T. acronym is designed to help you go from stuck to unstuck. It’s about moving from a passive participant reacting to life to an active co-creator of a life you love. These 21 strategies will help you stay focused, have more fun and manage your fear to keep going through the messy middle.
Where have you been working on staying focused? What are your common distractors? What works for you? What is a small win you are celebrating? Share in the comments.