Focus is the blade you must sharpen to cut through the distractions and clutter you face every day. Exercising your focus (like you would exercise a muscle) builds your ability to stay sharp.

You may have heard this metaphor: the sun’s heat warms the Earth gently, but if you apply a magnifying glass to that energy, you can burn paper — if you focus the sun’s energy enough, you can melt anything. That’s how you should think about your focus. The more energy you can direct, the sharper the focus and the more powerful the outcome.

Every time we get thrown off course or pulled into a bunch of mindless Facebook updates or our text alarm sounds, it takes several minutes for us to regain our focus and get back to what we were doing. Fortunately, the more you can exercise your focus, you’ll be able to bounce back quicker after getting distracted — and you’ll get distracted less in the first place.

Here are some ways to sharpen your focus:


  1. Manage your environment. Don’t let it manage you. Turn off your e-mail, your text alarms, and other things that grab your attention away from the areas you need to focus on.


  1. Make a to-accomplish list for every day. In order to maintain a sharp focus, you need to prioritize activities for each day. I typically make the most difficult task the first on the list and the easiest task the last. My energy levels run higher in the morning and decrease throughout the day, so I want the most difficult tasks first, when I have the most energy. Your energy levels may be different than mine, but you get the picture.


  1. Have a process for everything. Documented processes help us because they simplify our thinking — we don’t have to spend brain power figuring out what to do each time we do something routine. A lack of a process typically results in wasted time and effort. Effectiveness and efficiencies usually yield better results by having those processes handy.


  1. Take a break every 90 minutes. Most e-mails and texts can wait an hour and a half for a response. While you’re taking 10 minutes, check your messages and take action. Most e-mails and texts can be answered within two minutes each. But make sure you don’t get pulled into a conversation — offer an alternative as to when you can get back to them if it requires a longer answer.


  1. If you get distracted, catch yourself in the act. If you begin to tell yourself “I’m distracted now,” it will begin to cut a new neural pathway to help you catch yourself easier in the future. Once you catch yourself in the act, adjust your behavior accordingly and get back to your planned or scheduled activity.


  1. Get plenty of sleep. One reason we find it hard to focus is it requires mental energy. A lack of energy allows us to be pulled off focus really easily. Being able to apply energy in holding our attention is the more effective route, but you can’t apply energy if your tank is low on fuel due to lack of good sleep.


  1. Be specific about your goals. Have them handy so you can review them several times a day. Our priorities can get lost, especially when we’re really busy. Have the ability to grab your daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual goals. Remember, your brain is not designed to hold everything in it. Use notes and lists to free your brain from extra work. The more you can direct its energy toward focus, the better you will be able to perform.


Also, make sure you keep reminders of the reasons it’s important to keep your focus sharp. These might be pictures of your family, vacations you want to take, a house you want to buy, and so on. Remember, there are reasons you work so hard to maintain your focus and great performance.


Tony Richards is an organizational and executive development expert and CEO of Clear Vision Development Group, a leadership and strategy firm in Columbia, Missouri. He is one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers and thinkers. His firm’s website is Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyrichards4.

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