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Getting your focus back on track
Q: What practices help you re-establish your routines?
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I have been struggling for the past few months with focus. Between managing kids and their activities over the summer, traveling internationally to visit parents, not finding quiet time and missing the discipline of working at my own desk - I have found countless ways of not doing the deep work that I need to.
“...The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”
-Cal Newport, Deep Work
I am getting frustrated at how easily I am giving into distractions - notifications on my phone, email newsletters with interesting articles, demands others place on my time. My lack of concentration has been surprising - I notice myself forgetting tasks midway between switching tabs. Is it post-Covid brain fog?
So last week I decided to spend some time reading through old books and articles to remind myself of some practices and tools I can use to bring back my focus.
Starting the day with a focusing activity. Without a full-time job that dictates my working hours, I need to be more disciplined about how I start my day. While all the pundits say to start your day at 5am, I allow myself the grace of starting my morning after the kids leave for school at 8am. The one small step I take the night before is to decide on a fifteen minute activity that will help me get me into the right frame of mind for the day. This alternates between meditation, journaling, yoga, or reading a spiritual book.
Removing decision fatigue. I find that planning ahead removes some of the micro decisions from my daily life.
Every Sunday evening I review the weekly schedule with the family and update the whiteboard in our kitchen. The visual schedule keeps us organized as a family of four so no one is confused about what they have that day and I am not interrupted with questions.
I engage the kids in deciding the menu for the week on Sunday so I don't have to worry about dinner every day and my husband has an itemized grocery list.
My husband and I do a quick check-in each day to review drop offs and pick ups for kids’ activities. This helps prevent any last minute scrambles or encroachments into planned work time.
Scheduling everything on a calendar. I need to treat my time with respect in order to develop a deep work habit. This means putting my to-dos on Google calendar as reminders and tasks. It takes them out of my head or written lists and assigns them a time to get done. It also ensures that no task is forgotten. I am also consistently blocking off time on my calendar to do focus work like writing Disco Dialogues posts or researching topics that I am interested in.
Minimizing my use of tools and spending time walking in nature has also helped. I have turned off all notifications on my phone, reduced the number of open tabs on my computer, limited myself to checking email only twice a day. And I am still hopeful that I can one day join the 5am club. 😀
Last week I took a few days to get over the jet lag from my trip to Europe. I then spent the weekend settling in - unpacking, doing laundry and groceries and making some delicious home cooked meals. It felt great to be back in my own home again. This week, I was looking forward to returning to my daily routines and getting focused on my goals. But between celebrating my husband’s birthday and settling little A into her new school, I’ve been slightly derailed.
To help me get back into a focused state, I’m relying on the three pillars that have helped me in the past. They are simple, yet solid.
Sleep: Everyone and their mother knows how important this is and yet we struggle to prioritize it. Getting a good night’s sleep helps me feel rested and more importantly, motivated to make better decisions the next day. As a night owl, I have to make a concerted effort to be in bed by 10 pm and asleep before 11. One practice I want to tack on is to charge my phone outside my bedroom at night. This will help me avoid wasting an hour at night scrolling on my phone. Most importantly my phone will not be the first thing I check after waking up.
Exercise: Always hard to get back to this after a holiday. Someone once told me to have smaller versions of the goals I want to build up to. “Think about your goal and then think about the small, medium, large version of that same goal. Make the small version so small that no matter what happens you will be able to do it.” My small goal in this area is twenty minutes of intense exercise, three times a week. Doing this the first thing in the morning always makes me feel great the rest of the day. The way I’m able to do that is to keep my exercise clothes, shoes and socks ready the night before.
Planning: My most productive days are when I've invested a little bit of time into a planning session the night before. Over the years, I have crafted a three-step end of day ritual to help me with this. It involves -
writing down things that went well and noting down what needs to happen the next day,
reviewing my calendar to ensure that I have time blocked off for creative/thinking work or simply for to-dos in between meetings, and
spending a few minutes visualizing the day ahead followed by a ten minute meditation to clear my mind before bed
My biggest problem is not staying consistent with these routines. Something always seems to get in the way. I acknowledge that it is a constant work in progress.