How to Keep a Laser Focus Without Burning Out


Do you find your mind wandering when you’re trying to work? Do you feel guilty when you try to take some time away from your to-do list? Staying focused enough on your work to get things accomplished isn’t easy. Today I’m going to focus on one measurement, cyclicity that is critical to staying focused without burning out.

In the book, The Power of Full Engagement, authors Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr claim that operating in cycles is the key to staying focused. Elite athletes understand this by balancing intense training sessions with rest periods to give their body time to recover.

Why Cyclicity is Important

Cyclicity is the level at which your time is organized into cycles. High cyclicity means that your work time and leisure time is broken neatly into daily and weekly cycles. Low cyclicity means that your rest and work time seems to be blended together.

When you attempt to work continuously two things happen:

  1. You lose momentum as your energy drains.
  2. You start inserting “rest” time throughout your workday because you can’t keep up with the demand.

You can’t cheat your body. Breaking cyclicity by trying to work non-stop only sabotages your focus. By sabotaging your focus, everything you do takes more time. Working in cycles can stop this process by recovering your energy to focus again afterwards.

Measuring Cyclicity – The Builder of Focus

Recently I wrote a post on conducting timelogs. The basic idea is that you record your time usage for a few days. Write down when you start or stop activities, and then analyze the information in a spreadsheet. Timelogs are good for seeing where you might be wasting your time, just like expense reports are good at viewing where you might be wasting your money.

But there is another use for timelogs and that is to estimate your cyclicity.

Recently I did a 5-day timelog and noticed that my own cyclicity could be better. My cyclicity is better than it was during past timelogs, but there were still periods where work was mixed with non-work activities.

There are two qualities to look for in your timelog for cyclicity: spacing and control.

Cycle Spacing

The first way to check your cyclicity is by seeing how defined your cycles are. Look through your daily activities and label activities as work or leisure. Do distinct clumps form during your day, or is there a constant hiccup of work with non-work activities?

As an advanced method, try labeling each work or leisure activity with numbers to symbolize their effectiveness or energy requirement. This way constantly interrupting your major project with e-mail checks will be exposed as anti-cyclical.

Cycle Control

The second test of cyclicity is by seeing how well you can control the pattern of your cycles. Are you taking rest periods when you decided to in advance, or just out of exhaustion? Are you working hard when you said you would, or just procrastinating? The extent you can control how your cycles flow is a measure of your self-discipline.

Improving Cyclicity

If you measure something, it will improve. Start by giving yourself an estimated rating of your current cyclicity. Then do a timelog once every few months to see if you are making improvements on this factor.

Measuring is the biggest step to improving your cyclicity. Once you are aware of a weakness, it is far easier to build it into a strength. But here are some other tips to boost your ability to work in rhythm:

  1. Batch. Collect up similar activities and do them all at once. I do this for all of my web and e-mail usage. When planning my classes I also strive to put them all in a row. Batching can take some time to adapt to because it raises the intensity. However the result is a more cyclical workflow and a laser focus.
  2. Set a day off. I’ve been slipping on this one myself, but I used to define one day a week where I wouldn’t do any work on major projects. This can be useful for making sure you have good weekly cycles.
  3. Work until the whistle blows. Give yourself a set amount of tasks to do in one day and focus on them non-stop from when you wake up. Cal Newport claims that he’s seen this method applied so that incredibly busy students (MIT double-majors) can still finish their day at six or seven.
  4. Set a Project-Kill Day. Set a day (preferably right before your rest day) where you take on a particularly difficult to-do list and aim to polish it off. A good way to plan one of these days is to double your workload for one day and leave the day after completely free to relax. It’s amazing how quickly you can work if you can maintain a focus.

  • Melanie Milletics

    Excellent! This method – writing things down and studying your habits (or cycles) – works for all sorts of things, including budgeting. My thought is I don’t always call it quits when I should – but keeping your post in mind might help me remember. I’ll have to practice harder :)

  • Gaurav Mishra

    Great post!

    Another way to improve cyclicity is to set aside a daily time for a particular task until that task (exercising, for instance) becomes a habit.

  • Albert | UrbanMonk.Net

    Very nice, I missed the post on time logs but I’ve been starting to keep track mentally, at least, of how I spend my time. And I’m noticing a lot of time being wasted. Will implement some of your other stuff now!

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