How to Stay Focused


Focus is important for making improvements.  If your focus is spread too widely, you won’t make much progress.  If you can’t stay focused on one project for long, you won’t be able to reach a foothold before you slide back to where you started.

One trick I like to use to stay focused is to decide on a theme for my life.  Summed up in only a word or two, this theme gives me a specific direction I want to invest in for several months.  Deciding on a theme helps you focus on what is important to you if you find yourself getting off track.

I’ve gone through a few different themes in the last couple years.  Several years ago, my theme was habits.  I spent a lot of energy trying to get the routines I wanted without the need for constant willpower.  When I moved to go to school, my theme was socializing and relationships.

So far, in 2008, my theme has been focusing on this business.  Already this year I’ve written three books, set up partnerships and written over a hundred articles.  Having a theme has paid off, because it has helped me stay motivated.

Choosing a Theme

Ideally, a theme should last anywhere from a few months to a few years.  Less than this amount of time and you won’t get the benefits of a consistent focus.  Weekly or monthly themes don’t have the staying power to let you make meaningful progress.  Longer than a few years and you have the risk of falling into a fixed lifestyle.

Since a theme should last for several months, it isn’t a decision you want to make in fifteen minutes.  Your theme should drive you enough that it will help you ignore distractions.  Although I don’t recommend setting a deadline for when you should switch themes, you should feel able to commit to it for at least 3-6 months.

I believe there are three important questions that come with choosing a theme:

  1.     What do I really want to accomplish?
  2.     What accomplishments would benefit my life most right now?
  3.     What opportunities do I have, that would make growth easier in one theme?

I’ve listed those three questions in order of importance, but consider all three before you decide on a theme.

What do I really want to accomplish?

When I decided to go for my theme of business in 2008, I was incredibly motivated to work towards it.  For several years, I’ve dreamed of being able to run a business full-time.  Although I’ve had work as a theme before, this was the first time I was relatively close to achieving it.  Picking this as a theme made sense because I knew it would connect me with my current motivations.

Don’t work on the themes you feel you “should”.  Even if there are other issues slightly more pressing, you’ll get a lot more done if you focus on your strongest motivations.  If you’re only mildly interested in your health and incredibly focused on your career, I wouldn’t make fitness a theme, even if someone said you were fat.

What accomplishments would benefit my life most right now?

Often there will be several themes that you find motivating.  Business, relationships, health and learning are all themes I could be intensely interested in right now.  The next question is to look at where a theme would benefit you most.

For me, this decisions was also easy because I knew that becoming financially independent would help trigger more independence in other areas.  Reaching that first business success milestone could have a ripple effect.

I ask this question second and not first.  The reason is that I feel it is always better to focus on process and deeper motivations than results.  There might be one area of life you feel more compelled to focus on, but your motivation will always be shallow if you have something else you want more.

What opportunities are available?

Even through a second filter, there are still many options I could pursue.  Relationships, business and socializing are all areas I’m motivated towards and would benefit my life.  The last question I ask is what opportunities are available for improvement.

I decided to focus on the theme of socializing when I went to University.  This made sense because the opportunities of going from an isolated, small town life to a big campus with thousands of people were obvious.  When I decided to focus on my business this year, it was with the knowledge that I would have four months of summer where I could work full-time on personal projects, something I haven’t been able to do before.

If the first two questions point to a clear theme, ignore this question.  If your motivation is strong enough, you can make up for a lack of opportunities.  I only use this question as a tie-breaker between competing themes.

When Should You Switch Themes?

I mentioned previously that I don’t think you should set a timeline for a theme.  Themes aren’t the same as goals, so it doesn’t make sense to pick an arbitrary date where you will switch one focus to another.  I don’t switch themes too frequently (at least 3-6 months is needed), but there are a few trigger events that can let you know it’s time to switch themes.

If you make a big accomplishment towards a theme, that would be an indicator that it’s time to switch.  For me, I’ve decided the amount of income I need from this business to be comfortably financially independent.  If I can reach that amount, I’ll know the time has come for me to focus on a different theme.

Another trigger moment can be a complete shift in opportunities.  A lack of opportunities can force you to keep one theme in the background.  But, if life changes, you might find the current theme doesn’t suit you.  Moving to a new city or getting a new job might force you to reevaluate the themes you’ve set.

Just as important as noticing trigger moments, you need to notice what isn’t a trigger to switch.  Reaching a plateau in your theme isn’t a sign you should switch.  If the desire is still there, a temporary lack of progress shouldn’t make you flip-flop.  In fact, these are often the times you need to focus on one theme the most.

Writing your theme down can help you stay attached to it.  Summarize your motivations into one or two words.  You can use that word to help you decide what goals to set and avoid distractions.

What is your current theme?  Add your word to the comments below.

  • Douglas Braun


    I wanted to let you know that I was given a link to a website where I downloaded your ebook, Learn More, Study Less for free. Because of the book I found your website and learned that I should not have been able to get the book for free and that it actually is a $40 value. Had I known this, I would not have downloaded the book. Not because it’s a bad book, just because I’m not in a position to be spending $40 like that. I figured you would be interested in someone stealing your hard work so here’s the link to your book.

    Good luck and you have a very impressive blog and attitude. I would be interested in hearing the outcome of this as I’ve always been a stickler for simply doing the right thing.

    Douglas Braun

  • Lauren Elder

    It may be helpful to keep a journal for each theme and record your thoughts and accomplishments. Knowing how far you’ve come can keep you sharp and motivated.

  • Shanel Yang

    Great post with very useful tips! My current theme is building the best blog I possibly can to help as many people who have gone through similar struggles as I did as an immigrant, clueless kid in America chasing the American dream. I found it only to find out it wasn’t so dreamy, so that’s real message I want to get out there: that the middle class dream is a trap that keeps people in debt, but that frugality and wise money decisions coupled with wise choices in the company we keep is the true formula for success and ultimate happiness in life. : )

  • david

    Very timely! I think I’ve known more or less unconsciously that I would benefit from a sharper focus, but I haven’t really had the tools to make a conscious decision. My problem, I think, is that focusing on one thing means that other areas – that could have great potential – get put away. So whatever the focus I would choose, that nagging feeling of there being something more important to focus on would go on and on in the back of my head. Your strategy for choosing a theme will be of help, thank you.

  • Robert A. Henru

    Hi Scott, lol, we shared about the same topics at the same time. I really need to learn from you on focusing on the single theme at a time. My article share another perspective, how we are tempted to become someone else, when we socialize. I suggested a “people-collector” mindset, you don’t have to do it, but you learn from it.. Stay focused on your theme and do it at the appropriate time.

    Here is the article: thanks!
    How to stay focused: the people-collector style


  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the warning Douglas,

    I’ve contacted the webmaster to take down the link. I try my best to contact and deal with the people who are taking advantage of me. However, in the end I realize that if someone wants to steal my work, they can probably find a way. I rely on the honesty and fairness of my readers.

    By the way, the book is only 19.95, right now through Zen Habits. Just go to and click the link in the sidebar.


  • msr

    my main problem ,which i found after reading this article how to stay focused,is i will never stick to one theme at a time.i foud that i always think about what more to do after accomplishing my major theme ,thinking that i alredy reached the theme(for example when i set a theme like i have to get a good rank in my field i think that the theme is already reached what after that to do
    and i start focused on those after things like health,appearance,relations,learning,money all things at a time ).but i fact i never reached that theme fully and also the after things total of my precious time and money was absolutely correct to focus on what is the major theme u want to accomplish and sticking to it untill it is reached and then after u set another theme at that time also only one theme at a time.thanks for providing me such a valuble information.