How to Stay Focused

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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.


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