I usually start my day (like right now) by drawing a complete blank. I know I have to write something…so I rename all the folders in my Google drive. Then I make cup of tea. Then I stare at the wall, the stack of notebooks on my desk, the pile of yellow sheets taking over every horizontal surface in my office (tip, don’t by legal pads).
I’ve got lots of ideas, but by the time I sit down to put them all in order, all I’ve got to work with is white noise and a fuzzy picture. Nothing’s in focus and I don’t know where to start.
I need a plan.
Hence, this post. I wanted to research a strategy for that critical first hour of the workday, mostly so I don’t blow it by running a virus scan or alphabetizing the bookcase.
If you’ve ever had tons to do but get nothing done, this one’s for you too.
By the way, I’ve written about focus before, and using Pomodoros to get more done. But, in practice, I’ve found that I need some kind of pre-work routine, a warmup. Otherwise I can’t even decide which task to tackle first.
First, focus vs productivity
Finding focus before starting your day is about more than setting some goals, creating to-do list, and praying for divine intervention to make it all happen. In fact, task based are really a discussion about productivity, says Shane Parrish.
Search “productivity hacks” and you’ll see the focus is on getting more done, being more efficient, and using better tools, like Pomodoro and Evernote.
In reality, the only hope in hell you have of getting something done is learning the skill of keeping your focus on the task you are performing.
Concentration, the ability to focus and do deep work…is essential.
So instead of tips for being more productive, how about a process that helps you find your focus at the beginning of your day.
Step 1. Warm up your body (warm up your brain)
You’ve probably heard this one before but it’s worth repeating.
Don’t head to your desk right away. Go for a walk, go for a work out–anything to get your body moving.
Or, failing that, you could do this:
Why? Because cross pattern movements get both left and right brain firing, which helps you think!
Each hemisphere has sensory and motor control of the opposite side of the body. Therefore moving both sides of the body at once in a rhythmical fashion will facilitate brain integration. (Sequencewiz.org)
Here’s what you can do:
- Cross lateral movement: crawling, running, climbing stairs
- Crossing the midline: touching left elbow to right knee
- Mismatched movement: pat head and rub tummy
Sounds fun, right? So, before you put your brain to work, do two minutes of crazy jumping jacks.
(If you don’t work from home, you’ll be the most popular kid at the office.)
Step 2. Warm up with some writing
Now that your left and right brain are playing pong, time to warm up with some writing.
I’m not talking about writing that to-do list (yet). I’m talking about 20 to 30 minutes of “free form whatever comes to mind” writing. Call it journaling if you want. Or if you can’t stand that word, say you’re “jotting down a few thoughts”.
And use a pen and paper, rather than your laptop. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing down the Bones, says:
First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen.
You don’t have to love writing, or be any good at it. Fiction writers have been flogging this technique for years. Julia Cameron, creator of the Artist’s Way and morning pages says:
good writing is not the point. Think of your pages like a whisk broom. You stick the broom into all the corners of your consciousness. If you do this first thing in the morning, you are laying out your track for the day. Pages tell you of your priorities. With the pages in place first thing, you are much less likely to fall in with others’ agendas. Your day is your own to spend. You’ve claimed it. If you wait to write pages at night, you are reviewing a day that has already happened and that you are powerless to change. (The Miracle of Morning Pages)
Still wondering what the heck to write about?
From the Five Minute Journal (yes, it’s a thing), write three things about What would make today great.
Or, try these prompts from my fave writing teacher, Lois Peterson, and author of 101 Writing Exercises to Get you Started and Keep you Going:
- Nine uses for a barrel, other than holding liquids
- Seven uses for a pingpong ball in a library
- Two places you wish you could go
- Six things you’d be doing if you weren’t writing this list
Step 3. Create a distraction free zone
The enemy of concentration is interruption. Give yourself half a chance at success by turning off email, internet, mobile phone notifications.
Hang a do not disturb sign, wear a sticky note, or plug into some headphones or earbuds to discourage drive by chatting.
“Yeah right,” you’re thinking. “There’s no way I can get away with that at work.”
Maybe, maybe not. But I’m willing to bet you can carve out some time first thing by skipping the morning gaggle in the coffee room.
Or, you could just hide.
Okay, NOW do your to-do list
You’ve warmed up, you’ve beat back the Hoard, now use the final minutes of your hour to craft your to-do list.
Keep in mind that most people have way more items on that list than they’ll ever get through in one day anyway, so CHOOSE WISELY.
I hope my plan for focus strikes a chord. And if you’ve got a better way, I’d love to hear.