focus: focus rituals

‘My only ritual is to just sit down and write, write every day.’ ~Augusten Burroughs

Focus and creating are about more than just disconnecting. You can be connected and focus too, if you get into the habit of blocking out everything else and bringing your focus back to what’s important.

One of the best ways of doing that is with what I like to call “Focus Rituals”.

A ritual is a set of actions you repeat habitually — you might have a pre-bed ritual or a religious ritual or a just-started-up-my-computer ritual. One of the powerful things about rituals is that we often give them a special importance: they can be almost spiritual (and sometimes actually spiritual, depending on the ritual). And when they become special, we are more mindful of them — we don’t just rush through them mindlessly.

Mindfully observing a ritual is important, especially when it comes to focus, because often we get distracted without realizing it. The distractions work because we’re not paying attention. So when we pay attention to a ritual, it’s much more conducive to focus, and then to creativity. Mindful attention to a ritual also helps keep it from become too rote or meaningless.

It’s important to give importance to each ritual, so that you’ll truly allow yourself to focus and not forget about the ritual when it’s not convenient. For example, you might start each ritual with a couple of cleansing breaths, to bring yourself to the present, to clear your head of thoughts of other things, and to fully focus on the ritual itself.

Let’s take a look at just a few Focus Rituals. Please note that this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, nor am I suggesting you do all of these. It’s a list of ideas — you should try ones that seem best suited for your situation, and test them out to see what works best.

1. Morning quiet. You start your day in quiet, before the busy-ness of the world intrudes on your peace of mind. If you live with others, you might want to wake before they do. The key to enjoying this focus ritual is not going online. You can turn on the computer if you just want to write. You can have coffee or tea and read. You can meditate or do yoga or do a workout or go for a run. Or take a walk. Or sit quietly and do nothing. The key is to take advantage of this peaceful time to rest your mind and focus, however you like.

2. Start of day. Begin your work day by not checking email or any other distractions, but start a simple to-do list on paper or with a text file. On this blank to-do list, just list your three Most Important Tasks. Or if you like, just list the One Thing you really want to accomplish today. This helps you to focus on what’s important. Even better: continue this focus ritual by starting immediately on the top task on this short list of Most Important Tasks. Single-task on this important task as long as you can — ideally until it’s done. Now you’ve started your day with focus, and you’ve already accomplished something great.

3. Refocus ritual. While the start of day ritual is great, there are lots of things that get in the way to distract you, to mess up your focus. So every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, and maybe even take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of Most Important Tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day, to bring yourself back. It’s also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present.

4. Alternate focus and rest. This is almost like intervals in exercise — alternating between periods of hard exercise and rest works well because it allows you to do some pretty intense exercise, as long as you allow yourself some rest. Focus works much the same way — if you give yourself built-in periods of rest, you can get some great periods of focus. There are many variations on this, but some ideas might include: 10 minutes of focus + 2 minutes of rest; 25 minutes of focus + 5 minutes of rest; 45 minutes of focus + 15 minutes of rest. You get the idea — you’ll need to experiment to find the length and mixture that works best for you. Some prefer short bursts and others like longer periods of undisturbed creativity.

5. Alternate two focuses. Instead of alternating between focus and rest, you could alternate between two different focuses. For example, you could work on two different projects at once, or study for two different classes at once. I’d suggest not switching too rapidly, because there’s a short period of adjustment each time you switch. But you could work for 10 minutes on one thing and then 10 on another, or stay focused on one as long as you are interested in it, then switch when your interest lags. The great thing about this method is that switching to a new project can help give your brain a rest from the other project, and it can keep you creating for much longer before getting distracted.

6. Communicate first, then blocks of focus. Set a timer and give yourself 45 minutes to do email, Twitter, Facebook IM, and any reading you would normally do. Then use an Internet blocker to block these distractions for a couple of hours (up to 3-4 hours if you like) while you focus on creating. Then another 45 minutes of communicating and reading, followed by another block of distraction-free focus.

7. End of day. At the end of each day, you might review what you did, think of what can be improved, remind yourself to disconnect for the rest of the evening, and think about what you’ll focus on tomorrow. It’s a good time to reflect on your day and your life in general.

8. Weekly focus rituals. While it’s not necessary to do a complete weekly review of everything you’re doing, have done and plan to do, it can be useful to schedule 10 minutes every week to quickly bring your work and life back into the right focus. I suggest you review your projects to make sure you’re not letting them get out of hand; simplify your to-do list as much as possible; review the focus rituals you’ve been doing to see what’s working and what isn’t; and basically reflect on what you’re doing with work and life and whether anything needs to change.

9. Other ideas. The rituals above are just some of the ideas I like best — you should find the ritual that works best for you. There are an almost infinite number of possibilities. Just a few other ideas: taking 5 minutes every hour to refocus yourself; taking a walk every hour to get fresh air and get refreshed; yoga or meditating at the beginning of each day; running or other exercise after work; giving yourself a “focus and disconnected hour” in the morning and afternoon where you’re disconnected and completely focused on creating; breathing and self-massage techniques for relaxation and better focus.

Next chapter: limiting the stream