How to stay focused and achieve your goals

The web of today is an ocean of abundance. While knowledge seekers of the past struggled to get access to the information they needed, today everything is written on the web - and it's opposite. The challenge is no more to find information but to sift through the jungle, decide what to use and what not. The ability to not loose focus becomes an ever more important skill.

Information economy

My father was a curious person like me. He wanted to understand the world and it's inner workings like I do. However at the time when he was young, it was difficult to get access to specific information beyond general knowledge.

If you wanted to understand topics like engineering, law or mathematics you had to invest quite some time, energy and also money. At least you needed to get books on the topic, that were often full of professional jargon and almost impossible to understand for any non-professional reader.

Information Gatekeepers

To get the key to decipher these secret writings, you needed to talk to experts of that profession. Without studying at an academy it was hard to get someone to introduce you to the secret lore.

But on the other hand if and when you mastered your art you had a distinct advantage. You were an expert who knew things that many don't know. Knowledge was a scarce asset that could be sold at a premium. Learning a few years in their youth was enough for many to allow for a comfortable life.

Attention economy

Today it is different. Of course knowing something still is valuable. But knowledge is no secret sauce anymore. Experience and proven repeated success does count. But the pure knowledge is something that everybody moderately interested can pick up easily on the internet.

The challenge today is not to find knowledge anymore. The challenge is to ignore all the information that's not important or relevant at the moment. While in former times, a knowlegeable individual could sell his knowledge at premium prices, the worlds knowledge has been commoditized by a large degree.

Retaining focused attention

The prevailing business model of the web has shifted to attaining, amassing and selling attention to advertisers. Big and small monsters hide under every stone and around every corner, waiting for the right moment to leech off our attention. Pretty much all the information one ever wants to have is conveniently and freely available in abundance. But staying focused to a certain topic or task requires an ever increasing amount of decisive power.

Focus

Imagine I want to buy a train ticket. I search for the term "buy train ticket". I ignore the advertising in the result page and click directly the link to the train operator. While thinking about the correct departure date my phone buzzes and I quickly glance at the new message. Eyes back on screen I search for weather on the date I want to ride. After determining the right departure date, another link draws my attention. I open two tabs for them to read later. ...an hour later, I finally buy my ticket. A task that should have taken no more than 5 minutes. Sounds familiar?

Determine the goal

In order to stay focused, one first needs to decide what that focus should be. What's the goal, that I want to achieve? Second there's usually many ways how to achieve a goal and also many ways to achieve it quickly. So a decision needs to be made how to achieve it, which often has me try out a few paths before deciding this. Once a shortlist is made with a few options that promise a similar quality, speed and convenience - why would one choose one over the other?

The celery test

The best advice I can give here is to use Simon Sinek's celery-test:

Start with why is in general a book that I can warmly recommend on this topic (no affiliate link).

Small achievable tasks

Next I split up a goal into a todo-list of small tasks that can be done in a few hours at most. Any text editor or notepad does the job. From all those tasks I determine a minimal set that is absolutely necessary to call the job "somehow done". Everything can always be done better. But the question here is what is the bare minimum? Something done can be shown to others, or put into use so that I get feedback.

This minimal todo-list should be doable in a few days (ideally 1). If that's not possible you can do another subset of the required todos, that is not working but still allows you to get feedback.

Small tasks allow to ignore all else

Apart from all those other benefits of agile methodologies, this allows me to stay focused during work on a task. I literally ignore everything else because 99% of the time, there's nothing that can't wait for a few hours. After every task I allow myself to take a deep breath, walk around, have a chat and relax. I might click the links that I ignored during focus-time, read my mails, check twitter etc..

Iterate and pivot

Then I read up again on the goal to achieve and validate that my remaining todo-list is still valid. Special attention to work that has become obsolete or can otherwise be removed from the list / moved to a later iteration.

Once I complete my shortlist of todos I strive to get feedback. With the feedback I can prioritize what to do next. But more important I can decide what not to do or what else to do instead. The short cycles and the feedback allow me to just do what's on my list and not look back. With bigger plans and lot of dependencies I would always need to be on the lookout. Have I missed anything?

Tools to manage tasks

Especially when working together with others it can be helpful to use a ticketing-sytem like Trello or Jira. Also for bigger projects these tool allow to not loose the overview with 30, 50, 100... todos. But I always make sure that I don't detail-plan things that are not about to be done short term.

Tools to reduce ads

Apart from that, adblockers, like adblockplus can help to de-clutter your browsing experience. On the other hand, many sites these days don't display their "free" content when an adblocker is detected. So I end up clicking through their explanations, de-activating / re-activation the ad-blocker and thus having another form of distraction.

Another option is to use privacy-focused browsers like brave or Duckduckgo . Especially brave also is a pretty fast alternative because many scripts are just not loaded.

Tools to read faster

Two tools that allow you to quickly summarize long texts are ILazytoRead and TLDR Both extract and display the 5 most important sentences of a text. The quality is quite impressive! I use them mainly to determine if I want to read more.

Tools to read later

Another tool that helps me stay focused is pinboard - a minimalistic link collection tool. Other tools in this area are pocket and diigo . These tools help me with focusing especially because I am an inherent curious person. I can't miss out to click any links that I come across and find interesting. Instead of getting distracted over and over again, with these tools, I can save all those interesting links and come back later - staying focused on the task at hand.

Another tool that helps serve the same purpose from a different angle is historysearch . Historysearch allows me to search my browser history, so without having to save any links, I can easily come back to any site that interested me earlier.

Newsletter tools

Two other tools I want to try out are leavemealone and kill-the-newsletter . I tend to subscribe quite frequently to sites and services that interest me. Over time this results in many emails with stuff I can't read - so I start browsing all those emails for the tiny unsubscribe-link at the bottom. Leavemalone promises to give you a 1-click unsibscribe experience. It allows to connect all current email-accounts. Kill-the-newsletter takes a different approach. It gives you an email-account that you can use to subscribe to newsletters. Then you receive all those newsletters as an atom-feed and your inbox is again free for messages from real contacts.

What tools and techniques do you use to keep focus?

Tell me on twitter or linkedin!