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Cutting Through the Noise: How Entrepreneurs Can Improve Focus and Eliminate Distractions
Being an entrepreneur demands that we develop excellence across a spectrum of executive functioning skills. These are core capabilities required to succeed in business and, quite frankly, in life.
They include things like: self-restraint, working memory, emotion control, focus, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time management, defining and achieving goals, flexibility, and stress tolerance.
Understanding how you operate within these frames goes a long way, because Mastering these skills allows entrepreneurs to juggle all the diverse responsibilities we all face every day, helps us remain resilient under pressure, and helps us to achieve our goals.
But the nature of running a business makes it easy to become distracted, overwhelmed, and unfocused. We've all been there, right?
Emails pile up, notifications ding endlessly, and new ideas glisten like shiny objects, threatening to derail progress. Without strong executive functioning abilities, we flounder, so it's important to assess your Executive Functioning strengths and weaknesses.
The first step toward Strengthening your executive functioning self-awareness.
I think most of us have a general idea where we excel and where we struggle, but it's actually a good exercise to reflect on which core skills come naturally to you versus you struggle with. For example, you may excel at time management but have difficulty with organization. Or planning may be easy while focusing deeply enough to be efficient in executing those plans may give you loads of trouble.
If you struggle with one or more of these core capabilities... you are NOT ALONE! There is nothing wrong with you. Not at all. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
It's important to play to your natural executive functioning strengths. But also identify the skills you need to develop - don’t avoid your weaknesses. And this is important... because if you've ever heard me talk about this stuff you will have heard me say...
These abilities are not personality traits, they are skills, and that is really exciting because that means they can be taught, and developed.
Once you identify areas where you need support, Seek training, mentoring, or coaching to level up. Striving to become competent across all of these executive functions will help you eliminate distractions, remain resilient and achieve your full potential in life and in your business! But yes, self-assessment and self-improvement are key with this.
One of the big areas of struggle that I wanted to focus on today, that I hear about from many people (I fall into this category as well) is dealing with distractions. With so many demands competing for our attention, focus and productivity can definitely suffer.
That’s why honing your ability to eliminate distractions is a pivotal skill for entrepreneurs.
And... as we know, it’s easy to push yourself to exhaustion. As entrepreneurs we often often pride ourselves on hustling night and day to make our ventures succeed. However, ignoring your body’s signals can lead to energy crash and burnout. That’s why mindfulness and self-awareness are two key ingredients in this skillset. Because make no mistake... Burnout diminishes your executive function abilities, big time. (Ask me how I know.)
I'm here sharing this with you as someone who is just now coming through the other side of a gnarly years-long burnout and recovery cycle. It's no joke, my friends, and when I was finally able and ready to get back to work, I didn't just restart and continue where I left off, not at all. I had to rebuild. and I relied on my foundational executive function skills to help me build my way back.
So, don't let yourself get swept away by the excitement of relentless doing. The cost of that can be way too high, and if you're lucky it only shows up as burnout, which you can recover from... sometimes it can wreak havoc with your health too. But by tuning into your energy levels and responding appropriately on a regular basis, you can stay aware of when you need to renew your reserves. And this is a skill in itself. Be aware of your mind-body signals, listen to what your body needs, and avoid burnout.
So how can we work smarter when it comes to distractions?
There's a study out there that says it takes as much as 23 minutes for a person to get back into a flow start after being distracted. 23 minutes! I thought it was pretty wild when I first heard that, but I will tell you that from where I stand, that's been true.
I know for me it takes 15-20 minutes to drop back into flow. And I am not talking about being able to work again, I mean deep focus. The zone, you know?
I like to think of our brains like crock pots. Because when you're cooking food in a crock pot, and you've got the whole thing percolating and you take off that lid, you've just let out all of that steam and you've added 20 minutes to the cooking time. It's true!
So now that we're all on the same page about the importance of avoiding distractions... how about some practical advice on how to do just that.
Here are some proven tips to clear away the noise and boost your ability to focus:
1. Create a Distraction-Free Workspace
Your environment plays a huge role in your ability to focus. Make your office as distraction-free as possible by taking these steps:
- Declutter your physical workspace. Remove piles of paper, unnecessary knick-knacks, overlapping projects and all other visual clutter. A clean desk supports mental clarity.
- Shut off all phone, email and app notifications. Mute buzzes, pings and pop-ups so you can immerse in deep work.
- Close extra tabs and windows on your computer. Keep only essential programs open to avoid clicking around. Use a website blocker if needed.
- Wear noise-cancelling headphones or listen to nature sounds to block audible distractions. Some find calm cafe chatter or music without lyrics helpful.
- Face your desk away from high traffic areas. Don't position yourself facing the office kitchen or hallway.
- Keep your cellphone out of sight while working to resist the urge to check it. Consider using an app to lock yourself out of distracting apps.
- Invest in organizational office tools like trays, file sorters and a label maker to keep paperwork and items tidy.
- Adjust lighting to reduce eye strain. Bright but non-glaring task lighting can help focus the eyes.
Treat your workspace like a sacred place devoted to deep focus. By tuning out digital and sensory distractions in your environment, you'll be able to fully direct your executive functioning skills towards the work that matters most.
2. Block Time for Important Priorities
Don’t rely on open-ended blocks of time to complete projects. Instead, tightly schedule time for your most important priorities first by doing the following:
- Start each week or month by picking your top 1-3 priorities for that period. This provides focus for where to invest your time.
- Block out chunks of at least 60-90 minutes in your calendar dedicated solely to those top priorities. Protect this time fiercely.
- Schedule priority work during times when you have the most energy and focus, like first thing in the morning. - For more on this, you should check out last week's episode #32 where I talk about tracking your energy for this purpose.
- When booking appointments, keep your reserved focus blocks open rather than scheduling over them.
- Allow buffer time between meetings and calls so you have space for focused work.
- Batch meetings and calls together when possible to create longer focus blocks in between.
- Mark focus blocks as non-negotiable in your shared calendar so others don't double book you.
- Let calls go to voicemail and silence email notifications during reserved focus time.
- If your focus block gets interrupted, reschedule it as soon as possible.
Treating uninterrupted focus time as sacred will ensure your most important projects and tasks get the dedicated attention they require amidst entrepreneurial chaos. The priority output achieved in these blocks will move your business goals forward consistently.
Develop Your Ability to Single-Task
While multitasking may seem efficient, research shows it damages productivity. Stick to single-tasking by doing the following:
- Set a single priority task for each focus block. Don't try to juggle multiple projects at once.
- Close or minimize all programs, windows, and tabs not needed for your current task.
- If your mind wanders to other tasks or ideas, gently return your attention to the current priority.
- Turn off notifications and silence your phone to prevent disruptive switches in focus.
- Use headphones or white noise to avoid overhearing conversations that may divert your attention.
- When tempted to multitask, remind yourself that single-tasking will lead to higher quality work.
- Tackle administrative or mindless tasks only after completing priority work requiring full mental focus.
- Write down fleeting thoughts about other tasks to return to later. Jotting them down can help clear your mind.
- Celebrate successful single-tasking. Finish priority milestones before letting yourself switch gears.
- Single-tasking trains your brain to resist distractions, sustain attention, and go deep into flow states - abilities critical for entrepreneurs. Though it takes discipline, single-tasking leads to greater productivity and focus in the long run.
- Use Focus Tools - Apps like Freedom, Forest, and Cold Turkey block distracting websites so you can immerse yourself in meaningful work. StayFocusd allows you to limit time on sites. Use them to discourage internet rabbit holes.
Walks, exercise, and short breaks help recharge your mental focus. Implement these steps:
- Set a timer for 25-minute focus intervals, followed by 5-minute breaks (the Pomodoro technique).
- Stand up, stretch, breathe deeply. Gentle movement helps blood circulation.
- Step outside for some fresh air. Even 5 minutes outdoors can rejuvenate.
- Do some jump rope, yoga, or pushups. A brief burst of exercise floods the brain with focus-boosting oxygen.
- Drink water and eat a healthy snack like nuts, fruits or veggies. Refuel your brain.
- Listen to or play uplifting music. Change the mental stimulus.
- Jot down thoughts in a notebook. Clearing your mind can refresh thinking.
- Chat with a colleague about something fun. Socializing releases endorphins.
- Be strict about break start/end times. Don't let breaks extend too long.
- After the break, do a quick 1-minute meditation to clear distractions.
The most renewing breaks involve moving your body, refueling with food/water, socializing, and giving your mind a rest from focused thinking. Well-timed breaks boost blood flow and energy so you can dive back into work with renewed executive function skills.
Batch Meetings & Errands
Fill your calendar with unfocused meetings and errands and watch your productivity evaporate. Take these steps to limit distractions:
- Identify your 3-5 most productive hours each day and safeguard them for focused work. Block your calendar during these times.
- Bundle meetings together on the same day to preserve longer focus blocks on other days.
- Shorten meetings to 30 minutes or less whenever reasonable. Extend only if clearly needed.
- For recurring meetings, periodically evaluate if they're still the best use of time.
- Set a clear agenda for each meeting tied to business goals. Don't meet just for the sake of meeting.
- Take breaks between back-to-back meetings to refresh mental resources.
- Experiment with standing or walking meetings for more energizing collaboration.
Be vigilant about how you allocate your time. Limiting meetings frees up space to fully leverage your executive function skills on high-priority work.
Delegate and Outsource
Offload or automate repetitive, low-value tasks like data entry to free up mental bandwidth for big picture work. Take these steps:
- Make a list of all recurring administrative, technical and analytical tasks required in your business.
- Identify which tasks don't require your expertise and could be delegated.
- Explore hiring a virtual assistant to take over these tasks. Vet candidates rigorously.
- Train assistants thoroughly on your exact preferences and procedures. Provide templates.
- Start by delegating a couple low-risk tasks. Expand the role as they demonstrate competence.
- Similarly, identify specialist roles like bookkeepers and social media managers to outsource tasks to.
- Leverage tools like IFTTT, Zapier, and Calendly to automate workflows, scheduling, data entry etc.
- Set up project management systems, templates and checklists to streamline work for yourself, and eventually you can use them to train your assistants.
Delegating administrative and technical work preserves your executive functioning for the critical thinking and strategy that moves your business forward. The time savings allow you to focus sharply on your most valuable contributions.
Entrepreneur life will never be free of potential distractions. However, developing your executive function skills creates the capacity to resist distraction and sustain focus when it matters most.
Start by taking steps like decluttering your workspace, blocking off priority time, single-tasking, taking smart breaks, limiting meetings and delegating lower-level work. Implementing even a few of these strategies will dramatically increase your ability to focus amid the daily chaos.