I’ve had extraordinary mentors throughout my life. But the person who taught me the deepest secret of success is still learning how to speak.
My daughter Jane spends six hours every day in therapy. Through play and one-on-one attention, she’s learning how to work through the challenges that arise from her autism. More than any particular skill, she’s learning how to focus. As she learns to keep her attention on one thing until she’s done with it, everything else becomes more possible for her.
Again, Jane is still learning how to speak. Lately, she likes to repeat her favorite lines from her therapists. Which is why, when she’s faced with a problem, my wife and I always hear her say: “Focus Jane, focus.”
“Focus Jane, focus” has become a mantra for the whole family. When I’m in the middle of a big project and feel tempted to look at my phone again, pop into social media, or double-check my Slack feed — I hear my daughter’s voice in my head. Focus Jane, focus.
That little voice in my head is worth more than anything else I’ve learned from any legal, tech, or business expert.
I know my daughter’s challenges are unique. But she’s not alone in her struggle to focus. Distractions threaten all of us. They eat up a huge amount of our time — but it’s not just that. When we allow distractions or try to multi-task, we make more mistakes, miss important cues and information, and rip holes in our memory. We’re less creative and have a harder time solving problems.
Back when multi-tasking was a buzzword synonymous with productivity, researchers at Stanford tried to figure out the secret. They wanted to understand more about this “special ability” that multi-taskers seemed to possess. They tested frequent multi-taskers against people who said they couldn’t multi-task, but had to focus on one thing at a time.
They didn’t find that special ability. They found the opposite: multi-taskers consistently performed worse at nearly every task, including multi-tasking. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said one researcher. “Everything distracts them.”
Consistent distractions leave us in a state of frenzy. And that leads to its own feedback loop. When you aren’t rooted and focused, you can’t evaluate the importance and urgency of incoming information. Pretty soon, anything can pull you away from your task.
But thanks to Jane’s reminder, I’m constantly seeking new ways to focus, and I want to share the 4 tools that have been the most effective for me.
1. Start Small
The ability to focus is like a muscle. Modern life teaches us to ignore that muscle, encouraging us toward constant distraction instead. When it comes to our attention spans, we’re mental couch potatoes.
My daughter Jane began learning how to focus in small and simple ways. And she’s inspired me to follow suit.
Instead of expecting constant focus, choose one project or matter that is most important to you. Schedule no-distraction time to work on that project — even if it’s only 25 minutes. Put away the phone, turn off all notifications on your computer, put out a do-not-disturb sign, until that time is done.
Even with a small amount of time set aside, you’ll see the rewards. And as you slowly expand from that small time-frame to larger blocks of productivity, clearing more time from distractions, you’ll be strengthening your ability to focus.
2. Use Technology the Right Way
When it comes to focusing, technology is treated as the arch-villain. But it can also be your superhero. Here’s how:
Phones are the largest source of distraction. The easy answer is to turn off all notifications. But for some, that’s not possible. For others, it only leads to more anxiety. In those cases, learn to master your phone’s Do Not Disturb setting. It can be customized to allow certain apps or contacts through, while blocking everything else. It’s worth the time it takes to master these settings.
Secondly, as much as possible, ignore email. Email is a way for others to try to commandeer your to-do list. Rely on other lines of communication, such as directly within your firm’s case management system.
Some productivity gurus recommend ignoring email until noon. This ensures that the morning is dedicated to your own priorities, rather than being hijacked by others. If the noon cut-off isn’t feasible, find your own goal. The point is to carve out at least a sliver of time for your own goals and priorities.
Use a case management system with highly customizable notifications, like Filevine. At some times, you may need immediate notification for each new development on a matter. But for maximum productivity, turn off updates until you’ve finished your present task.
Finally, rely on scheduled calls to connect with clients. Rather than interrupting your work when a client calls, have your receptionist or answering service schedule a call back at your next availability. This way, your clients have a connection with you that is personable and quick, but you’re not constantly interrupting your focus.
3. Engineer Your Environment for Success
Don’t just rely on willpower. Make your workspace an ally in your fight against distractions.
Physically remove distractions from your workplace. Do you need to keep your phone in a different room for part of the day? Do you need to close your door? Face away from the window?
Sometimes you just have to go somewhere else. Is there a space where you’ve been productive in the past? Return there when you have an important project. The location is full of context clues that gear up your brain for productivity. For some people, this is a particular room of their home. For others, it’s a noisy cafe. The specific details don’t matter — all that matters is that your brain associates the place with getting work done.
4. Bring Focus to Social Situations
When we think of focused work, we typically imagine sitting in a room all by ourselves. Of course we need that kind of focus during writing projects or research. But that’s not the only work that leads to success. Connecting with others is just as central to success — and it requires even greater focus.
When you’re with a client or colleague, be present. Actively listen. Resonate with what they’re saying. That kind of focus builds trust and respect, while distractions — tuning out or looking at your phone — communicates that the ones you’re with aren’t worth your time.
We’ve been fed a lie about high performance. We’ve developed a false image of a successful and hardworking person: the person who’s racing between meetings, shooting off emails while on the phone or running an errand. But the truth is, the only thing that kind of lifestyle feeds is our sense of self-importance.
The real hard work — that kind that truly leads to success — doesn’t look like that. It is far less glamorous, and slower. It happens in quiet spaces. It happens in meaningful connections with others. And it’s always rooted by a deeper ability to focus.