By Kara Cutruzzula
You can’t put a price tag on your ability to focus.
If someone offered me a thousand bucks, but in exchange, they had an on/off switch that controlled my focus—and therefore my ability to get anything done—I’d have to say “thanks, but nah.” Focusing is that important. It’s what sees you through doing your mindless chores, tackling a big project, wrangling your team members (or family members, for that matter).
Focusing is priceless—and yet we give it away every day.
That’s why everyone can benefit from having our own “focus rituals”—these physical or emotional cues can kick off and set ourselves up for uninterrupted stretches of work (or play).
Because the downside of distractions is real. According to research, interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. And while this applies to company culture, just imagine what it means for your own work or personal life. When you’re constantly being interrupted, you’re participating in an unfair exchange that you didn’t anticipate. You’re allowing someone—or something—to gatecrash your boundaries.
But how do we prevent all that boundary-crashing, anyway? First, you have to make your ritual as simple as possible. It doesn’t have to involve multiple steps or expensive scented candles or a 40-minute warmup (although, if that’s what you need…go for it!).
You have to set yourself up to focus so when the interruptions come—and boy will they ever—you can snap back into getting stuff done mode and use that momentum to carry you through to the finish line.
Here’s how to set up a focus ritual that works in your own life.
Identify When You Need to Focus the Most
When does your mind wander down strange little distracted paths?
When do you get interrupted the most?
Start to notice the times and spaces when you’re most likely to have your boundaries gatecrashed by distractions.
Looking at my own schedule, the biggest focus-busters are text messages, phone calls (and not important ones—somehow they’re always telemarketers or wrong numbers), and non-urgent and unimportant emails, which I suddenly feel extremely compelled to respond to ASAP.
These tantalizing distractions come up when I’m just about to start something big. And throw me off, big-time. The trick is to start your focus ritual before the distractions come for you.
Discover What Gets You In the Zone
I’m writing this from a quiet corner in a quiet room, with my phone far out of sight. But what really locked in my focus was hitting “play” on a favorite song and scheduling it to repeat, over and over again. That’s the start of one of my focus rituals. Some other ideas that might work for you:
●︎ Settling in with a favorite beverage.
●︎ Putting on a piece of music that inspires you.
●︎ Tweaking your environment, even if that’s just going to a different part of your room.
●︎ Changing into a lucky article of clothing.
●︎ Washing your face (screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once said that his quickest method for getting into the writing zone was by taking showers—sometimes multiple showers—every day.)
Practice Your Ritual
Once you’ve identified what gets you in the zone and tried it out, keep trying it—over and over again. The power of a ritual comes with repetition. Make it a habit every time you’re about to dive into some deep work. You want the act to feel as natural and changing into a fresh pair of socks in the morning.
Pretty soon, you’ll be doing it without thinking and sending a cue to your brain, “This is focus time—not Instagram time.” Your focus and attention is a muscle, and it’ll start to get stronger and stronger.
Clue Other People Into Your New Practice
If most of your distractions involve other people, then you should tell them about your focus ritual.
One friend who works in a busy environment told me that her colleagues have a neat way to signal when one of them shouldn’t be disturbed: They say to each other “I’m going dark for a bit,” and then get down to writing or starting a big project.
This quick note explains why they might not be so fast to respond on Slack or why they’re not chiming in to office conversations—without being obnoxious. Because while we all want to be included on the latest jokes, it’s not always in our best interest in the long run.
Create a Physical Signal
If you don’t want to constantly verbalize about your deep focus time, here’s another tip: Headphones really work. If listening to music is too distracting to the task at hand, you don’t actually have to listen to anything. Simply putting headphones on your ears is magical. People will think twice before popping by your desk for a quick chat or striking up a conversation at that coffee shop where you always want to get work done. Headphones are your not-so-invisible force field against distractions.
You can also get others to adopt your focus ritual as well. Through studying what makes certain companies and employees more successful than others, Morten Hansen, author of Great at Work, discovered a great tip for learning how to prioritize at work (which, he says, is more important than working hard): Put a red rubber band around your wrist when you don’t want to be disturbed.
This silent signal not only wards off potential distractions, but could prove an inspiring symbol to the people around you. I’m always inspired when I see other hard-working people. Aren’t you?
Remember, even though the world will try to pull you in many different directions, you have the power to set your own boundaries. Don’t let anyone crash them, create a ritual to protect yourself, and don’t forget to show yourself compassion.