Protect Your Attention And Stay Focused In A Distracted World

Perhaps the best piece of business advice I’ve ever received is

‘Weniger aber besser’ – less is more

The more I watch people struggle with distractions, the more grateful I am that I’ve learned how to focus.

Just take a look at the number of monthly searches for ‘how to focus’ in Google. If that’s how you got here, you’re not alone. In 15 years, they’ve 5x’d to almost 25,000 searches a month.

The more connected and accessible our society has become, the more distractions we have to contend with. The more prosperous our society has become, the more opportunities we are to choose from.

All productivity and proficiency seem to boil down to is our ability to focus on the right work.

I’ve falsely challenged colleagues and business owners to pursue focus. But why would they? It seems like a boring idea. With no immediate rewards obvious and confinement to a small sum of actions. It looks like the opposite of freedom and fun, the opposite of living.

Well, that’s how I say it until I realised it’s the thing that would give me freedom—the opportunity to have fun and live a good life.

I’ve found focus can take us a long way in this world.

“I focus on one thing and one thing only – that’s trying to win as many championships as I can.” – Kobe Bryant.

“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals, and I try to ignore the rest.” — Venus Williams.

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee.

A few weeks back, I went to a local workshop for small business owners, presented by a mate of mine and another guy I’d played football with. Afterwards, we took the opportunity to catch up with some food and a beer.

Since the last time I’d seen the football guy, Matt Maley, he has started and built a plumbing business from scratch to what I gather is now a mid 7 figure business with eight full-time plumbers.

During the presentation, Matt mentioned ‘Spending $20k on Facebook ads to generate a $1million+ in revenue’. That raised some eyebrows and, of course, generated a few questions from the audience.

 • What happens if someone sees my ad too often – asked by someone not running any ads.
 • How do you know who to target – asked by someone who couldn’t define their customer
How do I verify my business on Google – asked by someone who didn’t know what ‘google my business is

Can you see the problem here?

It’s not that these people don’t know about Facebook marketing or ‘who’ their customers are. We all start somewhere. A few years ago, I was asking the same questions.

The issue is, they were worried about things barely in their peripheral vision. Why worry about someone theoretically seeing your advert too often when you don’t know how to use Facebook ads.

I asked Matt what he does well, besides social media marketing, that other business owners could benefit from.

‘Just put one foot in front of the other’ —I.e. focus.


When Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett, their host at dinner, Gates’ mother asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed was the single most important factor in their success through life. Gates and Buffett gave the same one-word answer: “Focus.” – The snowball effect.

I think focus is our ability to stay the course. Believe in the decisions we make, trust our execution skills and get on with it.

Worrying about whether the decision we’ve made is the right one is pointless. If we weren’t 100% sure when we made it, we still won’t be 100% confident when we remake it.

Instead, we can let the market, the people our companies serve, the stakeholders of our decisions tell us whether we’ve made the right one or not.

There are levels to this. More challenging than having self-belief is not getting distracted. If we aren’t focused, we’ll fall prey to shiny object syndrome.

 • I don’t know if it’s by design or by default that electronic devices have shiny surfaces, coincidence perhaps that they’re also the most distracting objects in our lives.

In business terms, these shiny objects might be a new opportunity, an email from someone from our network or a new deal that just dropped into our pipeline. If we’re not patient enough to stick with our decided path, then a quick win or something ‘different’ will be more appealing than what we’re currently doing.

If we stick to the course, we might discover we made a poor decision. That’s just par for the course.

We may learn we don’t have the skills to follow through on our decisions. Making mistakes and learning is just part of the journey. Certain philosophers even believe this is the point of life.

I think above all, focus requires patience, discipline and self-belief when we’re prepared to delay satisfaction now for future gain. When we’re ready to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do and ignore what we wish to do. When we have the perseverance to deal with pain, we’ll experience the benefits of focus.

However, hoping we already have those personality traits doesn’t appear likely or even realistic.

Instead, I think of focus as a skill, one we can learn and practice until it becomes a habit.

For me, there are two identifiable types of focus.

There’s the micro-level where you are trying to do the task at hand for minutes and seconds each day. Then there’s the macro level where you’re trying to complete one project at a time without drifting off into other work over days, weeks, and months.


As business owners, we wear multiple hats. Some of us have to wear all the hats, i.e. self-employed folk, some of us are lucky enough to afford accountants, administrators, marketers and so on.

I’ve experienced both ends of that spectrum and know that we have the opportunity to practise focus no matter how long our to-do lists is.

Let’s start with the don’ts.


When we work on more than one initiative at a time, we pay a tradeoff cost.

Greg McKeown wrote a bestselling book about this called Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less.

The book’s premise is; the more energy we invest into the pursuit of the ‘right things. I.e. those initiatives and activities that will make achieving our goals most likely, the more likely we are to achieve them. Vice-versa, the more energy we invest into the ‘wrong’ things, the less likely we are to achieve them.

Economists call this an opportunity cost.

Here’s a thought experiment to show you how this works.

Let’s say we have 100 units of energy to invest in our business each day.

We could invest those 100 units into one initiative or invest those units into 100 different initiatives.

What method do you think will produce the best outcome for the business?

If all of those initiatives roughly took the same amount of energy to complete, then by far and away, we’re better off focusing on one at a time.

Why? Well, for starters, virtually any initiative we complete has little guarantee of outcome. A lot of what we do, whether creating a marketing campaign, building a new product or writing a new sales script, will require many iterations to work well.

The only way to find out what those iterations should be is by putting our work out there and getting feedback from the world.

I could spend a whole year working on 100 different projects and not push any of them live. Or I could complete one project at a time and perhaps deliver 10 of them in a year.

I’d then be able to use feedback to iterate and improve each of those projects pushed live, which ideally will produce a compounding positive result for my business.

Let’s say just one of those projects, such as a new marketing funnel proved to be a hit. My business will be far better off, with just one successful project going live than sitting on 100 half-baked projects yet to be delivered.


Paraphrasing Greg, “If we can distinguish the vital few from the trivial many, eliminate non-essential work and remove obstacles from our essential work. We’ll be walking the path of success.”

While researching his book ‘Essentialism’, Greg came across the story of an Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last weeks of their lives. The most common regret she heard was, “I wish I’d dared to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Simply put, these people wished they’d said no more often.

Tieing life regrets to saying no might seem like a reach. But if I look at myself, when I get caught up doing things that aren’t in my best interests, or I take on too much at once. It’s not because I’ve actively pursued too much; rather, other people have requested as much from me.

I’ve found saying no isn’t as easy as I’d like it to be.

Instead, I make it hard for people to request my time and energy in the first place. If they manage to reach me, I use a filter to help me say no more often.

I make myself as inaccessible as possible. I don’t give my phone number to people, and I don’t answer my phone when it rings. I don’t give out my email address, and I generally don’t respond to cold emails.

My exception to giving people my time who I don’t know is a warm intro or a genuine request for help, not just ‘for a chat’.

I set clear boundaries for myself and put myself first. If I plan to go for a run, then I won’t give up going for a run to go for a coffee. If someone wants to go for lunch, I’ll go during my lunch break but won’t change to meet someone else’s.

Tim Ferriss likes to use rules like these to protect his time. ‘To that end, I’m committing to *not* reading any new books in 2020. This means I will not read any books published in 2020.’


Sometimes requests for my attention are not from a person. But instead are opportunity I’ve spotted.

Like people, I find saying no to opportunities consistently tricky. New opportunities will continue to pop up, so I need to be purposeful with what I choose to work on.

Rather than just lazily saying no to everything, as that’s not a good strategy either. I try to be deliberate with what I say yes to.

I keep my desired outcomes (goals) in mind and constantly weigh new opportunities against these outcomes compared to what I’ve already committed to.

By living by design rather than default; Instead of reacting to opportunities as they pop up, I try to choose the right things to do. To do this, I use markers for pegging my decisions.


I set priorities.

Interestingly, the English language adopted the word priority around 1400 AD; it wasn’t used in plural form until the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, I think priority-less is more relevant for most.

There are many different ways we can set priorities. Run a google search on ‘how to set priorities, and you’ll find countless results.

I don’t believe any particular method is better than another. It’s just a matter of finding what works best for each of us. I’d recommend just picking one, giving it a go and figuring out the rest through trial and error.

I started with goal setting, then moved onto SMART goals, and now OKRs are my preferred method for setting priorities.  **Which I’ll write about and link here soon**

Once I know the outcomes I want to achieve, I weigh up my options and select the few that I think, if completed, will give me my best chance to achieve my desired outcomes.

I rely on intuition a lot to choose the ‘right’ initiatives. Suppose you want to start somewhere a little more concrete. You could try prioritising different projects by ‘weighing’ them.

A small business and productivity blogger that I’ve learnt a lot from Taylor Pearson creates a score chart in google sheets and weighs up his different options using a scoreboard, like below.

Taylor lists out all the projects or tasks (opportunities) he has available. Then he scores them against a set of criteria to calculate what options will most likely produce the best outcome and, therefore, what he should prioritise.

His categories for scoring the opportunities are time, the money required, excitement, short-term ROI & long-term ROI.

He then prioritises and works on the opportunities with the highest score.

If you want a model to use that is less mathematical and more intuitive, I’ve found decision matrices like the one below helpful.

As you can see, the four boxes are ranked by importance and urgency. The more important and urgent an initiative is, the higher the priority it receives.

Importance and urgency are subjective; that’s where your intuition comes in.

All methods of prioritisation have their drawbacks. I’ve found experience is the best tool to negate those drawbacks. The more times I prioritise and complete work, the better I recognise what work should be a priority and what shouldn’t.


It’s easier not to do something than it is to do it – Sam Ovens.

Instead of trying to focus, which I’m sure we all do. I’ve made more progress by identifying and removing the stuff I get distracted by.


Multitasking is a killer of focus.

No one can multitask. Our conscious mind can only focus on one activity at a time.

When we think we’re multitasking, what we’re doing is switching our attention between two or more activities at a higher than noticeable rate.

Every time we switch our attention, no matter what the activity is or how easy it is for us to switch focus, we pay a cost.

For example, when I’m writing if I respond to a Facebook or SMS message. It takes me a few minutes each time to refocus on my writing again. If I did this 4 – 5 times over an hour, I’d spend more time trying to refocus than I would writing.

Multiple psychologists have conducted studies to show that the majority (98%) of us can achieve a lot more when we complete one task at a time rather than switching our focus between two.

Robert Rogers, PhD, and Stephen Monsell found that even when people switched between two completely predictable tasks, they were still slower on average than people who completed those tasks one at a time.

This is known as the cognitive switching penalty. I think of this like RAM in a computer. Every time I go from one task to another, I have to unload the information used for one task and upload the information required to complete another, reducing my effectiveness and burning more energy.


When I first started working for myself, I was deep in a league of legends (computer game) addiction. Every time I said to myself, ‘I will do X, Y & Z this afternoon, no matter how hard I tried before I knew it, I was farming minions at the nexus.

It took me over a year to admit that League of Legends was a problem and cost me significant amounts of time and progress. I even uninstalled and reinstalled the game multiple times while trying to quit, which was no mean feat. Given it took hours to download and reinstall each time.

Giving up LOL was tough, but it was my first significant step towards micro focus. That one step probably added 10 hours of productive time to my week.

I think we all know what our distractions are. It’s just a matter of whether we want to admit them to ourselves or not.

As I pay attention to my distractions, I become more aware of them and slowly remove them from my life.

Just recently, I removed all social media from my phone. I noticed how often a message on Facebook could take my attention away from what I was trying to do for sometimes hours.


Being able to acknowledge when I’m distracted required me first to decide what I wanted to focus on.

Too often, after getting distracted, I couldn’t recall what I was trying to do in the first place. 

This has even caused me to miss my staff pays before. Once, in the middle of processing a pay run, I got a message about catching up for a coffee. That coffee led to a few beers, and 12 hours later, my staff were asking me why they hadn’t been paid.

If I had a checklist or set some intentions for that day, I’m sure I would have remembered to finish the pays before squandering off.

There are two different ways I do this.

I map out my schedule on google calendar.

I follow that up by setting my intentions for the day. Productivity peeps call these MIT’s. Your ‘most important tasks’. I write these out each morning.

I go into more detail about how I tie this all together here.

Even though I’m a whole lot less distracted now, I’m sure setting intentions will save me from another pay run faux pa some stage in the future.


For me, less has always been better. The narrower I keep my vision, and the fewer things I focus on, the better I have done.

This has proved true for my well-being, my bank balance, and my level of fulfilment. When I am doing the most, I am generally at my worst.

I’ve observed this not just in myself but countless others I’ve worked with or been in business with over the past few years. Those who’ve done the best do the least.

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