Use Important Deadlines to Dramatically Increase Your Focus

by Mark on January 4, 2010 · 2 comments

I currently work for a small software company as an accountant. As you may or may not know, accounting is a very deadline-driven occupation. There are deadlines for closing the books, filing tax returns, making tax payments, paying bills, paying employees, and all sorts of other deadlines. Most of these deadlines carry significant negative consequences for not meeting the deadline, such as fines, penalties, finance charges, disgruntled employees and so on.

Considering the sheer number of deadlines that accountants face, it is somewhat amazing how few deadlines are missed (I’m generalizing, of course). I recently had to work on New Year’s Eve to finish up some items that absolutely had to be completed before the end of the year. As you can imagine, I was very motivated to get out of there. I wanted to leave early, and I was intensely focused on doing so. That’s when it really hit me.

Nothing focuses the mind like an important deadline.

I will be the first to admit that I’m not always the most focused person in the world. Quite often I get distracted very easily, and my focus gets diluted. It’s not unusual for me to be surfing the Web on my laptop while I’m watching TV. While on the Internet, I go from website to website in rapid succession, with multiple tabs open in my Firefox browser at the same time. My brain has been hyperactive for as long as I can remember. I love to learn, so I am constantly learning multiple topics at one time. It’s actually kind of stupid, considering I love it when I’m able to get engrossed in one thing that I find interesting.

Now with such a vast amount of information on the Internet that is all linked together, I end up jumping from site to site in an endless quest to learn more. I love the Internet and what it allows us to do, but the Internet has definitely made it harder for me to focus. I don’t know if I qualify as having attention deficit order, but sometimes it sure seems like it. I know that being unable to focus holds me back from achieving some of the more aggressive goals that I have set for myself, so learning strategies to maintain focus is very important to me.

Deep Focus

Luckily, I am not always distracted. Sometimes I am very deeply focused, even to the point where I couldn’t be distracted if I wanted to! This usually happens when there is a problem that I want to solve. I love to solve problems, and many times I just can’t let it go until it’s solved. Other times it is after I have learned a new interesting concept, and I keep turning it over in my mind.

Most recently this happened after reading the The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I actually originally read the book back in July, 2007. It had some interesting ideas, but it didn’t quite fully resonate with me. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it then, or maybe I was just too distracted by other things to fully consider it. However, I began reading his blog, and over time I became more interested. I recently decided to read the book again, and I loved it, so I read it several more times. I still don’t agree with everything he says, but there were many great ideas that sparked my thinking. His basic ideas about lifestyle design that I talked about in my first post are very innovative and potentially life-changing. In fact, this website is part of my strategy to implement some of his ideas.

Recently I went to visit my parents in Florida. While they went to bed early, I stayed up late every night, consumed with brainstorming how to apply some of his concepts (and some of my own) to my life. The result was copious notes of my ideas. There were two main factors that helped me achieve this deep focus: 1) I was intensely interested in the subject, and 2) my parents didn’t have an Internet connection. Knowing that I didn’t have access to the Internet was quite liberating! This is one fact that I will need to remember in designing strategies to help me focus.

Increasing Your Focus When You Are Not Intensely Interested in Something

Focus tends to occur naturally when we are intensely interested in something (although even then, it’s possible to be distracted away from what you love). The real problem is how to be able to focus more intensely when we aren’t really motivated to do so. I alluded to the solution earlier: we need to set important deadlines. Note that the deadline must be important to be effective in increasing our focus. What does it mean for a deadline to be important? A deadline is important if missing the deadline has significant negative consequences or if meeting the deadline has significant positive consequences. Whether or not the consequences are significant will of course be different depending on the individual.

Think about the deadlines in your life, and you will notice that you will tend to meet deadlines that are important to you far more routinely than ones that are not important. Most people will find a way to file their tax returns by April 15th because the negative consequences of not doing so make April 15th an important deadline. Important deadlines change our focus. The consequences of the deadline cause our brain to focus on this one important thing that needs to be done. If you set an earlier deadline of submitting your tax return by March 31st, you might find it much more difficult to achieve because the deadline isn’t quite as important. The consequences won’t be as negative.

On New Year’s Eve, I was able to leave a few hours early because I had mentally turned it into an important deadline. I wanted to have more time to prepare for the evening’s festivities, so I was envisioning the benefits of leaving early, not to mention the pain of being one of the only employees working on a holiday while everyone else was already home. The result was that my brain focused only on what I needed to do to meet the deadline I had imposed for myself.

Strategies for Making Deadlines Important

How often have you made deadlines for yourself to finish something you want to get done only to not meet the deadline? We all do it, and it happens when we set a deadline that isn’t important. There are strategies that you can use to make a deadline important:

1) Associate pleasure with meeting the deadline. Think about all of the benefits you will enjoy by meeting the deadline. It might be something simple like enjoying the feeling of being able to make a firm decision and follow through with it. Think about all the ways that your life will improve if you set deadlines and stick with them. Think about the peace of mind you will enjoy. Think about how consistently meeting your self-imposed deadlines will lead to the life of your dreams.
2) Associate pain with missing the deadline. Think about all of the ways that missing the deadline will bring pain to your life. Think about the pain of always saying that you are going to do something and never following through. Think about how your progress will be much slower or even nonexistent if you don’t meet your deadlines.
3) Set up a reward for meeting the deadline. Think of a way to reward yourself for meeting the deadline. Maybe you will go out to dinner. Maybe you will take a vacation. Maybe you will buy ice cream. Think of rewards that will drive you, and commit to foregoing the reward if you miss the deadline.
4) Set up a punishment for missing the deadline. Think of a way to punish yourself for not meeting the deadline. Maybe you will make a large donation to an opposing political party. Maybe you will give up your premium cable TV channels. For an innovative way to set up a punishment that you will have no choice but to follow through with, check out stickK. stickK won’t let you off the hook.

Be creative. If you can genuinely make the deadline important to you, your focus will increase naturally and you will get far more done.

What strategies do you use to increase your focus or meet your deadlines?


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: