Since studying for my PMP exam, I realized how difficult it was to block out time and more importantly to focus during the time that I blocked out for study. It is notoriously difficult with smartphones, internet and numerous distractions to maintain the level of focus and concentration you need to get things done.
I have read quite a bit about how to get into the state of ‘flow’ – books such as Getting Things Done by David Allen and Deep Work by Cal Newport certainly helped me determine strategies for getting stuff done but without actually trying out the systems and tactics myself, I really did not know what would work for me (and the PMP studying represented a great opportunity to try out these things that I had read about).
Here’s what worked for me:
Schedule blocks of time into your calendar for studying
I’m not even sure why this works but I read about it from numerous successful entrepreneurs (such as Ramit Sethi) and found that it has the same allure and force that business meetings have – if you schedule it into your calendar, it gets done. It seems weird but when I schedule time into my calendar to accomplish different tasks, it gets done – maybe not always in that specific time block but because it is scheduled, and there is a time box around it, I get to work right away when it comes up in my notification.
Prioritize and do the most important task first
When you create your task list, look through the list and identify the task that is the most important. This does not necessarily mean the most urgent (though sometimes it can). Your most important task can also be the task that will help make all of your other tasks easier. For example, if you are writing a book, your most important task will be to outline the book (because then the outline can guide what you write in all of the sections of the book). Maybe you need to write that business case for work – well, the most important task here might be to collect and research all the information you need to write the business case.
I believe previously I talked about using the Forest app on my phone to bar me from checking my phone every few minutes. The app itself does not completely prevent you from checking your phone but knowing that a tree, albeit digital, would die because I checked my phone helped to push me into the focus zone. Are you trying to study at home with your wife and kids all running around and screaming at you? You’ll have to balance your family life but I would also suggest going to a coffee shop or waking up extremely early to get whatever you need done – this will help reduce distractions and give you the time to still do chores and other tasks with your family.
Find your prime focus time
For many people, their willpower and discipline is highest about a few hours after waking up – which means that if you schedule your most important tasks during that time, they are certainly more likely to get done. How do you know if you are a morning person, night person or inbetween? I would recommend taking a look at Michael Breus’ book The Power of When – there’s also a free online quiz to help you figure out what kind of animal (i.e., your different energy levels throughout the day) you are.
Sacrifice and find the balance
I don’t mean sacrifice people but a lot of the time, you really just won’t have the time and energy to do everything that you would like to do PLUS the studying or whatever you want to get done (i.e., writing a book, starting that business, etc.). You are going to have to cut some of the activities that you might enjoy or that you normally do until you finish. Generally, this shouldn’t be too hard as a lot of us (including me) tend to watch TV or play video games or even browse social media for a few hours every day – all of this time can be used in more productive ways – at least until you finish whatever it is you want to finish.
Maintain a positive mindset
As I studied for my PMP, I kept on thinking about how great it would feel once I passed my PMP and I used that positive mindset to: maintain belief that I could pass the PMP and sustain the energy and focus I needed to continue studying. If you, all of a sudden, find out that you have no hope in passing, imagine what that would do to your motivation of studying – you would ask yourself, what’s the point, or even, why waste time studying? It is extremely important to maintain this positive mindset while working on whatever it is you are doing and while doing that thing – for example, all throughout my PMP studying, I maintained a positive mindset that I can and will pass and I continued to think this even as I answered questions on the exam. I was certainly nervous when the exam was being marked but at that point, there was really nothing I could do but put my best foot forward and hope for the best.
Use music and headphones as a cue
One of my secrets at work is to bring a pair of headphones that I can wear while working. The headphones are for two things: one, to signal to myself that whenever I listen to classical music, that I work and focus; and two, to signal to my coworkers to not bother me with any distractions. When you get into enough sessions with the music (and I would recommend listening to the same music each time), your brain gets a ‘trigger’ to start concentrating whenever you hear that music. That’s what you want.
What are your tips and tricks for getting things done? Getting into the zone? Focusing? What kind of things do you do?
About the author:
Wang is a management consultant, self-published author, Distinguished Toastmaster, co-host of a podcast, Udemy teacher, former Uber driver and all around hustler. He is also obsessed about books and he reads books so that you don’t have to. Want a list of Wang’s top ten formative books in his life and career? Interested in book summaries and recommendations every month? Subscribe to Wang’s e-mail newsletter!