How to stay focused on what matters most, and how it helps you create a more meaningful life

Posted by Olena Mytruk

Do you tend to multi-task and do a million things at the same time? Do you want to learn how to stay focused and how to set your priorities wisely, or how it can help you create a more meaningful life?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then keep on reading!

We all have those days when we did a million different things, but at the end of the day we feel like we did nothing. And then there are other days – when we feel accomplished, when we feel like we did something really meaningful and valuable.

Why is that?

There is this paradox – we believe that the more tasks we check off our to-do list the better it will make us feel. But in reality, it works in a completely opposite way.

It is when we set our priorities carefully, when we focus on fewer things and engage with them on a deeper level that we find that meaning that we seek.

So, to begin with, I think we can all agree that it’s not really about quantity. It is about quality.

At least from what I have seen in my own life, and I see proof of that pretty much daily. It’s not about how many things I check off my to-do list. It’s about the quality of time that I spend doing those things.

It is about engagement, the depth of that engagement, and my commitment to doing that specific thing. The value that I see in it. This is what matters.

It is when I work on something that I find meaningful and useful, something that I’m really interested in, and when I really commit myself to doing this and I stay focused and don’t try to multitask – this is when I feel most accomplished at the end of the day.

So why is it so hard for us to shift that perspective?
Why is it so hard to stop piling more and more things on our to-do list?
Why can’t we just focus on one thing at a time?

Let’s talk habits

I don’t know about you but I have my phone sitting on my desk when I work. And whenever I have a free moment, my hands want to automatically reach for it without me even realizing it. Sometimes I don’t even know why I grabbed it, why I unlocked it and why I opened a social media app.

I don’t need it – it’s just a habit. It is so interesting to discover it and to realize, “Oh, I have my phone in my hands, why did I grab it?”

So what I started doing recently is intentionally putting my phone further away so that when my hands want to reach for it, they don’t get it. It helps me bring my awareness to the fact that I was trying to do it.

Because once you become aware of something you can do something about it.

But it’s not just the phone. It’s also all those text messages, slack messages, or emails that we receive all the time throughout the day. I recently bought a bigger monitor. I used to work on the 13-inch laptop and I would constantly swipe between the screens, but now that I have bought a 37-inch monitor I was very happy to be able to arrange all of my apps and all the things I need on one screen.

It is very convenient on one hand. But on the other hand, I now see my email box, my slack, and my teams channel all the time, all at once.

And whenever I see an email popping up I feel the need to respond. Whenever I see that somebody slacked me I see the need to respond. And people get used to me responding pretty much instantly and they begin to expect it.

So then when you try to train yourself and to train other people that they shouldn’t be expecting your instant response people get frustrated and get upset. “How is that? Why is she not responding?”

We are just so used to being bombarded with all of these pieces of information and we feel the need to absorb that information right away. Without filtering it. Without sometimes even being aware that we are absorbing all this information.

And then because of that we create these long to-do lists of things that we either have to do or things that we want to do and for the things that we want to do, it’s the same situation. We want to do so much and we have this fear of missing out – “If I don’t do this thing, or if I forget about this thing now, if I don’t do it now then it will never get done. If it doesn’t get done then something bad will happen.”

We try to squeeze so much in our day, in our life and we feel like having 30 things on our to-do list is a good thing. Some of those things are objectively important, but some of them aren’t, and what’s interesting is that sometimes we don’t even ask ourselves whether something is important or not enough to be taken on our plate.

But sometimes we do know that something is not that important and then we fake it. We don’t feel brave enough to say no to this thing so we try to pretend that we’re going to take care of it, and this is where multitasking comes in.

What is multitasking?

Let’s take a very simple example. I often have a one-hour meeting scheduled on my calendar, it’s a weekly meeting that a couple of hundred people will attend. It’s primarily informational and I’ve heard this information before.

Do I really believe that it’s very important for me to be there? Let’s be honest, no. I don’t think that it is important, but at the same time based on my status, my title and my role in the company, I feel like I have to be there. I have to attend that meeting. I don’t feel strong enough to make a conscious decision to not attend it, so I join it.

And while I am there, because I don’t consider it to be important, I try to do something else in parallel. I multitask. I respond to emails, or work on my business, or do whatever else I can think of doing during that time.

At the same time, I still have to be paying attention to what’s going on in the meeting because there is a little chance that my name will be called and I will have to say something. So I can’t be fully distracted, and what this results in is I am constantly switching focus and I’m not really achieving any results anywhere.

But what’s interesting is that I would have a much better chance of saying “no” to this meeting if this other activity was something that other people would consider important, not just me. For example, if I say that I have a client meeting then it won’t be judged – it will be understood.

Or if I have a doctor’s appointment, if I have to take my daughter to the doctor, I feel okay saying I can’t make it to the meeting because a doctor’s appointment is universally considered an important thing.

But when there is a conflict between what we consider important and what we believe will be considered important by other people – then this issue occurs. And then we end up multitasking.

Focus paradox

There is this big paradox because we constantly work on all these multiple things.

We’re so stretched. Our attention is so thin. We’re constantly getting distracted.

And because we cannot really filter and prioritize and therefore cannot stay focused on one thing at a time, we feel the lack of meaning, lack of accomplishment. We feel like we did a lot, but did nothing valuable.

And as a result, we try to compensate for that feeling by piling even more things on our plate.

We think that if we add 50 tasks to the to-do list instead of 30 and we complete all 50, then we will feel good. But the paradox is the more we do that the further we go from achieving that feeling of meaning – because trying to work on 50 things will not make you feel good. Instead, what will make you feel good is picking 3 or 5 most important things on your list and really taking the time to focus on them and engage with them.

Go deep instead of trying to spread yourself thin.

How to stay focused

I have been trying a few simple practices to help myself address this paradox and to improve the way I feel about my day.

Become aware of your habits

One thing I already mentioned is that I intentionally try to put my phone further from my reach. Whether it’s during my workday, and I just put it in the further corner of my desk so that I can’t easily reach it, or after my workday sometimes when I go downstairs to have dinner with my family, I intentionally leave my phone upstairs. Sometimes funny things happen – my husband or my daughter want me to pull up my phone and to check something, and I tell them, “Oh my phone is not here, my phone is in another room,” and they’re like, “Why?” Well because I intentionally left it in another room so that I don’t reach for it without the real need.

Because let’s be honest, there is no real need to check emails every five minutes, or to check social media every 10 minutes. We just do it as a habit.

And becoming aware of this habit is the first step to try and then work with this habit and see if something needs to be adjusted.

Shorten your to-do list and have a buffer

Another thing that I’ve been doing lately is limit my to-do list to 10 things per day, or no more than half of the daily task space available in my planner – whatever happens first. And once I reach that threshold, once I get to those 10 items or that half of the planner space, then whatever else comes in either has to be moved to another day, or if it’s really important then it has to be reprioritized. Which means something else needs to be moved to another day.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes not – it happens that I have to squeeze in more than I want to. And then another tip helps me — I always try to leave some buffer in my day.

I have burned myself way too many times when I was trying to squeeze too much. Something comes in and you’re like, “Yes, I’ll take it on.” Something else comes in and you think, “Oh okay, I guess I have room for that too.” Then something else comes in and then your reaction is, “Oh, I really don’t want to do this but I have to, so I guess I’ll squeeze it in.”

But then something completely unexpected happens – you lose power, or you get sick, or you have to take your kids to the doctor unexpectedly. And then you’re screwed! You have this whole pile of things on your to-do list, and now you don’t know what to do with all of them.

In order to avoid this, I remind myself that it’s always good to leave some buffer in my day because unexpected things happen. If they do then at least I won’t overwhelm yourself. And if they don’t, then I’ll end up having some free time which I can use to spend on my hobby, or to relax. Win-win!

I recently heard somebody say a phrase that I really liked. You know there is this common saying:

Don’t postpone until tomorrow something that you can do today.

And this guy said, “I actually follow the opposite rule… Postpone until tomorrow what you can do tomorrow. If you don’t have to do it today then don’t do it today.”

I thought it was a really interesting perspective and useful perspective. But it’s not what we are taught, it’s not what we are raised with. That’s why I think it really takes a lot of mental shift to adjust to this new perspective. But it is a really good way to look at things – it allows to really focus on what matters most at this particular moment in time.

Engage with one activity at a time

The last thing that I have been trying to do recently and that has been helping me quite a bit is the following.

Let’s come back to multitasking and to my example with an unimportant meeting situation. Let’s say there is something I need to be engaged in, some activity. I ask myself, “Is it important?” If yes, if I consider it important then I commit to being fully present, fully focused – not distracted, not trying to multitask. Fully engaged in that activity.

If I don’t consider it important then I ask another question, “Can I skip it? Can I remove it from my list?” And of course, the first reaction might be “no”, but then I try to go deeper. Can I really do something to not do this thing if it’s really so unimportant? No, I still have to be there? Okay, how can I make it more meaningful? How can I find more value in attending this meeting, or learning this thing, or engaging in that activity? I try to find that something that will make my presence more valuable. And then I make intentional decision to be present.

So, if you cannot skip it, if you have to do it, then be present and try to learn from it. Try to engage with it as much as you can. Because when you engage with something, the deeper you go the more meaningful you will find it.

Sometimes engaging in things that we don’t even consider important in the beginning becomes very meaningful when we engage with them on a deeper level.

And sometimes the most meaningful activities will not make us feel accomplished if we spread ourselves too thin and try to do too many things at once.

So remember – it’s focus, attention and engagement that create meaning, not the amount of tasks on your to-do list.

Related episodes

Episode 13 – What is life balance?
Episode 11 – How to find answers you are looking for and why it is so important to create space for your thoughts and ideas
Episode 10 – Happiness VS success – which one should ACTUALLY come first?
Episode 6 – What it REALLY means to be living YOUR life
Episode 2 – Five key ingredients you need in order to start living your life to the fullest

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