The Power of Rituals and 6 Other Ways to Get in The Zone
When it comes to productivity, having razor-sharp focus is key—but how exactly do we get it? The answer: Practice habits that help you stay on track with what you want to do with your life, both in a personal and professional sense.
Here are seven of my favorite habits that have helped me to stay focused on what I want to do:
1. Create Rituals to Get In the Mood For Doing Things
Rituals have helped me train my mind to work optimally at certain times of the day, and they also give me a greater sense of control over each 24-hour period so I can feel more productive and proactive. For example:
●︎ A morning routine for energy. I like to get several things done earlier in the day because it’s more quiet, I can focus better, and I can devote time to myself. Most days I will do a shorter workout (such as yoga or a run), I’ll make a 5-minute breakfast with tons of fresh fruit, and I will get some of my writing done.
●︎ A cup of strong coffee. It’s a small ritual that I enjoy especially if I am drinking it at home and focusing on the taste! I like Nespresso and Jamaican Blue Mountain. If I’m in a rush to get to work, I’ll put it in a thermos to keep it really hot.
●︎ Music as a backdrop for my work. I prefer to listen to classical music and instrumental music (with no vocals) because I’ve noticed my brain likes it and can perform faster. I listen to 8tracks playlists, sometimes the Pandora radio stations, and also YouTube because of the diverse selection.
●︎ Taking a walk. When I need to think through a problem, reflect on something I’ve researched, or simply take a break, I go for a short walk. Even a 20 to 30 minute walk can improve your brain's cognitive performance, problem solving ability, and even boost long-term memory. An added bonus: when I can share my walk with my best friend and we can brainstorm ideas, discuss personal and professional goals, share some laughter, and encourage one another in whatever we’re currently focused on.
2. Start the Day With a Focus-Boosting Question
Here’s what I ask myself each morning: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”
●︎ Why it’s important: It encourages me to think strategically about the day, keeps me focused on my goals (both personal and professional), and it forces me to prioritize because I know that answering “Everything!” won’t help me to be productive. The answer needs to be specific in order to work.
●︎ How you can practice it: Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day, and come up with an answer on the spot. Then, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your one thing.
3. Fiercly Eliminate Distractions
There are infinite sources of distractions that can slow done and postpone working on top priorities in any given day, from Twitter to Instagram to checking emails and responding to calls. I’ve noticed these things help reduce the noise significantly:
●︎ Setting the phone to Airplane mode when I need to focus without a single interruption.
●︎ Setting expectations with people by letting them know I won't be available in the next few hours. It sounds obvious but it isn’t; nobody will know you need to have your quiet time so you do need to tell them. Then, let them know when you’ll reach out (for example, at lunchtime) to catch up on whatever is going on.
●︎ Checking emails and social media apps up to three times a day. I don’t touch emails first thing in the morning, but I do start checking after I’ve finished my first block of deep work. The times I check are around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and in the evening. As for social media, I use my short breaks between work sessions to catch up on what is interesting to me.
4. Become a Pro at Managing Yourself
It is not realistic to expect one activity (whether it’s work or play) to last indefinitely for hours. Working endlessly for longer stretches of time doesn’t help focus. I have noticed that most of the activities I have scheduled are broken down into 2 hour increments. These techniques have been most helpful:
●︎ Using a timer to be aware of how quickly (or slowly) time goes by. It works for everything, from estimating a workout session to focusing on more creative work such as writing. The benefit: less exhaustion and more productivity once the brain is trained.
●︎ Using the Pomodoro technique for working on analytical and more complex tasks. It consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
●︎ Taking frequent breaks between work sessions to let the mind process information. Having a snack, listening to music, and engaging in any physical activity helps.
5. Build the Habit of Doing Deep Work Early
I use the early morning hours to do the hard stuff first. For me, it’s not a matter of working harder, but working smarter. I like to make the most of my circadian rhythm by being strategic about selecting which activities to do to be more productive in a shorter amount of time. Here’s what helps.
●︎ Setting aside two to four hours after waking up to do analytical work, which can be anything from researching to problem-solving and performing cognitive tasks that require more mental energy.
●︎ Socializing in the early afternoon, which can be anything from team work to getting proactive in meetings and participating in group discussions.
●︎ Keeping track of tasks (both large and small) by managing a checklist of to-dos that need to be completed throughout the day.
6. Stay Closely Connected to Your Why
This technique helps me to keep my brain focused on practically anything: researching a topic, attending a meeting with a client, writing a blog post, reading a book, even building friendships. It makes me feel proactive about my life and keeps my personal goals top of mind. Here’s how it plays out in real time:
●︎ Whenever I have a challenge in front of me, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It takes me out of this moment and makes me think about the big picture. Am I working towards developing a skill that will be useful to me? Am I taking on a new project that will challenge me, make me happier, take me closer to a personal goal? When you make the connection with the initial reasons for starting to do anything, then even the more difficult things start making sense because they serve a purpose.
●︎ When something feels like a chore (and a hassle!), I turn it into a personal choice that I’m making. It’s a subtle psychological technique that really works because you start feeling proactive about things you have to do. For example, instead of feeling overwhelmed by a complicated task or a dense subject matter you’re studying, tell yourself, “This is something I really want to learn more about.” The benefit? It gives you a greater sense of control about what you’re doing.
7. Create Mental Models to Help You Achieve Your Goals
This is a technique called building a mental model: you imagine in detail everything that you expect will happen as you’re working on a project or learning something new. I’ve used it for studying new material, starting a complex project, and preparing for meetings with clients.
●︎ Why it works: Telling yourself a story helps the brain absorb new information better, and visualizing next steps helps to anticipate challenges and make plans to deal with them. In addition, when you train your brain to pay attention to what’s important, you also help it to ignore distractions better because they’re less relevant and not a part of the story.
●︎ How it can help you learn new things: Mental models can make studying so much easier. Start with these 5 steps to guide you through the process.
This article originally appeared on Quora.
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