A Training Program for Single-Tasking & Focus

By Leo Babauta

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I heartily believe in giving your full focus to one task at a time. Single-tasking and focus are at the heart of my productivity method.

Pick one important task, and give it your entire focus. Finish that (or at least a chunk that you choose to work on right now), and then do the same with the next task. There’s simply no better way to get things done, one important task at a time. Even small tasks benefit from single-tasking with focus.

But knowing this and actually doing it are two different things. There are lots of things we know we should do, but putting them into practice, and being consistent about it, are simply much harder.

I think the answer is in intentional training.

We aren’t good at doing things we know we should do. That’s obvious. But how do we get better? By not trying? By trying, failing, and then not learning from the failure but instead being critical of ourselves about failing? Most of us just keep repeating the same mistakes, don’t get better, and don’t understand why we can’t get better.

So what if we trained ourselves to get better?

There are a number of important ideas in training that we can use to get better at single-tasking and focusing:

  1. Train in small doses to start with.
  2. Train at the easy level, and only progress with mastery.
  3. Train repeatedly, as perfectly as you can.
  4. Use the failure as feedback, and adjust.
  5. Vary the training.
  6. Practice regularly, instead of allowing yourself to forget.
  7. Focus on micro skills — instead of training your entire baseball swing, focus on one part at a time.

With those ideas, we’re going to train ourselves to get better at single-tasking with full focus.

The Focus Training Method

First, ask yourself whether this is important enough to train yourself in. Do you really care about finding focus, or is everything fine as it is? If it’s not fine, what difficulty does it cause you? Is it worth it to train yourself to relieve that difficulty? Do you care deeply about this? Remember that as you practice and feel like skipping the training.

Now here’s the training method I recommend:

  1. Set yourself to train in 5-10 minute bursts, 2-5 times a day, every day. There is a temptation to train for an hour, or 30 minutes, because 5-10 minutes seems silly. But we’re not attempting a marathon just yet – we want to train ourselves before we attempt a marathon. So set your practice for 5-10 minute intervals of full focus, then 5 minutes of break, then another interval, and so on. Let two of these short sessions a day be your minimum, even on weekends or when you’re traveling.
  2. Train at the easy level, don’t start with hard tasks. If writing your book is such a hard task that you really dread doing it, don’t start with that. Or maybe it’s doing your taxes/finances, or writing a difficult report or letter. Instead, start with easier tasks that won’t cause you to panic or totally dread doing it. You can work your way up to the hard tasks after a week or two, and when you do, just start in small doses (5-10 minutes).
  3. Use any failures as really important feedback for adjustment. If you get distracted or pulled away from the task, that’s completely OK – the only failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes. Failure is actually super important for training – if you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing yourself into new learning. Failure is how we get better in training – notice what went wrong, and figure out how to adjust. Every time you mess up, think of this as a big golden opportunity, and relish the idea of reviewing what happened, and seeing how you can adjust and improve. Distracted by Facebook? Block it. Disconnect from the Internet. Give your spouse the wireless router. Tell people on Facebook you won’t be on Facebook until 5pm each day. Figure out what you need to do, and adjust.
  4. Mix up the training. There’s value in repeated training, but studies have shown that we learn best when we vary the training. Try to focus for 5 minutes one session, then 10 minutes the next. Try to focus on writing in one session, then reading in another, then writing an important email in a third session. Keep the difficulty level about the same, but mix up the tasks and even the micro skills you practice.
  5. Focus on 2-3 micro skills at a time (see below). Each practice session, just focus on a couple micro skills. Then mix it up in the next practice session. Eventually you’ll get so good at certain micro skills that you don’t need to think about them, they’ll just be easy. Then you can move on to others.

You can lengthen the training sessions (but no need to alter the number of sesions for awhile) as you get better at the training, and start to master the micro skills below. Don’t be in a rush to lengthen the training, but when you do, just add 5 minutes to the session.

So you might start with 5-10 minute sessions, then after a couple weeks, try 10-15 minute sessions, an so on. I wouldn’t recommend going longer than 30 minutes unless you do work that requires you to keep everything in your head (a complex mental model) and taking breaks is actually detrimental to the task.

The Micro Skills

There are lots of micro skills you can practice, and you’ll find some of your own as you adjust your practice based on mistakes and continued learning (blocking Facebook when needed, for example).

But here are some that I recommend practicing:

  1. Pick several important tasks to work on today. Each morning, or maybe even better the night before, you can pick three important tasks to focus on for the day (or the next day). What tasks will move the needle on your important projects, or important areas in your life? You might have a million to do, but just pick three. You can always pick three more if you finish those early.
  2. Pick one of those important tasks. In the morning, pick on of your three important tasks to focus on first. Yes, they’re all important. But you’ll get to the others later – for now, you can only do one. Pick one and focus on that. Btw, after you finish your three important tasks, you can decide to focus on smaller tasks (like answering email, paying bills, replying to messages, etc.) for half an hour or whatever you need. They’re valid things to use for your focus training sessions.
  3. Set yourself to do that task with focus. That means decide that you’re going to do nothing but focus on this task. You’re going to use it as a practice session. You might set a timer. You’re going to practice the micro skills in this section with this task, consciously, and not switch.
  4. Clear a space and make this feel important. That means clear a physical space (however clear you can get it in a minute or so) and clear your computer of whatever you don’t need. Turn off your phone. See this as a really important training session, worth using up some of your life instead of just a mindless task to get through.
  5. Set an intention. As you get started, set an intention for how you want to practice. Examples: “I want to be fully present as I read this article,” or “I want to practice focus deliberately as I write for 10 minutes,” or “I am going to do this task with love in my heart for the people I’m serving.” The intention is a way to remind yourself of the way you want to show up for this focus session.
  6. Have only the tools you need open. That means closing all apps. Turning off your phone. You don’t need a million things open to do this task. There’s just you and your yoga mat. Just you and your writing app. Just you and your book.
  7. Notice your urge to put it off. When you choose a task to focus on, you will often have an urge to put off starting. Notice this urge, and pay close attention to how it feels. It’s an urge, a moment of uncertainty and discomfort, and temptation to do something easier or more certain. It’s nothing you can’t handle, and not a reason to run. Stay with your task instead of switching to something else, and stay with how the urge feels in your body.
  8. Stay with it for just 5 minutes. Focus with complete devotion to this task for 5 minutes. You can lengthen to 10 or 15 minutes after mastering the 5-minute session.
  9. Watch your urge to switch. As you do your focus session, at different times you’ll often feel an urge to switch. You don’t need to switch just because you have the urge. Sit with the uge, meditating on how it feels, staying with it as you did with the urge to put off the task (No. 7 above). Let the urge get really strong, and realize that it’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing you need to run away from.
  10. *Take a short break, and then mindfully come back. Try setting a timer for your focus session, then when it goes off, set another 5-minute timer and take a break. Then come back to the task and do another focus session. You don’t have to do this every time, but it is a micro skill to practice.
  11. Mindfully immerse yourself in the task. As you do the task, try to be fully immersed in it, having your mind fully in the task, and/or the physcial sensations you feel as you do the task. This means noticing when your mind is wandering, and coming back. There’s nothing but you, your body, and this task.
  12. Find gratitude when you finish (as well as during). As you’re doing the task, you can feel gratitude that you’re able to do it. Gratitude for being alive, for being able to serve someone you care about by doing this task, for your growth as you practice focus. And as you finish your session, you can feel gratitude that you were able to focus (even if only for a little while), and that you furthered along your task (or finished it). Amazing!

These are some of the micro skills that I’ve found important to practice. After years of working on these skills, I can confidently say that I’m much better at them, though there are times when I need to remind myself to practice, of course.

Is focus and single-tasking something you want to get better at? Is it important to you? Will it serve you and the people you serve? Then set yourself to a training plan today!