I was seated in the middle of a noisy airport waiting for my next flight, listening to a new audiobook.
All around me, people bustled back and forth, lugging their carry-ons and speaking loudly to one another. It was easy to feel caught up in the blur of faces and palpable anxiety.
But in order to focus, I had to drown out the noise and keep my attention on a topic I’d been looking forward to learning more about on my trip. So I kept my head down, closed my eyes, and immersed myself in the narrator’s voice.
The world moves so fast. It seems as if we should always be on the run or preparing for our next move. One moment you’re deeply engaged in a project, and the next you’re getting pinged about a new email or slack notification.
Distractions are endless and finding a point of stillness in the frenzy is nearly impossible. You probably end up asking yourself more than you like “What was I supposed to be doing just now?”
For everyone who struggles with trying to gain clarity, I’d like to share three strategies that have guided me through the years.
Decide what you want
“If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.” — Seneca
Many of us spend our lives hopping from one activity to the next without having a clear sense of where we’re going. Knowing what we want often evades us. But our understanding of who we are, or our “self-concept clarity,” as psychologists refer to it, should be unshakeable.
While we all feel lost every once in a while, sometimes the biggest question we can ask ourselves is “What do I find most meaningful?”
For me, that question has meant going deep, not broad, when building my company JotForm. The most fulfilling work that excites me has remained the same for the past 13 years: creating a great product that improves the lives of our customers.
I’m not interested in spreading myself thin trying to discover the next best thing.
Over 5 million global users and 140 employees later, we’ve continued to grow from this single, shared goal.
Deciding what you want and what your major purpose is will make everything start to fall in place.
“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” — Bruce Lee
Don’t confuse activity with productivity
I’ve written before about the pitfalls of multitasking. Even though we try to be as productive as possible, jumping from one activity to the next doesn’t allow for the deep concentration we need to produce high-quality work.
Magazine editor, Jacqueline Leo, put it well:
“One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings, or blow off really important things, like love, and friendship.”
While many of these distractions can feel like they’re making us more productive, they’re actually invading our workday and cluttering up our minds with endless tasks.
Alice Boyes, a contributor to Harvard Business Review, argues that we often overestimate how much focused time we have in a typical day. She suggests being ruthless about selecting our top priority and blocking off time to protect against distraction.
For this reason, I make it a point each day to reserve 60–90 minutes for deep work — where I focus on bigger-picture goals — and leave my smaller admin tasks for times when I know I’ll be interrupted.
Spend your energy on finding answers
As tempting as it is to dwell on what went wrong, focusing too much on our problems is a trap.
Gary Keller, author of The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, explains that clarity comes from focusing on solution-based actions.
“Big thoughts go nowhere without bold action.”
Harnessing your energy on a specific target will help you move the needle forward 100 times more than fretting over missed opportunities. As Keller highlights:
“Taking complete ownership of your outcomes by holding no one but yourself responsible for them is the most powerful thing you can do to drive your success.”
Here are some steps for staying solution-focused:
1. Keep it simple
Always ask what will make my life easier? What is that top priority that if I got it done, would make everything else go smoother?
Clear out the noise and narrow your focus on what’s absolutely important. Write down each day what your ONE thing is, as Keller would say.
Do whatever you have to do to ensure you’re working toward it. This could mean buying a pair of noise-canceling headphones or putting your phone away to limit distractions — the point is to keep moving forward.
2. Visualize the process
Engaging in strategic thinking can help you break down a larger goal into smaller actions to achieve the results you want. If you’re not sure how to approach this, you can keep a journal that will help you get your thoughts in order and build your internal motivation.
Some studies have shown that vividly imagining something with emotion can change our brain chemistry and make the experience seem more real to us.
Ask yourself what your dreams, ambitions, and desired outcomes are. And then spend 10 minutes each day visualizing them happening.
3. Carve out the non-essential
Are you getting bogged down in unnecessary meetings, long-winded emails, and juggling too many projects at once?
Japanese author and decluttering expert, Marie Kondo, explains in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, that in order to simplify our lives and get to a point of clarity, we have to closely examine where we’re placing our attention.
“The question of what you want to own,” Kondo writes, “is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”
As she explained in a story for Slate, “It’s important to understand your ownership pattern because it is an expression of the values that guide your life.” In other words, the thoughts and actions we choose today are what essentially defines us.
And there’s no greater clarity than that.