Get Focused for Success: Tips from an Ex-FBI Agent
FBI firearms instructors bark out reminders that maintaining front-sight focus is essential if we want to hit the target. Front-sight focus is concentration and single-mindedness when aiming a weapon on the firing range or at a terrorist. You can use the same focus to work through a mess when things go wrong at work as well.
Because of my FBI firearms training, I also learned how to practice front-sight focus in my investigations so I could distinguish between what was important and what was a distraction. This type of focus leads to success in both business and life.
Distractions often occur when our inner nag starts fretting about all the things that need to get done. As a result, intrusive thoughts constantly interrupt our productivity, and we end up second-guessing our choices.
In his book, Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the importance of making a Next Action List rather than a To-Do List. Instead of writing down the thing that needs to be done, write down what action needs to be taken.
1. Write down every item that gets your attention
Sit down in a quiet place with a pen and paper and let your thoughts ramble. What is on that To-Do List? Whether it’s small or large, important or not, write down every single thing that either needs a decision or has your attention. Do not take the time to prioritize the items. Listen to the voice of that inner nag and write down whatever pops up.
2. Identify your action step
Cross out each item on the To-Do List and identify the specific next action to be taken regarding that item instead. For example, if you need to buy a birthday present, write down “Drive to Nordstrom.” Now, carve out the time and day that you will take your action step. “I will drive to Nordstrom after work on Tuesday.”
3. Clarify the actions
Many times the actions you need to take won’t be able to be accomplished in the near future. For example, one of the items on my current To-Do List is “Write an article on why emotional awareness is essential for mental toughness.” Even now, there is a part of me that wants to skip over that item and ignore it.
Why It Works
I experience low-grade anxiety over the fact that it will take a big chunk of time to research the above mentioned topic and pull together enough information for a decent article. To avoid the anxiety, I need to break down the action to be taken into small steps. This item as it is written is far too vague and broad. As a result, my brain feels overwhelmed by trying to tease out all the elements that will be needed to finish the article.
If I attack the problem using a Next Step List, I will write down the following action: “I will spend Friday morning writing the article.” If I clarify the actions, I will add, “I will spend half an hour Thursday afternoon preparing an outline for the article, so I’m ready to start writing the next morning.” As with FBI firearms training, I narrowed my focus to one action step to be taken immediately, while at the same time registered awareness of the bigger picture. Science explains why this approach works in helping you to focus your mind for success. Research behind the Zeigarnik Effect proves that the unconscious mind needs the conscious mind to make a plan on how to finish a task or accomplish a goal.
The Science Behind the Need to Focus: The Zeigarnik Effect
The unconscious mind signals the conscious mind—which may now be focused on new goals—that a previous activity was left incomplete. This lack of closure that comes from an unfinished task creates intrusive thoughts that don’t go away until the person returns to complete the task. So writing down an item on a To-Do List creates anxiety for the unconscious mind because it needs more than a goal—it needs a plan!
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