3 Tips for Improving Mental Focus in the Moment
It was minutes before Super Bowl 50 started, and I had become completely unfocused. Lady Gaga, in her red sequined dress, was epically singing the national anthem as the Blue Angels flew over the stadium. Wow, what a moment! How can you not be distracted?
But I had to be present to win. Immediately after catching myself, moments before I stepped onto the field with my teammates, I pulled myself into focus in a matter of minutes. The ability to realize you are distracted and refocus yourself can be such a useful skill, I wanted to share my favorite one-two technique with you, plus a bonus tip.
We hear the word “focus” all the time. You can imagine how many times in a 10-year NFL career and a 17-year football career I heard the word “focus.” Yet even when we are told to focus, we don’t always understand what that means. The good news, focus is something you can practice and eventually master.
What is focus? Simply, focus exists as a state of performance that leads to productivity and accomplishment.
Here’s how I find that place of focus no matter where I am, no matter what is asked of me. They are not difficult steps, but work best (and fastest) the more you practice them. Think of it as a long-term practice with great benefits.
Step 1. Distractions: Learn to Recognize & Name What Distracts You (and Fix It, If Possible)
The first part of focusing comes through learning to recognize your distractions. Distractions are a huge killer of productivity, a zapper of that flow state. They may even prevent us from starting down the path to achieve our goals. Whether you’re an athlete playing, a parent wanting to be fully present, or a businessperson working extra hours to finish a project, you need to first identify what draws you away from what you are doing.
Once you see those factors, you may be able to eliminate them too. The core benefit of this exercise is simply identifying the distraction.
The easiest way to identify distractions in your life is by asking the five W’s: who, what, when, where, why?
WHO is a distraction in your life? Who are people that are not adding to your goals in this moment? Who is taking your time instead of respecting it? Do you keep playing with your dog or talking to a coworker when you need to focus? Do you have visitors who expect you to show them around without asking what your schedule is?
Sometimes my biggest distraction is myself and how I’m feeling. I am tired. I am hungry. These things you can do something about. You might go for a walk to burn off some frustration or have a snack and come back ready to focus.
WHAT are your distractions right now? I love Instagram and seeing what my friends are doing on social media. It’s easy to hop on my phone when I don’t want to do what’s in front of me. When I name it, I can set my phone aside and get to the task at hand.
For instance, if I’m on social media while I’m doing my radio show, I’m not giving my all. I’m not in the most productive state I can be in. During Ramadan this year I stepped away from social media entirely because it distracted me from being with my family and sharing in the month’s remembrance.
WHEN are you distracted? Or WHEN do you need to minimize distractions? I love hopping a plane to Vegas for good food and entertainment, but I don’t need to be going to Vegas in the middle of a season or during an off day.
When is your family a distraction? In the NFL, we worked on Saturdays but most people don’t. I had to gently but firmly limit when people visited me—everyone wanted to do dinner on Friday and hang out all day Saturday. But my Friday was everyone else’s Wednesday, no can do.
For that Super Bowl, my wife came in the day before the game in the afternoon after practice because beforehand I had no business focusing on anything other than winning a championship. Immediately after winning, my family took priority over football. Identifying when you need to be distraction-clear and when certain things are distracting helps you create focus.
WHERE are your distractions? Is your location itself a distraction? You might need to move, go to a quiet room, or get to a more productive place. Working near distractions can prevent you from being at your best.
WHY are certain things a distraction? Early on in college, video games were a huge distraction for me. Why? Because I didn’t care for the work I was supposed to be doing. Later on I chose classes I liked, so I stopped playing as many video games.
Look at the previous distractions and ask “why” for each of them, too. You will likely uncover issues that can be resolved. If I ask, “Why is my family a distraction in my life right now?” and realize it’s because I haven’t been clear about what I need, then I can improve that situation for everyone’s benefit. This question can lead you to come powerful answers creating routes to more powerful production.
Identifying your distractions as thoroughly as possible is step one. That helps you identify the negatives that erode your focus. Now comes step two, which is designed to concentrate your focus.
Step 2. Purpose: Define Your Purpose in the Moment (and Put Your Attention There)
The second way to find focus is to define your purpose. Who are you and why are you there? When you understand who you are in that moment of focus and why, you put your purpose front and center, and that improves focus.
For instance: “I am a father and I am picking up my child.” Therefore, I don’t need to be looking at my phone because I want to pay attention to my kids with full eye contact. I don’t need to be answering an email, so I leave my phone in my pocket or even at home.
Understand who you are in that location and in the flow of what you are (supposed to be) doing. In the flow of the 24 weeks before winning that Super Bowl, at different times I was different things. I am injured. I am healing. I am rested. I am practicing. My purpose affected where I put my attention.
If you’re feeling frantic, if you’re feeling unfocused, if you’re feeling like too much is going on, ask: who am I, why am I here? And listen to the answers. Then step into that role, that purpose.
Taking these two steps in sequence puts you on the road of focus and productivity. It shows you why you are out of focus and how you can help get yourself back on track. It also shows you what you can be doing. You can be more productive, and people can get your best efforts.
Bonus Tip #3. Volunteer Your Time
Lastly, I find that volunteering my time is a great way to improve my focus too. I just spoke to a group of addicts, formerly homeless, who are now in a program where they have to go through a process of:
1. Staying sober
2. Finding a job
3. Making their bed every day
They are growing and learning how to pay rent and work out—learning how to live a new, sober lifestyle.
Volunteering my time with them made me think about where I could be more productive. They asked me, “Do you make your bed?” I said, “No, because I’ve got two kids.” I want to give my energy right away when I wake up to my kids. They are focusing on taking care of themselves and being responsible, so they make their beds.
Your focus will be different than everybody else’s. I played with Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger: each one of them focuses differently.
Five players on the offensive line? Each one of us focuses differently. So make sure that you understand how you focus. Don’t worry about what it looks like, sounds like or feels like to anyone else, because your process is exactly what you need to produce. Just get it done.
At the start of Super Bowl 50, after I recognized I was distracted by Lady Gaga, I used these focusing techniques. I named my distractions: Gaga, planes. I defined my purpose: I am here to win a championship—that’s the only reason why I’m here. It brought me back.
And we won.
I hope these techniques help you learn to create deeper, cleaner focus and improved productivity. Let me know how it goes or tell me your own focusing methods in the comments.