As a student at Juilliard, most of my “studying” revolved around practicing for my weekly piano lesson – and with all day everyday to spend in the practice room, it was hard to maintain intense focus. When the day of my lesson rolled around though, guess what: I was suddenly able to shift into high gear, tune out the usual distractions (“Alex the cellist is practicing shirtless again?”) and get into a place of deep concentration. Three hours would fly by like that.
A sense of urgency is one of the most effective ways to get focused and engaged in what you’re doing — it helps you see more clearly what’s important and resist distraction.
It’s why, even now, I get my best practicing done in the half hour before 10:00 pm, when I have to follow good-neighbor etiquette and shut down the keyboard. Or why I get so much done in the 15 minutes before I leave the house for a meeting, or the day before I go on vacation.
No looming deadline? It’s better to create a sense of urgency on your own than to procrastinate and wait for it to be imposed externally. Here’s how:
- Use time as a tool. Instead of doing a task or activity for as long as it takes — decide upfront, before you start, how much time you’ll spend doing it. (I recently heard about a writer who charges his computer battery to 50%, goes to a cafe and leaves the charger at home when he needs to get some focused writing done.)
- Build momentum. It’s hard to feel urgency when you know you’re going to be doing something for several hours — start with shorter periods of 15 – 30 minutes.
- Set a challenge. Just like time limits make games fun, see how much you can get done in the allotted time. For example: “Let’s see how many emails I can answer in 15 minutes.” Or “How much of the proposal can I draft before my 10:30 meeting?”
- Create scarcity. As human beings, we want something more when there isn’t enough of it. Limit how long you can do an activity and you increase its perceived value. When I’m preparing for a piano competition, for example, I break down a three-hour practice session into 30-minute segments, one piece per segment. When the 30 minutes is up, I have to move onto the next piece, whether I feel ready or not. Not only does this keep me focused, it makes me eager to continue where I left off in the next session.