How to Have a More Focused Day

It’s been said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. While obviously there’s a great deal that’s out of your control with respect to events that haven’t occurred yet, you should at least have some control over how you spend your time today and tomorrow. And one of the best ways to ensure you use that time intelligently is to imagine in advance how your next day will turn out.

This is more than just writing down a to do list. This is a form of mental programming. Here’s a specific technique you can use (certainly not the only one). Either before you go to bed or after you awaken each morning (I recommend the former), take 5-10 minutes to visualize your upcoming day. Picture it like a movie unfolding before your eyes, and allow the whole day to play on fast forward, such that you compress your 16 waking hours or so (22 if you’re a polyphasic mutant) into just a few minutes.

Now this advice isn’t all that original, so I’m going to take it a step further. As you play through your day in advance, simultaneously notice what your gut feeling tells you about each part of it. This takes some practice, and the way it works for me is that I imagine sitting in a movie theater watching the movie of my day on the big screen. The movie plays on autopilot (controlled by my subconscious) and I use my conscious mind to observe, react to, and notice my reactions to what appears on the screen. It’s a lot like being in a real movie theater, where you might feel some emotion during an emotional scene, and then you have this meta-observation that you’re noticing yourself feeling emotional while watching a movie. If this sounds too complicated to do all at once (again, it takes some practice), then just play the movie normally, and when it’s over, try to recall how certain parts made you feel.

Now you have your visualization of your next day as well as the feelings that you attach to various parts of it. Those feelings are your feedback, so use this feedback to improve your movie. Did you feel stress, worry, or anxiety at times? If so, go back and modify the script. Mentally modify those parts of the movie to remove the negative emotional triggers. Add soft music to reduce stress. Eat healthier food. Squeeze in a nice long walk. Do a complete rewrite if you have to — remember, your day hasn’t even started yet, so fix the bugs now before they go into the production build.

Secondly, notice which parts of your movie produced a positive emotional response, and see if you can make those even better. Use what you learn from observing your positive emotional reactions to improve the weaker parts of your film. Keep working on your original B-movie until you have an Oscar winner on your hands.

Finally, be sure to end your film with an appropriate version of “riding off into the sunset.” Make your day end well, and picture yourself feeling good about it. Clarify the feeling you want to have at the end of your day — accomplishment, peace, victory, etc., and create a final closing scene that captures it. It could be something as simple as picturing yourself going to bed with a smile on your face.

When you have a movie you really love, say to yourself, “save program.” You’re done.

Take note of how your upcoming day unfolds. If you’re like me, it will never turn out as perfect as your movie. But it will turn out a lot better than your typical experience when you don’t do this visualization.

Early this morning I did this exercise and imagined how today would turn out. I piled it with activity and wanted to push myself to get a lot of important tasks finished. But my first take showed that it was going to be pretty boring. Yesterday I filed the paperwork to create a new limited liability company (LLC), so my plan for today was to finalize the operating agreement and several other formal docs related to launching a new company. Basically I’m upgrading this sole proprietor business (aka this web site) into a more structured legal entity. But paperwork doesn’t make for a very exciting day. So I corrected the imaginary movie by splicing the paperwork between more interesting tasks, such as writing this blog entry. And this evening I have a two-hour improv comedy workshop, so that’s a great way to polish off the workday. Eventually I felt my movie was good enough, so I mentally saved it and kicked off my day with breakfast. Even though the work supposedly wasn’t going to be very exciting, I was feeling very motivated and enthusiastic when I sat down at my desk.

However, the actual day (which is a bit more than half over now) is turning out differently than I pictured in my movie. I found the paperwork less tedious than expected, so I opted to stick with it instead of task-switching between documents, and I actually completed all of it before noon. Now I’m spending the second half of the day doing all the interesting stuff.

I can’t say this visualization technique “creates the future” with any meaningful degree of accuracy. In terms of accuracy, it’s probably no better than writing out a to-do list. But this method does significantly increase my motivation and focus. I find myself much less vulnerable to distractions, and I concentrate better. So the day never turns out quite as I visualized, but it does turn out better than it would have otherwise. It’s as if the actual images don’t survive the editing process, but the raw emotions and energy do make the final cut. Sometimes it feels like I’m sending energy into the future, like passing a temporal football to be received by my future self who carries it in for a touchdown.

Give the positive form of this visualization a try and see what happens. A great time to do it is right after you lie down to go to bed but before you’ve fallen asleep.

On the flip side, there’s a good chance you’re already using this technique without even realizing it. If you worry about the coming day (or simply anticipate boredom or lack of enthusiasm), you’re using negative visualization. And in that case you can generally expect the opposite results. Your day probably won’t turn out as badly as you imagined (which may even give you a temporary sense of relief), but it will likely be lousy compared to what you’d have gotten with intentional positive visualization.

When it comes to visualization, there’s no neutral. Your energy is either + or -. So make sure it’s +.

How do you know if you’re + or – right now? If the answer isn’t blatantly obvious to you, you’re -. If you were +, you’d have no doubt whatsoever. It’s just like asking, “Is this a dream?” If you have to seriously ask the question, you’re definitely asleep and dreaming. In fact, that’s a good way to become lucid. 🙂