How to Develop Long-Term Focus
Staying Motivated to Achieve Distant Goals
If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things. – Albert Einstein
Many scientific researchers work day in, day out to pursue goals that will take years, decades, or even generations to achieve. Their progress is often painstakingly slow, they likely receive little feedback, and they know that success isn't guaranteed.
However, despite the odds, they find enough meaning and motivation to keep working towards their objectives. Because of their long-term focus, we've all benefited from life-saving advances in areas such as vaccination, CT scanning, antibiotic development – and very many others.
It's clear that people who maintain focus on long-term goals can achieve much bigger things than those who jump from idea to idea, or those who give up after the slightest setback. So, how can you keep focus on long-term goals, especially when you have to contend with everyday distractions and other urgent tasks?
This article looks at strategies that you can use to focus on your long-term goals. For more on how to focus on shorter-term tasks, see our articles on Improving Your Concentration and Avoiding Distractions.
What Is Focus?
Focus is your ability to center your attention and energy on a specific task, object, or activity, for a sustained length of time.
It's often quite simple to focus on short-term tasks and goals, because you see results quickly, and this helps to keep your motivation levels high. However, it's much more difficult to focus on goals that might take months, years or decades to realize.
One reason for this is that you may lose sight of what you want to achieve, and why.
It can also be difficult to recognize and measure progress on longer-term goals, especially in the early stages. This means that it's easy to get distracted by shorter-term priorities, and by other projects that seem more exciting.
However, the ability to focus in the long term is a key skill for anyone who wants to be successful. It's especially important for leaders who want to inspire their teams to achieve a long-term vision.
How to Develop and Maintain Long-Term Focus
Use the strategies below to build the motivation and persistence you need to achieve your long-term objectives.
1. Identify Meaningful Long-Term Goals
Your long-term goals might take years to complete. Can you imagine putting all of that time and energy into something you weren't passionate about?
This is why it's important to align your long-term goals with your values and your dreams.
First, set specific, long-term goals for the important areas of your life, such as career, family, finances, and education. Then, look over these goals. Do you feel excited when you think of them? Do you feel strongly enough about these goals to pursue them in the months or years to come? And, do you find the type of work involved with them interesting, in its own right?
If not, take these goals off the list, or revise them so that they move you towards something that really matters to you. It takes passion and a strong sense of purpose to stay focused on long-term goals, so make sure that these things are in place before you begin.
2. Write Goals Down
Once you've decided on your long-term goals, word them in a way that communicates why they are important to you, and put them in a place where you'll see them regularly.
For example, you could write them on index cards and keep them in your wallet or purse, or print them on a sheet of paper and tack it up beside your workstation.
Then, set a reminder to spend a few minutes every day looking at your goals, so that you keep them in focus.
You could also make a Treasure Map that represents your goals visually, or that describes what your life will be like when you achieve them.
3. Strengthen Self-Regulation
In their 2012 study, "Masters of the Long Haul," researchers Thomas Bateman and Bruce Barry said that "self-regulation" (the ability to control your emotions and impulses) is the single most important factor in achieving long-term goals.
To develop it, work on your self-discipline. This is a trait that helps you keep moving forward and working hard, even when you are not "in the mood" to do this. There will be times when your goal feels out of reach, or when you want to give up. Self-discipline pushes you to keep going, in spite of the odds.
Another important element in self-regulation is self-efficacy. This is your belief in your ability to accomplish your goals. To develop this, work on your self-confidence and learn to develop an internal locus of control. (People who have an internal locus of control believe that they're responsible for their own success.)
4. Make Time for Long-Term Goals
To achieve your long-term goals and stay focused on them, you need to work on them regularly. But how do you balance long-term goals with short-term objectives and urgent tasks?
First, use a tool like the Urgent/Important Matrix to determine which tasks you should do, and which you can delegate or stop doing. When you analyze your tasks in this way, you can free up time to focus on activities that contribute to your long-term goals.
Next, learn how to manage your work using an Action Program. This helps you integrate work on long-term and short-term goals, so that you can move forward reliably on both.
Then, start developing the habits needed to make your goal a reality. These might include waking up early, reading business books, or dedicating time every day to work on activities that contribute to your goals. You may need to overcome bad habits, too, such as watching a lot of television, or aimlessly surfing the Web.
If you find that urgent tasks and other interruptions prevent you from working on your long-term objectives, make time to work on your goals when you're unlikely to be distracted – for example, first thing in the morning.
5. Stay on Course
How many times have you started work on a long-term goal with the best intentions, only to find, a few weeks later, that you've lost focus because you've started working on a new goal?
To avoid this, keep a record of new ideas as you have them, but don't take any action on them immediately.
Then, when you review your current goals, ask yourself if these ideas contribute to your long-term objectives. If they do, add them as sub-goals. If they don't, keep a note of them, so that you can analyze them properly when you set new goals. This prevents you from changing direction impulsively.
6. Recognize Progress
You might achieve your long-term goals years or even decades in the future. This is why it's important to recognize and celebrate the small steps you take along the way.
Every day, take a few minutes to look at your progress towards your goal, and pat yourself on the back for what you've done, even if you haven't produced meaningful results.
For bigger milestones, reward yourself with something significant, such as a meal with your partner or a shopping trip. It will be easier to maintain your long-term focus when you take time to recognize these achievements.
Also, research shows that it's easier to stay motivated if you see your goals as an opportunity to learn something new, rather than as a means of doing something. To use this to your advantage when you review your progress, think about what you have learned, rather than about what you have achieved.
Focus is your ability to center your attention and energy on a specific task, object, or activity for a sustained length of time. It allows you to shut out distractions, so that you can work persistently to achieve a desired state or goal.
To develop long-term focus, set meaningful goals that you'll enjoy working towards and that really matter to you; and, write them down. Also, strengthen your self-discipline, and develop the good habits you'll need to move towards your goals in the months and years to come.
Stay on course by not acting impulsively on new ideas, and learn to recognize and celebrate the progress you make, day to day.