We all could stand to be more productive, right? Even while I’m typing this, I’m thinking about what to do for dinner, how my dogs are feeling and if the weather is going to clear up this weekend for a day of hiking outside. But here’s the problem: while I’m thinking about all those things, I’m not terribly focused on my work. (Sorry, editor.)
The problem is distraction — and it’s widespread. Thanks to new technologies and increasing demands on employees’ time and attention, it’s harder than ever to buckle down to work and get stuff done. Plus, all that task-switching costs something.
“Every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metabolic resources,” writes David Rock, Founder and Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, at Psychology Today. “Studies show that each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high-energy tasks like self control or decision making. So distractions really take their toll.”
Of course, you can’t change the culture all by yourself. But you can take steps to make yourself less distracted and more productive.
1. Make the robots work for you
Tech can be your best friend or your worst enemy when it comes to focus. Instead of letting social media *ping* your way to a pink slip at work, you can make those apps help you get ahead.
- Try cutting down your social media usage. Select apps or browser extensions that will limit how much time you spend on these distractions. ZDNet likes the Chrome extension Stay Focused, which lets you say “block these time suck sites” for a while and set your own parameters for focused work.
- Instagram, Facebook and YouTube all now offer a setting where you set your time limits each day. It’ll alert you when you’ve hit your daily cap, and then you decide where to go from there (sign out or keep wasting time). You’d be surprised how fast 30 minutes adds up when you’re scrolling the ‘gram.
- You can also set screentime limits on your phone in general, which is great when you just can’t put the dang thing down. The new iPhone iOS 12 lets you do this within Settings, plus get reports on your weekly usage.
2. Try the carrot method
Do you have a good reward system in place for your workday? Maybe you should. Instead of using coffee runs and errands as procrastination techniques, set them as rewards. Spend two hours focusing on research — go get coffee. Hit a deadline — go for a walk.
Otherwise, you might spend hours each day on all those little things and then — poof! — you’ll be doing all the work while crying between 4 and 5 p.m.
Some great rewards for getting things done (that won’t then lead to a black hole of wasted time) can include:
- A walk around the building/block/house for some non-sitting time.
- A tasty (quick) snack that won’t leave you feeling bad or sleepy and unmotivated.
- A 10-minute trip outside with your dog to play ball.
- A quick (timed) break to surf the internet with abandon.
- Watching one quick YouTube video of something that will cheer you up and bring you joy.
But always remember that work follows reward. If life were just carrots, we’d all be drowning in vegetables.
3. Get your tomatoes in order with the Pomodoro Technique
While some people have trouble working for too long without a break, some of us just need structure to our day. The Pomodoro Technique is a noted work strategy that schedules a good chunk of work-time, followed by a brief break. There are even apps you can use that follow this schedule, so you get a beep to work and another when it’s break-time. It might seem silly, but for those of us without a real rigid schedule to our workday, it can be helpful to just have a system in place.
Try an app if you don’t want to lug around an egg timer everywhere. You can just utilize your timer function at first, or try a dedicated app that uses the technique in cool ways. Some sync up across mobile and desktop so you won’t cheat on one with the other. Others give you statistics and data to chart your successes, or let you note what distracted you so that you can work to eliminate or ignore them in the future. Some even sync up with project management software like Trello.
Think of this technique like doing sprints at the gym. No matter what, you don’t quit that hard work until time is called. Then you get a break and you recover. The more sprint work you do, the easier it gets. You still get your short break-time, but you no longer feel like you’re going to die near the end of the work period.
4. Cut the cord
For those of us who are connected to the outside world by WiFi, it’s easy to “unplug” and lose those online distractions. If you don’t need to be online to do a task, why not do a virtual cord cut and hit that little pie wedge on your status bar? You can set a timer, and come back to your favorite distractions in a little while.
While programs like Slack are supposed to help us stay connected with our teammates, they can also be a real time suck. Lucky for you they also have built in “do not disturb” settings you can utilize during the workday. If you’re looking for real focused time, and don’t have the luxury of closing that office door for some heads down work time, then try adjusting your settings so nobody bugs you for a bit. (It’s also a great setting to use when you want a bit more work/life balance, too).
Or, choose to work somewhere that’s nice, but offline. Pick a nice picnic table in the park, or a spot down by the river, and get some thinking done. Sometimes we need to stay disconnected to avoid those clicks into unfocused time. It’s OK to realize that about your work style — and to do something about it.
5. Tell a friend not to talk to you
Getting accountability is an awesome way to find your focus. And if you have that one friend you always seek out to just “have a chat,” and it turns into an all-day gabfest, then you might want to let them know you’re trying to get more focus. Having buds at work is excellent for maintaining your sanity, but not at the cost of actually getting stuff done. If your friend knows you have a big deadline coming up, they hopefully won’t message you all day long with those awesome dog GIFs. (Save it for 5 p.m., then hit me with all the fuzzy doggos, friend).
If it’s physical distractions you’re trying to avoid, think about having some real deal signals at your desk. If you can’t get a big Do Not Disturb sign, then think more subtle — like a literal red flag you put out, or a frowny-face poster on your computer monitor. That way, when your friend comes around the corner, they can see you’re trying to avoid the temptation and can skedaddle.
6. Get real about a schedule
Is your day totally up to you? Whether you’re just out of school (and used to a class schedule) or working for yourself, you probably need a little bit more structure to stay focused. So make one up! Yes, it’s that easy. Instead of letting things happen — because chances are, they won’t — impose a daily schedule on yourself and see how it goes.
Like to wake up early? Great! Enjoy that sunrise, get a workout in, sip on your coffee and then get to work from 8 to 11 a.m. Want to go to the gym at lunch instead? No problem! Factor in exercise where and when you prefer to do it, but don’t leave that break to chance or else you might find yourself skipping workouts and getting little done in the afternoons, too. It’s up to you!
The great thing about setting your own schedule is that you can tweak it whenever you want. But if you don’t follow it at least a little and give it a try, then you’re just back to that slippery slope of “just one more episode” and sooner or later your lights are going to get shut off.
7. Break it all down
Getting bite-sized with that huge project can be the best way to find your focus. Have a giant report to tackle? Jot down steps one through three, then get going on something you can tackle immediately. If you’re looking for more resources or feedback from someone, go ahead and write that email or make that phone call so you’re not stuck and twiddling your thumbs. Focus on what you can do to move the project forward even a tiny bit, and you’ll find you can be much more productive.
In the same vein, you can break your seemingly endless list of to-do’s into something easier by breaking down your workday. Try just making three goals that you can accomplish for the day. That may not sound like much, but they should be the most important, time-sensitive and highest value items on your list for the day.
“By limiting the number of daily goals, you’ll have clearly defined what you need to work on,” writes Deep Patel in Entrepreneur. “You’ll work with greater intention on those tasks and your mind will be less apt to stray. Ask yourself every morning: What are the three most important things to accomplish today? Any other tasks should be put on a separate to-do list. You can begin to tackle those less-important tasks once you’ve accomplished the first 3 goals.”
Really focus isn’t about being “stronger” or “more adult” at work, and struggling with focus doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or even a bad worker. It’s unfortunately just another part of the crazy world we live in.
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