Like most people, I find it increasingly difficult to focus at work these days. The endless flow of e-mail, text messages and social media plays havoc with my productivity more often than I care to admit.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a self-employed home-based worker, I don’t have to deal with the disruptions of a more conventional workplace: office gossip, annoying co-workers and endless meetings, to name a few.
The truth is, distractions and productivity obstacles lurk everywhere in our 24/7 wired world. They can seriously disrupt your job performance and make your workdays longer. On top of that, the added stress isn’t good for you. A new study published in the British medical journal the Lancet found the more hours people work, the higher their risk of stroke.
So allow me to share some pointers I picked up at a workshop called Tips and Tactics to Focus on Your Content and Get More Things Done presented by Sam Horn and Danielle Faust during the recent BlogHer15 conference.
The next time you sit down to start work, Horn says, try putting clear boundaries around your assignments.
Horn is a speaker, communications consultant and author of several books including the useful ConZENtrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention —When Life Is Filled with Pressures, Distractions, and Multiple Priorities. Faust juggles her successful lifestyle blog OKDani.com, and a coaching business, while caring for two toddlers.
Clearly, these two busy and successful women get the productivity thing. I think you’ll find their advice can help you minimize the impact of work distractions, improve your output and give yourself more time to enjoy your personal life.
Horn’s 5 FOCUS Tips to Improve Focus
Horn offered five ways to improve concentration using the clever FOCUS acronym:
F is for the Five More Rule. The next time you find yourself getting frustrated and ready to quit a task, Horn says, push yourself to just do “five more.” What that means specifically depends on the task at hand.
It could translate to five more minutes of writing, logging five more entries on a spreadsheet or placing five more sales calls.
Just as athletes often get a second wind by pushing past a momentary cramp, you’ll build mental muscle if you practice not giving in as soon as your willpower fizzles. Interestingly, many people find (as I did) that once you get your focus back on track, you actually want to keep working past just “five more.”
O is for One Think at a Time. Ever feel like your brain is overflowing with information? Me, too. For example, as soon as I started writing this blog post, a voice in my head reminded me to order paper goods for an upcoming party, message my daughter about dinner plans, call the plumber about a leaky faucet and…well, you get the idea.
Fortunately, I took Horn’s suggestion for this tip and began keeping a notebook nearby. Now I have a convenient place to jot down all those random, distracting thoughts interrupting my flow. While this system isn’t foolproof, it helps keep me on track more often than not.
Horn picked up the strategy while speaking with author Frank (Angela’s Ashes) McCourt. He kept two notebooks by his side, one for his “real” writing and one to record his random thoughts.
C is for Conquer Procrastination. All of us put off doing tasks and projects that really need to get done. The next time you go into stall mode, Horn recommends considering three key questions:
- Do I have to do this?
- Do I want it over so it won’t cause me guilt or frustration?
- Will it be any easier later?
By asking them, you’ll be forced to confront the reality that a) the task isn’t going away by itself and b) you’ll feel better once it’s done.
It works. Last week, I was dreading having to complete a lengthy tourist visa application for an upcoming trip to India (the type of mindless task I typically avoid like the plague). By consciously acknowledging that it had to get done and that waiting would not make it any easier, however, I buckled down and knocked it off my to-do list — much sooner and with far less angst than usual.
U is for Use Pavlovian Rituals. Many professionals start their work with a ritual-like practice: doctors scrub up before surgery, musicians play scales, tennis players bounce a ball three times before serving. The rituals signal to the brain: “Game On!” Horn recommends we all create rituals to facilitate better focus.
For a home-based writer, it could mean going to a library as a signal that it’s time to write. If you work in a conventional office, turning off your cell phone and clearing papers off your desk can get you to focus on an important project. Whatever ritual you choose, using it consistently can help train your brain to switch into focus mode on command.
S is for Set Specific Start and End Times. To become more productive, it’s important to give your brain specific and clear instructions. So the next time you sit down to start work, Horn says, try putting clear boundaries around your assignments. For instance: “I will write and print out the agenda for today’s meeting between 10:00 and 10:45.”
You won’t always get the job done in the time allotted, but the use of clear marching orders will help you focused and boost your productivity.
Faust’s 3 Time Management and Organizational Tips
Faust had a number of clever organizational tips. Here are three of my favorites:
1. Use smart apps and tools to better manage projects and stay organized. Four she recommended:
GoogleDocs It lets you create, edit and share documents online for free.
Aquanotes This is a low-tech aid that’ll come in handy if your best ideas come to you in the shower. Aquanotes are waterproof notepads whose tagline is: “No more great ideas down the drain.” Cost: $7 for 40 sheets of $28 for a five-pack.
Trello The free project management tool helps you ditch the “out-of-date spreadsheets, no-longer-so-sticky notes and clunky software” that plague many work assignments. It’s available in apps for the web, Android and Apple devices.
Asana The web and mobile application is designed to help teams plan and manage projects online, without using e-mail. It’s free for teams of up to 15 people.
2. Practice a Power Hour. What’s a Power Hour? It’s 60 minutes when you buckle yourself to a seat and do what needs to get done — no distractions, no email, no excuses. At the end of the hour, you’re free to move on. Many motivational speakers and time-management gurus, such as Tony Robbins, are fans.
Give it a go. You’ll be amazed how one focused hour often yields far greater results than a distraction-filled five-hour slot.
3. Schedule in guilt-free relaxation. Avoid getting carried away and over-scheduling your life. As Faust said to laughter from the crowd: “Don’t should all over yourself.” Remember to leave time for fun and relaxation, no matter how busy you are.
Taking time to relax and refresh, even if it’s only an hour or two, is invaluable for your psyche — and provides the extra energy needed to more fully engage the rest of the day.
Now, with this post out of the way, I’m taking my own advice and I’m off for a walk! See ya.