I hear time and time again about the challenges people face when trying to keep “focused” on their work. I have the same dilemmas with our interrupt driven workplaces stealing our attention away from the work at hand. How do we block out the distractions, get work done, and avoid acting like the troll living under a bridge? Here are some of the techniques I use that might just work for you as well.
The investment in a good pair (not necessarily expensive) headphones can pay dividends when it comes to productivity almost immediately. If you work in an open office environment headphones are almost mandatory. First, check with your office and see if you are allowed to wear headphones while working (some places still operate with an 18th century mentality…please sir, may I have some more coal?) If you’re allowed I recommend getting headphones that people can see you have on. I know, your snazzy smartphone came with ear buds or you just spent way too much money on a pair, but if people can’t see you have your ears blocked you lose half the benefit of the headphones. The pair I’m currently enjoying are the Ghostek Bluetooth headphones from Amazon. At $30 they’re a steal for long battery life, good audio quality, and a comfortable fit. The additional benefit is there’s no mistaking when you have them on. One of the biggest benefits of headphones is they act as a “do not disturb” light for your head. Unfortunately not everyone respects this, but it does cut the interruptions down significantly.
Capture, don’t do
Information is so readily available today it’s a simple matter to pop open another browser tab when working and go running down a digital rabbit hole before you know it. You’re working away happily when that random thought pops into your head. We’ve all experienced it.
“I wonder what day the next Star Wars movie opens?” for example. Rather than looking up the answer, capture the thought. My tool of choice for this Todoist. Aside from it’s many other strengths one of it’s greatest is the natural language method you can use to capture tasks. Now when I have that thought of something I might want to do or look up, I pop open Todoist (I keep it pinned to my taskbar on my Chromebook and Windows 10 machines) press Ctrl-Q on my keyboard, type in what I want to look up later, and then add it to an appropriate project such as “Things to look up” by ending the line with a # and the name of the project. Press enter and it’s done. It won’t get lost, forgotten, or missed. Later, when I have time to process this unimportant and non-urgent task it’s ready and waiting for me.
I’ve found through years of introspection that when I’m struggling to maintain focus on my task at hand, it’s really my brain’s not so subtle way of telling me it needs a chance to reset. Now I’m not talking about putting away the work I’m doing and fully moving on to something else. What I’m talking about is “task candy”. In an office you’ll see this all the time. When someone needs a break they get up and raid their neighbor’s candy jar, take a moment to savor the treat, and then sit back down to get back to work. What they’re doing is giving their brain a chance to “clear the buffers” so to speak before going back at the task. I’m not advocating raiding the candy jar (but if it works who am I to judge?) Instead, keep some small, quick, low effort tasks in your task list. Something like “shred old notes” is a great one. When I can’t keep focus, I take some papers that need to be destroyed over to the shredder and put them out of their misery. That manual process, change of location, movement, and completely unrelated thought process gives my brain a chance to “purge the buffers” so when I sit back down I have space in my mental RAM to tackle the problem again. Remember, the trick is keep it little. Just like the candy jar you want tasks that are like a peppermint LifeSaver and not like a full size Three Musketeers bar.
There are literally hundreds of hacks out there to help you maintain your focus. Many of them won’t work for you (that’s just the nature of hacks) but some will. Look them over, trust your gut, and remember at the end of the day anything you do to help you get over the hurdle blocking your productivity is a good thing for you.
What do you do to get back on track? Join us in the Productive Professionals community and share what you know.