The ability to maintain focus is a major part of productivity. When you have to work long hours, you have many things to do, or you have a great deal on your mind, focus goes right out the window. If you can’t maintain focus, no matter how many hours you put in or how hard you work, things don’t get done well or quickly.
Focus on Goals
Focus starts with establishing clear goals. When you sit down to accomplish a task, that task needs to be at the forefront of your mind. For example, you sit down to write an email to a friend and your focus is stolen away by the Pied Piper of Facebook. If you stay focused on the goal at hand (writing to your friend), you can effectively ignore the lure of social media and get the task done. It’s important to maintain focus and concentrate on your goals.
Creating a Prioritized To-Do List
The best way to create and maintain focus for the things you have to do each day is to start with goals, and from them extrapolate smaller goals (or milestones along the way) and from them, specific tasks.
If you want to clean the house, you have to start with one room and then move on to the next. If you want to create your own internet-based business, you have to start with a business plan, then build a website, and so on. This is how we get things done, by ensuring we maintain focus on one task at a time.
Take a large goal and make a list of all of the things that need to be done in order to achieve it. Some items on this list may arrange themselves by priority naturally. To take the example of starting your own business again, you need a business name before you can create a website.
But other tasks on that list aren’t so easily prioritized. There are many methods for prioritizing, but the simplest is this: Imagine that you will get only one list item done today. Which list item would it be?
Of course, you’ll get more than one item done. But this helps you isolate the first and most important item. Once you’ve identified this item and put it at the top of your list, repeat. If you could only get two things done today, which of the remaining items would be next? Keep repeating this as you put each list item into its rightful place.
Another simple idea is to assign a deadline to each list item. Not every item on your list has a real deadline and, in fact, it’s possible that none of them do. But by giving each task a deadline, you’re putting the list into priority by urgency. Put the item with the nearest deadline at the top and organize the rest accordingly.
One To-Do List
After you’ve extrapolated tasks and put them in order, you’ll have a nicely organized to-do list. You can start at the top and work your way down. This is very simple but there are some ways you can streamline your to-do list for maximum productivity.
First, you should have only one to-do list. If you have many types of things to do today – some work-related, some around the house, some purely for your own enjoyment – you may be tempted to make a different list for each category. But if you do this, you’ve destroyed the simple beauty of the to-do list. Now you have multiple lists and don’t know where to start.
Instead, you should put everything on one list. You may want to prioritize different item categories or areas. For example, start with work-related tasks. Once those are crossed off your list, tackle the housework or errands. Save the leisure items for the end of the day when you can enjoy them.
If you’re like many busy people, you love lists. Once you start writing down items into list form, you keep adding everything you can think of until you have a massive list as long as your arm. When this happens, you end up with list clutter, or items you don’t really need to have there.
To keep your to-do list under control, it’s important to eliminate non-essentials. Try creating a second list for things that really aren’t pressing at all but that you’d like to do whenever you have time. You can move non-essential items to this list and you won’t forget these items, but they won’t clutter up your main list. You may even find that your second list can be eliminated entirely.
Sometimes it’s helpful to set a limit on list items. After all, there is only so much you can do in one day. This is especially helpful with work-related tasks. If you have a set working time, this means you have a time limit for finishing tasks. In this case, you may choose to set a limit of only five items per day. If you finish today’s items, you can start on tomorrows.
Scheduling Time for Focus
Time has an important relationship with focus. If you set aside some time to accomplish a task, you can put all of your focus on that task. You know that you have only an hour, so you stay on task. On the other hand, if you work on something for too long, you may find it difficult to maintain focus and burn out.
A good way to manage time is to take long-term tasks (those that take several hours or days) and break them into bite-sized daily chunks. Set aside, for example, an hour a day for each of your long-term tasks. This allows you enough time to get fully into the task without losing focus. Then, you quit for the day long before you’ve burned out, and thus you can approach it feeling fresh tomorrow.
One of the best productivity tools in the world is the simple kitchen timer. Setting timers helps you forget about your schedule and just focus on the task. The timer will let you know when it’s time to stop. Depending on the nature of the project, you may want to set your timer to go off five minutes before the actual stopping time. This gives you a warning to wrap things up.
One of the greatest productivity myths is the idea that multi-tasking helps you get more done. It makes sense in some ways; by working on several things at once, you’re making the best use of your time. But multi-tasking ruins your focus. When juggling multiple tasks, you’re not giving any one task the full attention it deserves. Even when you have a great deal to do, you should only work on one task at a time.
Know the Warning Signs
How do you know when you start losing focus? Maybe it’s when you start thinking about other things. Maybe there’s a physical response, such as fidgeting or slumping in your chair. Perhaps you have a sudden desire to grab the sides of your head and run from your office screaming.
Learn to recognize the warning signs that tell you you’re losing focus. When you feel burnout coming on, set your work aside. Get up from your desk or workstation and physically move to another part of your home or office. Relax and do some other activity to give your brain a break.
Identify Other Focus Killers
Notifications, multitasking and burnout are all focus killers. There may be other distractions as well that destroy your focus. Try to identify these focus killers and develop a strategy for dealing with them.
With the advent of personal computers and mobile devices, we have all kinds of electronic beeps and bell-tones to let us know someone is trying to reach us. These are handy in daily life, but not when you’re trying to focus. During the times when you really need to work, turn off all notifications. If necessary, let people know that you’re busy and unavailable. You may want to set aside a certain time during the day or to-do list item for handling communications.
There may be certain times of day when your focus is under attack. For example, if you work at home, three o’clock when the kids come home may be a focus killer. No matter how you lock yourself in your office, the sound of the kids getting home might be a distraction. If you know that it is, try to arrange your schedule so that you’re taking a break at that time.
Develop a Pre-Work Ritual
We’ve mostly talked about how to eliminate things that destroy focus, but what about getting into a focused state of mind? The best way to harness your focus is to create a pre-work ritual. This is a simple ritual that gets you into the right state of mind. It could be something like meditation, yoga or listening to music. It might be reading a book to get your brain activated. Figure out something that works for you and employ it when you need it.
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Till Next Time
Mike Gardner is The Time Doctor