Information overload, endless notifications, interruptions, and distractions: it’s all too much. Here’s how to develop your skill for improving your focus at work.
Focus is the ability to keep your attention on one thing at a time, as long as needed. It sounds simple—and in theory, it is—but in practice it can be quite difficult. Our world is full of information and distractions.
We have many inputs to check, and often we have multiple priorities. When we focus on one thing, we’re saying “No” to all other options for a time. If we feel unsure about which priority comes first, or worried about missing something important, being focused feels like taking a big risk.
However, it’s been well-proven that multi-tasking, the alternative to focus, is not an effective way to work. Multi-tasking isn’t multi-tasking at all; it’s rapid task-switching, in which we require our brains to jump from one context, task, input, or priority to another rapidly. Every time we shift our attention, our brains need time to assess, understand, and choose which action to take. While this mental work often happens unconsciously, it still takes energy and time. Over hours and days, this energy and time cost can become quite high. We feel busy, tired, and overworked, but we don’t enjoy the benefits of having focused and finished one thing at a time.
Fortunately, being focused is a skill to develop. If you’re not good at focusing, don’t worry: you can get better. Like any skill, it’s more difficult when you’re first learning. As you practice, you get better and better. Soon, being focused will feel natural and you’ll enjoy the calmness and satisfaction that comes with focused work.
Here are some techniques to help you develop your skill of focusing.
Plan your day and your top tasks
Choosing what to focus on is the first step to being focused. Before your work day starts, set aside ten to fifteen minutes and think about the top tasks for the day. Limit yourself to 2 or 3 tasks. Choosing more will make you feel scattered. It may seem like 3 important tasks are not nearly enough; however, a little accomplished each day will add up to great progress over time.
If your mornings are too hectic for planning, take time at the end of each workday to make a plan and set your top priority tasks for the following day.
Set time limits for your top tasks
The work we need to do has a tendency to expand: it will take all the time we give it. However, if we set hard time limits, we’re often capable of achieving more in less time.
Focused work is also more rewarding when it allows us to complete something. Give yourself a time limit for each day’s most important tasks. Then get the information or resources you need, set a timer, and work with focus until the time is up.
Think about the end result
Sometimes it’s difficult to connect the needs of the moment with a high-level view. Team members have urgent needs, customers and clients have questions, the schedule gets packed, and before you know it, the day is over. To help yourself get back to being focused, think about the end result of each choice. What will be accomplished? What will be left undone?
It can be motivating (and sobering) to ask yourself, “How do I want to feel at the end of this day?” Then think about what you need to do in order to end the day with that feeling.
Schedule blocks of time
Not many of us have complete control over every part of our schedule. However, within the limits we do have, we can choose how to use each hour. Try scheduling blocks of time for certain areas or tasks that you need to accomplish:
- A morning block of time for responding to all messages
- A morning block of time for working on your top tasks for the day
- A block of time for lunch and walk, so you can be refreshed and ready to focus again
- An afternoon block of time for helping your team members on their projects
- An afternoon block of time for planning your next workday.
How long should a block of time be? As long as you have, and as long as it needs to be. If you have unscheduled hours in the morning, and three tasks to accomplish, you could block one hour for each task. Remember that a task will expand to fill the time you give it: you may be able to spend two hours processing email each morning, but is that what you want to do? Instead, you could limit your email time to 45 minutes, and spend the remaining block of time on work that is more important.
Check inputs on your schedule
This technique isn’t possible for everyone, of course. Sometimes your job or other dependencies require you to be on-call, or able to provide immediate responses. However, if you have leeway in how you process incoming messages, try scheduling a time instead of responding to each notification. Incoming messages, information, and other inputs take a lot of attention and make it difficult to focus. When you mute notifications, and check inputs on your timing, you free your brain to be focused on the task at hand.
If you’ve set a precedent of being reachable at all hours, or providing immediate responses anytime, it will take some time to reset expectations. You can set up an autoresponse for your email indicating when you’ll be available. The key is consistency: set a schedule and, barring a crisis situation, stick with it. People will learn when you can be reached and how soon you will respond, and adjust to it. In the meantime, you’ll be able to stay focused, finish more work, think more clearly, and provide better help to those who depend on you. It’s a worthy adjustment.