Ever experienced this? You get to the office, have a cup of coffee, and get ready to start your day. But from the minute your colleagues start, that’s it, somehow, all you had planned goes out of the door – your attention gets hijacked by a steady stream of ad hoc requests and petty issues.
It’s not until everyone leaves again that you can go back to the working on the important things. The only problem is, it becomes tough to leave the office on time. It’s little wonder that a recent study by Deloitte showed that two thirds of corporate workers feel “overwhelmed”, and 80% wanted to do fewer hours.
My own study, with 390 working professionals, showed similar results. Many said it was difficult to stay focused because of ongoing distractions. And that’s why I wrote this article. What follows are five key strategies to improve your focus and reduce distraction.
1. Clarify Your End Goal
There many places you could put your attention. But how do you know what’s best? Imagine a military commander getting ready for battle. If he’s good, before any fighting happens, he rallies his troops and he details a thorough strategy for dealing with the enemy.
By giving his troops this clarity, he drastically improves their chances of being victorious. Similarly, setting well defined goals clarifies what you’re shooting for. It puts your efforts in context. It keeps you on track. It gives you indications of where to start. The first step in improving your focus is defining your goals. There are various ways to do that, but for the sake of brevity, let’s keep this simple.
- Take a few minutes to brainstorm a list of things that you desire in your career and your life. When coming up with ideas, don’t judge yourself or limit your desires. Simply write down whatever excites you, however big or small they are. Nobody else needs to see this. You’re simply exploring different possibilities.
- Give your goals some concreteness. Be specific. Provide details about what defines successful outcomes, and when you realistically expect to achieve results.
- Once you’ve got several ideas going, rank them in order of their importance. The top few items on that list should motivate you. (If they don’t, you need to keep at it until you have a list of things that get you excited.)
2. Know Where to Focus
Out of your list of goals, choose one on which to place most your focus. The one goal you select, when completed, should help you achieve many of your other goals. It’s like killing five birds with one stone. This might sound counter intuitive, but you’ll achieve more when you focus on one thing for extended periods of time, than if you multitask.
Next, break your goal down into smaller pieces. Doing so will give you clarity about the specific steps you need to take. It will also give you motivation, because a series of small efforts are far easier to imagine than a single big one.
Try to sequence your efforts to give yourself the biggest advantage upfront. The faster you benefit from your efforts, the better.
Once you have prioritized your steps, you’ll have confidence your focus is on the right thing. You’ll also feel like you’re being responsible towards the other people you work with.
3. Access Maximum Willpower
As you tackle your goals, you may struggle. And maintaining focus amid difficulties takes willpower. In the 1960s, researcher Walter Mischel performed a famous study The Marshmallow Experiment with preschoolers. Experimenters offered the kids a single marshmallow, and were told that if they could wait until the attendant returned, they’d receive an additional one. Certain kids found ways to resist the urge to eat the marshmallow, while others didn’t.
Years later, in a follow up study, Mischel found that those with higher levels of self control experienced more positive outcomes, compared to the other subjects. Developing this idea further, in 1998, studies by Roy Baumeister demonstrated how willpower behaves like a muscle. For example, willpower becomes weaker with exertion, but when rested, it recovers again. When you use willpower on one task, you have less for subsequent ones.
Even seemingly harmless things like seeing an email notification, or hearing a phone alert, depletes your reserves. Hence, when working on your day’s main focus, you must reserve enough willpower so you can get it done. That’s why I recommend you work on your key task first, before email or meetings – because that’s when you still you have plenty of ‘juice left in the tank’.
4. Shield Yourself From Distractions
Distractions like email alerts, social media updates, surfing the web, playing games, phone calls, and work colleagues asking “Have you got a moment?”, will break your focused flow. If you allow them to happen, distractions will rob you of the opportunity to complete important tasks.
Now, while you can’t eliminate all distractions, it’s certainly possible to minimize most. Here’s how:
- Clear your desk and office of clutter. Only have things on your desk that you need for the task at hand.
- During focused work periods, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.
- Close all applications and browser windows that you’re not immediately using for the task at hand. Mute all phone, email, social media, and Internet notifications. (Set aside a window of time during the day when you can batch process these types of activities in one go.)
5. Take Frequent Breaks
Like a muscle, your willpower somewhat recovers when you rest, making it easier to maintain focus throughout the entire day. That’s why you should get into the habit of taking short, frequent breaks. Some people find it difficult stop what they’re doing. To handle this, I find it’s best to use an alarm or egg timer. When the alarm goes off, that reminds you to take a break.
This is how to use a timer to manage your work periods:
- Set the timer to between 25 – 50 minutes. If you find yourself craving to do something distracting like reading email, social media, or web surfing, experiment with shortening the work duration.
- Focus intensely on the task at hand. Do not allow yourself to deviate.
- When the timer goes off, immediately stop. Take 5 minutes to physically get up, walk around, drink a glass of water, get some air, or do some stretches.
Bringing It All Together
While we live in a frantic world, it doesn’t mean that you have to be. When you are clear about your goals, the steps for getting there, how to leverage your willpower, and how to stay focused, you will make steady progress.
The 5 strategies I’ve shared here will help you toward that end. At first, they might might seem tricky. But over time, with practice, you’ll become more and more proficient. If I’ve provoked your thoughts on this subject, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
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