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See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency

See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency

If you maximize efficiency, you will provide more value to yourself and others. You will meet goals faster and more consistently. You will live a fuller life, whether that means increasing your wealth, leisure time, or time with family. Fortunately, you can max out your efficiency, or “get in the zone,” by following three simple rules: establish a conducive environment, pursue intentional focus, and eliminate inevitable distractions. These key actions direct your focus to the task at hand and minimize attention to distractions.

I teach and lecture at a major university, write scholarly articles and computer programs, and take PhD. level classes. That is just my “day job.” At night, I like to spend time with my wife and our families, read, write for my blog, and participate in outdoor activities. Just like you, I have big dreams and must work efficiently to meet my goals. But I don’t have the will power to relentlessly work long, mind-numbing days. Perhaps you don’t either. If I want to meet my goals, I must work efficiently.

I haven’t always realized this—it’s actually a new insight for me. In the past, I believed the nonsense about “putting in the hours.” The standard advice goes something like this: “Write down all that you need to do and then do it!” This is most unhelpful because I can’t do that. I am too easily distracted.

I realized that to-do lists, while they have their place, are not the key to efficient production. Instead, I simply needed to annihilate the enemy of productivity: distractions. I knew that if I eliminated distractions, then I would achieve my goals and have more time to pursue other interests.

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Since this insight, I’ve reduced that idea of annihilating distractions to three simple keys. If you do these things, then you’ll maximize efficiency.

Establish an Environment that Is Conducive to Productivity

First, you must establish an environment that is conducive to productivity by removing potential distractions. This means that your desk must have nothing except what you need, including your desk drawers and computer desktop. Any unnecessary item in your work area makes you less efficient. It can physically, mentally, and emotionally hamper your productivity. You have to move the book you don’t need to make room for a needed document. The unfinished spreadsheet on your computer desktop distracts your attention and you need a few seconds to re-establish your momentum. Your cluttered desk drawer makes it harder for you to find what you need and adds more stress to your morning.

Decluttering your workspace is simple. Simply take everything in, on, and around your desk, put it into a huge pile, and put back only the things required for your daily tasks. Throw away everything else or store it somewhere else. It’s that simple.

Application: My desk has a computer, lamp, and whatever I’m working on at that moment. That’s it. I also keep my computer desktop uncluttered. I have no permanent icons on my desktop. When I start working on a particular project, I create shortcut icons to the important files and add these to the desktop. When I am done, I delete them. My desk drawer contains only the supplies that I need on a normal work day (pen, highlighter, labeler, stapler, paper clips, alligator clips, and rubber bands). I keep a legal pad and “collection” basket on a shelf below the desk and out of sight. My waste basket sits beside my desk.

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Remove the clutter from your workspace. This frees your mind, allowing you to be more creative and productive by eliminating many potential distractions before your work even begins.

Achieving an Intentional Focus

Focus rarely appears unexpectedly. Instead, it is intentional. You can achieve focus through a willful effort, but only for a limited time. Fortunately, the “limited time” is enough.

Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This law is a consequence of distractions, which continuously steal value from our lives. What could have been two hours writing a blog post and two hours playing Frisbee with my wife turns into four hours of blogging. You must intentionally counteract this tendency.

Contrary to some who recommend strict deadlines for work (i.e. I’ll stop working on this project at 3 p.m.), I recommend working on projects for as long as you like, but working intensely. This gives you needed flexibility to make intuitive judgments about your time as the work moves forward but eliminates feet-dragging. Working in short intense bursts and taking frequent breaks, known as “pulsing,” allows to work efficiently while maintaining your mental energy. You must defeat Parkinson’s law not through strict deadlines but by working intensely or not at all. Commit yourself to working intensely for a manageable period of time, taking a brief break, and then starting over.

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Application: I use the Pomodora technique, working 25 minutes, taking a five minute break, and then repeating. During my short break, I might get a drink of water, check my e-mail or Twitter feed, or step outside. I only have five minutes, so I don’t worry about these activities getting out of hand. These breaks are refreshing and allow me to start another 25 minute session with a renewed focus. I use the Tomate Timer for Ubuntu to manage my sessions; CherryTomato timer is available for Windows and Mac. But it doesn’t matter what software you use, just find a system that works for you.

While working, make sure that you maximize your focus by working in intense, short sessions with deliberate breaks. This leads to tremendous efficiency, gives you more time to pursue other interests, and adds value to your life and others’.

Develop a System for Dealing with Inevitable Distractions

Despite your efforts to build a distraction-free workspace and work in short, focused sessions, distractions appear that you must deal with. You think of an idea for another project or someone interrupts with a bit of important information. You must collect this information for later, but in a way that does not disrupt your current efficiency. I find the collection system proposed by David Allen helpful for this.

When an important distraction appears, you must get that information off your mind quickly, but ensure you deal with it later. I quickly jot down these distractions and toss them into the collection basket that sits on a shelf under my desk. I go through my collection basket a couple of time each day, reliably, efficiently, and deliberately addressing these potentially disruptive distractions.

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Application: While writing this blog post, a couple of other good ideas came to mind. I simply jotted those ideas down and tossed them into my collection basket under my desk. Since then, I’ve added them as post ideas in my Nevernote software. Because I put the ideas into a system that I trusted, I freed my mind to continue working on the current task without trying to remember it for later or taking care of it now.

Distractions are inevitable. You must build a system that allows you to quickly continue your current work session, but ensures the information is stored and used later. A simple collection basket allows you to do this.

You Can Maximize Efficiency and Offer More Value to Yourself and Others.

You can and should work more efficiently. You deserve more than dragging your feet for eight hours every day. Fortunately, efficient work doesn’t require super-human willpower. It simply requires setting yourself up for success. You must take three steps to maximize your efficiency. No step is difficult, but all require deliberate action. First, you must remove potential distractions from your workspace. You need to deal with these distractions before they slow you down. Second, you must work in intense bursts. If you don’t, your work expands to fill the available space, infringing on time for family, leisure, and entrepreneurial side projects. Finally, you must plan for dealing with the unavoidable distractions that might disrupt your otherwise productive sessions. Quickly jotting down the information and tossing it into a collection basket allows you to get back on track while trusting that you’ll take the necessary actions later. Take these steps, maximize your efficiency, and create relentless value.

What do you think? Have I missed any important keys? How have you implemented these ideas? How else do you maximize efficiency?

Featured photo credit:  chess via Shutterstock

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new:

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

The bottom line

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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