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Stay Focused At Work With These 10 Tips

Stay Focused At Work With These 10 Tips
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Staying focused at work is a constant challenge. If it’s not a coworker wanting to chat, your phone beeping at you, or a hundred emails filling up your inbox, it’s your own mind’s tendency to wander. Here are ten tips to help you deal with distractions and stay focused on your work.

1. Be honest.

Revolutionary, I know.

But maybe you should try it, as long as you can remember that being honest doesn’t mean being rude. It means simply telling people the truth, in a courteous way. For example, try being honest when the chatty coworker stops by and says, “Got a minute?” Or when you get a text from your drama-loving friend. Or when your mom sends an email wanting your help “real quick!” with booking a hotel for her next visit. To all these requests, you need to speak the truth: “I can’t right now. I’m working.”

Feel free to follow up with an alternative:

  • Try asking so-and-so.
  • Check with me after work.
  • I’ll do this at my next break.
  • Remind me on the weekend.
  • Let’s talk about it next time I see you.

2. Put a mind map right in front of you.

Not any mind map. One that shows a visual progression of you staying focused at work and how that leads to your goals.

What are your goals at work?

To be the mediocre employee who does a half-hearted job? I think not.

Even if this job isn’t your dream job, doing your best at it will open up more opportunities for you, gain you more skills, and lead you to better places. So map it out and then put that map where you can see it and remind yourself that, yes, staying focused really does matter.

3. Make a bet.

Surely some of your co-workers or friends also struggle with staying focused and being productive.

It’s time to make it matter where it hurts: in the wallet.

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Make a friendly bet over who can accomplish more in the day or week. Of course, you don’t even have to bet money. You can bet on who has to clean out the office fridge or be the designated driver next weekend.

4. Wear headphones.

Even if you don’t listen to anything, putting headphones on signals to other people that you are not available.

So bring a pair of those giant headphones, put them on, and get to work. Take them off during breaks or when you’re free for a chat. If you can do your work while listening to music or podcasts, do it. It will help you ignore the ambient noise and background conversations which can so easily break your concentration.

5. Use a timer.

Go to the nearest dollar store and get a cheap kitchen timer. Sure, I know; you could use the one on your phone or computer. But the point is to stay focused, and opening up another app or tab is just going to give you an opportunity to check Facebook real quick, or answer that text, or look up that one thing…

You know where that goes.

Instead, buy a timer that does one thing and one thing only: times you as you work. Put it in front of you at your workspace, set it for 15 minutes, and ask yourself to focus on your work until the timer goes off.

When the timer goes off, you can either take a 2-minute breather, or you can keep plugging away.

Every day, increase your “focus time” by a couple of minutes until you work your way up to focusing for 45 or 50 minutes at a time. Be sure to take a 5-minute break after your longer focus time so your brain can recharge and be ready to go again.

6. Be stupid-simple about what you’re doing.

Here’s where most of us get hung up on focusing at work: we ask ourselves to do some big, hairy, enormous task. Our brains freak out and want to run away, which we do by playing Candy Crush or answering pointless emails.

Your brain needs specific tasks to accomplish, not big, huge, vague, intimidating mountains to climb.

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Start telling yourself what you’re doing in the simplest of terms. Dumb it down until you feel a little silly about it.

  • “I’m going choose one color for this design scheme.”
  • “I’m going to write two sentences of this blog post.”
  • “I’m going to file one paper.”

What this does is give your brain a specific, understandable, and easy starting point.

And once you get started, you can keep going.

7. Use the 5-10-40 rule.

Okay, this isn’t really a rule. It’s just a thing I made up that works.

Feel free to steal and use.

Here’s how it works.

You need that timer. Remember, the one you bought? Right. Set it for five minutes. Now spend five minutes figuring out what it is you need to focus on next.

Next, set the timer for 10 minutes, and spend 10 minutes figuring out exactly what needs to be done in that area you need to focus on. Make a list, brainstorm, create a mind map, check your research or project emails, do whatever you need to and create a guideline of the specific (stupid-simple) tasks that need to be accomplished and in what order.

Next, set your timer for 40 minutes and start working your way through those actions, one at a time. If you only get one accomplished in 40 minutes, that’s okay. Scratch it off, take a five-minute break, and then come back and tackle the next one.

8. Write a single sentence about your day.

For this to work, it’s best to do it at the beginning of the day.

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That’s right. You’re not writing a progress report or a log of your work day. You’re simply taking a couple of minutes, at the beginning of the day, to write a single sentence.

And that single sentence should say exactly what your day will have looked like if you stay focused.

  • “Today I wrote 3,000 words and researched two new articles.”
  • “Today I finished that report and turned it in.”
  • “Today I created a great design mock-up for my biggest client.”
  • “Today I landed two new customers.”

What does your day look like, how much do you accomplish, when you stay focused?

Remind yourself of that possibility at the beginning of the day, and you’re much more likely to do it.

9. Keep a progress meter.

You know those poster board signs with the badly drawn graphics people use when they’re fundraising for some worthy cause?

Make one of those.

It doesn’t have to be on poster board, of course. You can use a Post-It. An index card. The back of your hand. The sketchpad on your phone or tablet. A document in your computer.

Whatever.

Break down your current big project into steps. Then draw that representation of a ladder or gauge or arrow, mark different spots for each step, and fill it in as you accomplish those steps.

There’s something really powerful about seeing your progress toward a goal in a simple, visual way.

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10. Use the index card method.

Sometimes we have so much to do that we simply get too overwhelmed to start.

To help yourself focus on a few important tasks, get an index card. Look at your long, long list and your calendar, and choose three things. The most important three things, the highest priority out of all the stuff you really need to do.

Write them down on your index card.

Now flip the card over, and on that side, write down at least one of the following:

  • a reward of some kind (gourmet coffee, chat with a friend)
  • a work task you really like to do
  • a task which you really feel good about accomplishing, but which isn’t one of the top priorities

Your top three tasks are your focus for the day.

If you do them, you get to flip the card over and get/do whatever is on the other side. (So be sure it’s something you like.)

Here’s the final trick to making this method awesome: save your index cards. That’s right. Don’t throw them away.

Stick them in a drawer, and when you’re feeling distracted or discouraged, pull them out and look at all those scratched-off items. You did that. You. You focused on a few important things, accomplished them, and reaped the rewards.

And you can do it again.

Featured photo credit: hang_in_there via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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