“Getting distracted is what I do best. I could write half a book about it.”
If you’re reading this post, you’re probably distracted right now – taking a “break” from whichever critical fire you’re putting out, and you got enticed by my catchy headline. Sorry for the clickbait, btw.
However, this is a very serious problem, one that arises frequently in discussions with colleagues, family, friends and acquaintances. No matter your age or occupation, TIME is your most valuable, scarce and non-renewable resource. So, how do we maximize our time and stay focused in an age of constant distraction?
I’ve tried many techniques, tricks, trends and tactics to overcome my undiagnosed ADHD, convinced I do not need medication, just a boost to my willpower. Here’s what I’ve learned to do when it’s absolutely critical to stay on task and not get sucked into the downward spiral of gorging on Reddit, browsing Facebook or never-ending content consumption on those pesky tech news sites.
1. Establish A Morning Routine.
Maximizing your time begins with a consistent and productive morning routine. Start building habits now that will take care of your health (mind, body and spirit) today – your future self will thank you. My routine looks like this: Wake Up, Brush Teeth, Drink Water, Focus Practice, Stretch, Shower, Shave. Wait, what’s “Focus Practice”? After I down a big glass of water or two, I sit quietly for about 5 minutes and mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. I think of it as a mental walk-through outlining the actions and needs this day will demand of me for me to consider it a successful workday.
I know this focus practice sounds cheesy, but I truly believe it has increased my productivity ten-fold. By mentally outlining what a successful finish line looks for my day, I can then work backwards to fill in the hours in order to reach my goals. If I have a big meeting at noon, I mentally note what I need to prepare and how long it will take. If I need to leave the office early, I can prioritize which tasks will be necessary to complete before stepping out.
Your morning routine will vary from mine and you’re likely already doing these practices in some form already. The idea is to find out what works best for you and stick with it every single work day. It will train your brain to be mentally prepared to handle what lies ahead and provide a boost in your health in the longterm. After all, your career is a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Kill Your Email
Ok, you made it out the door to your office and are ready to take on the day. Here’s the trick to stay on task: Turn off your email. Resist the urge to open your inbox right when you get to work. Take a page out of Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Workweek and limit your email times to one or two hour intervals in the afternoon. If you have a job that demands more attention to email, in other words, if you work with clients in any way, shape or form, you probably have to mind your email a little closer than that. The way I do it – keep my phone within my peripheral vision so you can glance at any incoming email alerts. If it’s something urgent or client related, of course I have to push pause on my work and handle it, but 90% of my alerts can wait until after lunch.
3. Implement A Time Management System
The most drastic improvements to my productivity came when I implemented a system to guide my workflow. For me, it’s a modified version of the Pomodoro technique. This time management system uses a timer to break down your workday into a series of bursts of productivity, followed by mini-breaks. I use a simple online timer set for 40-minute bursts, followed by a 5-minute break. I can modify the time depending on the task, but the break time is crucial it stand up, stretch, walk outside or grab a water and reset your brain. The short breaks work to refresh your creativity and come back to your desk prepared for another burst of work.
I use an old-school written checklist of my tasks on a post-it note – never more than 3 items long – and make a check mark for each 45 minute burst of work it takes to complete it (and satisfyingly cross it off the list). This is an important step for learning how long oft-repeated tasks take – you’ll be surprised that items you thought were quick and easy, can actually take 4 or more bursts to complete, or vice-versa.
Lastly, for team-sharing and collaboration, I use Wunderlist as my digital to-do list. It’s insanely easy and intuitive to use, easily sharable with your colleagues and it makes this incredibly satisfying chime when you’ve completed a task. A small but nice reminder that I’m making progress.
4. Lean Into Your Distraction
This might be counterintuitive at first, but sometimes it’s necessary to embrace your distraction tendencies. There have been extensive studies over the last few years, by professional academics and corporations alike, that prove your social media and YouTube addictions are actually having a positive impact on your daily productivity.
First, our brains need a break. It’s impossible to maintain our highest level of productivity for long periods of time the same way it’s impossible for race cars to stay in the red at 9000 RPMs for a sustained period of time. We simply overheat and breakdown. Social media and online distraction is like making a pitstop on the racetrack: refuel, check the tires and prepare for the next leg of the race.
Second, and more importantly, the social media phenomenon has exploded our access and exposure to people and ideas across the world. The knee-jerk reactions of corporations everywhere was to place a company-wide ban on Facebook and other social platforms while at work. However, these “distractions” are actually having a tremendously positive impact on high-skill, knowledge employees. It turns out the unlimited access to cross-cultural ideas and people worldwide is driving innovation and growth within companies.
So next time your boss catches you on Facebook, tell him or her that you’re actually engaged in a purposeful creativity-boosting power session (and try to keep a straight face).
5. Knock the Hard Stuff Out Early
The problem with arriving at your desk and opening your email is that it drains our energy and lowers our focus. We get a false sense of accomplishment doing mindless work and then don’t muster up the energy and willpower to complete the most important tasks.
Of course this varies, especially for night owls, however in general, humans have the highest capacity to focus between 2-4 hours after waking up – so if we woke up at 6:30am, our most productive period is going to be between 8:30-10:30am. We cannot afford to waste it cleaning our inbox. This is the time period we should reserve for our most creative and critical work. Schedule the tasks that require the most concentration and creativity first thing in the morning, and early in the week. Save the mindless, easier work for the afternoons and later in the week if possible.
6. Get Physical!
Physical activity is the key for building a long-term, sustainable ability to focus. Every decision we make throughout the day diminishes our ability to focus little by little and by the late afternoon, we’re tapped out. It’s important that we take small, intermittent breaks over the course of the work day to go for a walk outdoors, or better yet, go for a run, swim or hit the gym over your lunch break.
Physical activity not only strengthens our energy levels, but it produces endorphins that replenish our physical and emotional capacity. The Harvard Business Review published a study linking our ability to focus and productivity to our energy levels, rather than with our time spent at the office. What they found was undeniable: participants encouraged to manage their energy levels through various means of physical, mental and emotional activity saw a significant increase in productivity in less time at the office.
Just like anything else that’s worthwhile in work or in life, we need to practice. Our brains are like any other muscle and, over the last decade staring at our smartphones, we’ve trained it to be really good at multi-tasking. In effect, we’ve trained our brains to be unfocused and we have to reverse course a little bit.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You fought your urge to check Facebook halfway through the article or maybe you just skimmed it to read the 6 points in bold – it’s okay, I’m not offended (I get it, tl;dr). It’s also important to note here that this is my “Focus Technique” at 33, not my technique at 23, and it will likely change significantly by 43. In order to grow, both personally and professionally, we must consistently critique and improve upon our daily routine. So please, tell me your secrets to staying focused, because the work we do today is important. We’re exchanging a day of our lives for it.