Staying focused on specific tasks can be incredibly challenging, whether at work or at home. We live in a world of distractions, with many of our daily gadgets, such as smartphones, designed to get our attention as quickly as possible for as long as possible. While that’s great if you’re getting a call, it is usually just pulling your focus from something more important.
It’s nothing new, with workers reporting a drop in focus for years before smartphones were ever a thing (yes, that time existed). Fortunately, that also means that we’ve had some time to hone the best techniques to regain your focus. Below, we’re going to take a look at five of the best methods for keeping your focus at work or home.
1. Separate Out Your Deep Work
Different tasks require different levels of focus – some you can probably do with a podcast playing in the background or while you’re chatting with your partner. Others, however, require your complete and total attention, otherwise known as deep work.
A great way to keep yourself focused at work is to differentiate between surface tasks and this deep work, so you know when you should be blocking everything else out to get stuff done. To do this, spend a few minutes at the start of each day going through your to-do list and marking which tasks are “deep” and which aren’t.
From there, you can schedule these tasks according to your daily focus levels – if you work well in the morning, then maybe some deep tasks need to be done then. Similarly, if you know that there will be a meeting in the morning, then your deep tasks should be pushed to the end of the day so you’re not distracted.
Whenever you schedule your deep work, just make sure it is at a time that suits you, and don’t try to do it all day, every day – you will burn out! Instead, intersperse smaller, lower-focus tasks and, more importantly, breaks throughout your day. Finally, make sure that the people around you know that you have blocked out a period for deep work to avoid unexpected interruptions.
2. Try Out the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro method is another simple but proven technique for keeping you focused at work. The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the 1980s and uses a timer to break work down into chunks, normally 25 minutes, with short breaks in between.
Each of the chunks of time is known as a “Pomodoro,” after the Italian word for tomato, which was the shape of the timer used by the original inventor of the technique. These days, you don’t have to use your kitchen gadgets to keep you on track, with plenty of apps and online tools available to track and block your time.
The technique works by tapping into the sense of urgency, and, thus focus, you have when working to a strict deadline. Each block of 25 minutes is like a mini-deadline keeping you on track during that task. You then get a short break, which offers you a chance to take a breather and let your mind wander before hitting the next 25-minute chunk.
The Pomodoro Technique is great for its lack of tools (every phone will have a timer), quick implementation, and rapid progress that gives a sense of achievement. Every Pomodoro (block of time) is another opportunity to hit your goals, motivating you even further.
3. Be S.M.A.R.T
A big part of staying focused is setting good goals, and one of the most trusted methods for doing so is the SMART Goal structure. This technique forces you to cover 5 main concepts with every goal, each represented by a letter of SMART:
Specific – You need to move from big, general concepts to more targeted, precise goals. Vague goals are unachievable since you give yourself no clear direction.
Measurable – Every goal should have quantifiable aims and milestones. Throughout the process of completing a task (and once it’s done), you need the tools and focus apps to make sure you’re on track.
Attainable – Don’t set goals that you can never reach! There is no quicker way to destroy motivation and focus at work than the feeling that you’re grinding for no reason. Make goals reasonable.
Relevant – Does your goal align with the right person, project, or broader company objective? There is no point chasing goals that have no attachment to wider objectives, and without the right people, a task is dead in the water.
Timely – We mentioned deadlines above, and one of the key aspects of SMART goals is making them time-sensitive. A deadline will push you to get things done and stay focused.
4. Batch Small Tasks Together to Stay Focused
One of the most damaging things to our focus, especially in the modern world of work, is context switching. This is where your attention skips from one thing to another. For example, you’re trying to write a report and your phone notifications keep going off, leading you to think about the messages every time and distracting you from your work.
It may not seem like much, but this continuous pulling of focus from the task at hand can have a massive impact. One study found that after a person is distracted at work, it can take more than 23 minutes for them to refocus on the original task fully.
This is why, as mentioned earlier, it is so important to tell colleagues when you are trying to do deep work, but even without outside distractions, if you’re going from one small task to another completely different task, your mind is still switching contexts. That is when you should batch tasks.
Batching means that there is less of a jarring change in context between small tasks, which reduces the negative impacts of context switching, instead of giving the feeling of being on a roll.
And the best way to batch tasks? By priority, which we’ll take a look at now…
5. Prioritize Your Work
We all have a lot of work to get through in a day, and figuring out where to start can be daunting. What’s more, feeling overwhelmed by a long to-do list actually has numerous knock-on effects such as forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating.
In short, being overwhelmed by an unkempt task list will stop you from being focused at work. This then creates a cycle of not getting tasks done, more jobs being added to your to-do list, and feeling increasingly overwhelmed.
To break the cycle and focus at work, you need to prioritize, and the simplest way to do this is with a priority matrix. A matrix is a visual organizational tool that allows you to sort tasks according to two metrics: Importance and urgency.
The importance of a task is up to you, but when looking over your to-do list your experience will allow you to decide whether a task is going to help you reach your goal (important) or not (unimportant).
The urgency of a task is often an external factor – a deadline imposed by a manager or a date to keep your task in line with the rest of a project. Is this task due today? Next week? Sometime in the future?
Each task, measured against these two criteria, can then be separated into four categories:
- Do (Important and urgent): These are the most vital tasks you have and should be done immediately.
- Schedule (Important but not urgent): These are important tasks, so you should do them, but they don’t have the time constraints of your “Do” tasks. Add them to your calendar.
- Delegate (Urgent but not important): If a task is not too important but must be done right away, delegate that task to someone else! You should be focused on your “Do” tasks only.
- Remove (Not important, not urgent): If a task is neither important nor urgent, it shouldn’t be on your list at all. Delete it.
Staying focused is hard, whether it’s distractions in your personal life or, more likely when you’re trying to get tasks done at work. However, it is not an insurmountable obstacle, and these five techniques to keep you focused are a great first step on your journey to staying on track no matter what.
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