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When you are feeling distracted: 7 tips to be more focused
I don't know about you, but everyone I speak to feels they lack focus at this time of year. They have worked hard all year, and Q4 has already begun. That feeling that the year is almost over sets in, and people feel like they haven't accomplished as much as they would have liked to.
I had huge goals at the beginning of the year. I have made great strides, but I feel like I have been slacking slightly lately. Part of my lack of focus is that I love Fall in Chicago. The bright sun, the leaves turning vibrant colors, and a nip in the air. Apple picking, hot cider, apple cider doughnuts, pumpkin carving and decorations, and of course, I have my fair share of Pumpkin-flavored, pumpkin-colored everything. I also still watch my Bears play football. Well, some Sundays are better than others. With all of these seasonal activities, my focus could be sharper.
Many of us are already thinking about holidays in the US, and we are planning how to spend the time off we neglected to take throughout the year. It can be challenging to focus with all these beautiful distractions; plus, we are tired from 9+ months of working hard.
If you have read any of my blogs or my book, you know I am a fan of Stephen Covey. His time management techniques still hold up today as a way to prioritize and spend your time on the things that matter. But, we don't always have time to work in the top Quadrant where the most urgent and impactful actions are. So, practically, how do we get refocused?
We all know to turn off Outlook and mute our phones. When we are home, we may need to shut the door to prevent our husband or fur baby from disturbing us. We may need to close the window to block the lawn mower or leaf blower next door. What else can we do? Here are seven tips you can employ tomorrow to help you focus.
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Identify 1-2 priorities for the day.
Even though our lists are long, we need to determine and write down the 1 to 2 priorities for a given day and cut ourselves slack for anything else that may not get done. Or, another way to look at it is you get done what matters - impact and/or urgency a la Stephen Covey - and anything else you can get done is gravy. Feel good about that!
Get on track with a brain dump.
Once you have your priorities, it may not be easy to just dive in. So, start with a blank sheet of paper or a blank Word document and dump everything that comes to mind about the priority on that paper. Capture any ideas, deliverables, outcomes, questions, and other thoughts. That will help you get in the right frame of mind to tackle whatever the priority is. Spending 15 minutes doing this upfront is worthwhile if you struggle to get in a groove.
Focus on one thing at a time.
The fact is we are not good at multitasking. Some of us think we are, but to be successful, we really should focus on one task at a time to do a quality job. We need to focus on 1-2 priorities, but we also need to take one task at a time. I can't think of anything more disruptive than email and social media. It is impossible to focus if we are constantly being interrupted and responding to every email that comes in when they hit our inbox or reading every mention on Twitter or every interesting article on LinkedIn. Do one task at a time. I bet you get more done than trying to juggle three or four or more. If the tasks are short, bundle a few of them together in a period especially if they are related in some way.
Put your phone somewhere else.
This may seem extreme, but for me, it is sometimes not enough to mute my phone. It is there just taunting me on its cute little stand I bought. (I love desk accessories!) It still lights up when I have a message or notification. If I really need to focus, I put it in my bedroom or leave it in my work bag. Out of sight, out of mind. After my priorities are completed, there will be time to engage with my phone.
Give yourself time to think.
I believe "thinking" is a lost art. We are so busy jumping from web meeting to web meeting, email to email, that we don't allow ourselves the room to think, brainstorm, or problem-solve. I firmly believe in blocking time on my calendar to think. I label the time by the project or problem. I block a couple of hours a week to think about how to solve a problem or approach something differently.
Determine your peak focus time.
We probably have heard this one, but I truly believe in peak time. I know that I am not as productive or sharp after 3 pm. It is just how it is. I can't change it; I can't work against it. The best time for my brain is 9 - 11 am. Unfortunately, this is when most of my meetings occur given my global schedule. Knowing this, however, helps me make informed decisions. I can't block this time every day, but I try to block this time slot on Fridays and/or Mondays to help me focus for the week.
Try the tomato method.
Some of you are wondering what the heck this is. I can't believe I have never run across the Pomodoro method, but it is a technique I just learned about despite its creation in the 80s. Pomodoro is "tomato" in Italian, and its creator referred to a focused 25-minute interval as "one Pomodoro." The idea is to pick one task or group of smaller, related tasks, set a 25-minute timer, and focus on that task(s) until the timer beeps. After 4 "pomodoros," you take a more extended break of 25-30 minutes. Whether you stick with this formula or use some time-box timer method, this does help our focus. I will say to myself, and sometimes others if needed, that I am spending from 11:00 am - 11:45 am on this project and then stop myself after 45 minutes. I set a timer or just note the clock. Eliminating all distractions during this time is essential. I have found that this 45-minute slot is more productive than sometimes an entire day of trying to squeeze work in between meetings and emails a few minutes here and there.
Staying focused can be hard at any time of year. If you struggle, I highly recommend taking a real break. That break could be a week-long vacation, but it also could be a Friday afternoon to go apple picking or enjoy the Fall day in a forest preserve or park.
Identify your daily priorities and feel good if you only get those one or two priorities finished. Remember that anything else is gravy. We must stop punishing ourselves for not accomplishing a million daily tasks. It is impossible to achieve everything on our list in a given day. We need to prioritize, schedule time, and make time to think. These activities will help us be more successful in the long run rather than being that juggler constantly striving to keep the balls in the air.