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September, 2017

Are you always running behind schedule on your projects? Are you distracted by so-called “shiny objects?” Squirrel! We work and live in an instant communication, driven-to-distraction era. Many of us set long-term goals for ourselves, both in our personal and professional lives. But we often fail to meet those goals. (Do New Year’s resolutions sound familiar?)

If you often find yourself wondering how you can be more productive and actually meet those goals, look no further. We’ve consulted with the experts and have come up with effective tips to help you focus.

What the Experts are Saying

To answer this question, we looked at a few brilliant books, 99U’s Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Scott Jeffrey’s The Most Productive 90 Minutes of Your Life. The experts in all of these books stress the idea that there is something standing between you and your goals. Once you get past that ‘something,’ you’ll be able to get more done in less time.

What’s Standing in Your Way?

Many of us fall back on the old saying, “there aren’t enough hours in the day.” But while we may think time is our most valuable resource, it is actually our focus. So what’s standing between you and that elusive focus? The answer is distraction. Distraction comes in many forms and can impact everyone a little bit differently. After reviewing the books above, I summarized the most common distractions into the following buckets.

1. Mental.  When was the last time you procrastinated? Yesterday? Right now? Procrastination happens all the time and is often the cause of distraction. But procrastination is not laziness in most cases. It’s a symptom of other factors that can explain why you chose to do something other than the most important at hand. Some of these reasons include anxiety, fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, self-doubt, or feeling overwhelmed.

2. Physical.  Eating healthy and getting enough sleep aren’t just good for your physique. They’re also key components for maintaining focus. Your breathing and posture can also affect your productivity.

3. Environmental. Your environment plays a huge role in your productivity. People (interruptions, conversations), phone calls, audible and visual alerts on your phone, PC or wrist device are some of the biggest environmental distractions around. Experts say it takes about two minutes to regain focus every time you hear an alert.

4. Habitual. The last type of distraction is habitual. Multitasking and lack of planning have become so ingrained in some of us that it is impossible to find focus. Studies have shown multitasking can slow you down by as much as 25%! Email and social media have added even more bad productivity habits. Many people check email first thing in the morning when they are freshest and most able to focus and produce high-quality work. Experts say about 60% of email can be labeled as noise thus making it a low-value activity.

“But while we may think time is our most valuable resource, it is actually our focus.”

How to Blast through the Distractions

To find your focus, you need to create smart daily habits that support your ability to meet your goals. To quote Cal Newport, “The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

It’s time to mitigate the mental, physical, environmental, and habitual distractors in your life. The first step is to assess which of these distractors have taken a hold of your productivity. Then, check the tips below to blast through those distractions and finally accomplish those goals.

1. Mental. If you frequently find yourself procrastinating, look deeper to uncover the root cause of the procrastination. Remember, procrastinating is a symptom of distraction, not the root of it.

  • Understand what’s really getting in the way of your goals. Ask yourself: What did you choose to do instead of your most important goal related task? Why?
  • Also, keep in mind that decision making requires willpower, which is almost always stronger early in the day.
  • Whatever your inner demons are, understand them and confront them head-on.

2. Physical. If you aren’t feeling well, it can be extremely difficult to focus. To defeat your physical distractors, take a cue from athletes and keep your body in its best shape.

  • We all know that being tired or hungry prevents us from doing our best work.
  • Get a good night’s sleep and have breakfast before you begin that big project.
  • If you sit at a desk all day, take stock of your posture. Are you hunched over? Poor posture is linked to poor, shallow breathing habits.
  • Diets high in protein, low in simple carbs and sugar will help balance your glycemic index and give you a steady energy supply.
  • And finally, hydration is so important. Did you know our brains are 80% water? Studies have shown decreases in cognitive abilities when our bodies are dehydrated by as little as 2%. It doesn’t take much!
3. Environmental. If you work in an office, you know the environmental distractions better than anyone. Some are more easily tamed than others. Maybe a co-worker keeps popping into your cubicle or talks really loudly on the phone. Then there are also those sneaky email alerts that pop up on your computer and the social media notifications blowing up your phone. It’s time to turn off the noise when you’re trying to create that deep focus.

Some ideas:

  • Silence those alerts on your phone and wrist device. This includes vibrations.
  • Close email and social media to prevent alerts popping up on your computer screen.
  • Put a note on your door asking not to be disturbed.
  • Use headphones and listen to soothing music or white noise.

4. Habitual. You probably don’t think about your productivity habits very often, but they are the most influential distractors around. If you walk into work at 8:00 am and ask “what should I work on today?” you’re already behind for the day. Instead, try:

  • Planning ahead. Know the top 2-3 things you must get done each day before you get to the office. Tackle this high-value work first thing!
  • Focus only when you’re fresh.
  • Work in sprints. A great way to pace yourself is to work for 90-minute sprints, then take a 10-minute break.
    Check email 2-3 day, and not until after you’ve accomplished your top 2-3 priorities of the day.
  • Stop multi-tasking. It’s a myth. Your brain cannot multitask, it simply switches between tasks. To truly focus, you need to give your project your full attention.

If you want to get more done in less time, improve the quality of your work and reduce stress, then spend some time analyzing your top distractions and actively manage them. To quote Cal Newport again, “Engaging in deep work is important not only to personal satisfaction, but to your very survival in a ruthless marketplace.”

A Final Thought

Focus is a skill. It can be developed and strengthened. It can be a competitive differentiator ─ your secret weapon for producing quality work faster than the next guy. Now, go get ‘em!

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” – Cal Newport