Imagine this scenario
You just finished dinner, and you want to make some coffee. You head on over to your coffee maker and realize the filter from this morning is still in. You take out the filter and toss it in the trash, only to realize your trash can is practically full.
You pull out the liner from the trash, tie it up securely and set it aside to be brought to the garbage bin outside. You reach to the bottom of the trash can for a new liner where you store extras for quick access, but it seems you used the last one, so you walk to the pantry where you store your box of liners.
You notice your pantry is in disarray after your partner has rummaged through it in a ravenous state. The cereal and snacks and cans of beans are no longer in their places and this kind of thing bugs you, so you get to organizing it, can after can, snack after snack.
You notice some expired foods and you place it next to the garbage. After ten minutes of reorganizing, you decide you might as well take out the trash, so you grab the trash bag and handfuls of stale snacks, and walk out the door.
Wait. What happened to making coffee?
This is why you don’t get shit done
Lack of focus is a huge factor when it comes to lost productivity and unfinished projects, daily goals, and task lists. Focus is a difficult thing to master, especially with multiple streams of information bombarding your senses every second. From Twitter updates flashing across the screen, to Facebook feeds a flowin’ and email’s inability to stay put at Inbox Zero… not to mention the TV behind you is blaring and your partner is laughing and the dog is doing laps around the apartment with a new squeaky toy in between his teeth.
Most likely, you’ll have to take deliberate steps to gain more focus. Some easy, some more difficult, all worth it. Try some of these out and see if it doesn’t help:
Find a relaxed, quiet space
This may take some work, and you might have to leave the comfort of your own home, but an hour of interruption-free work can be more productive than five hours of attempted work in a noisy environment.
Depending on your needed level of isolation (and you’ll only figure this out after trying several spots nearby), try working in the least-trafficked room in your house, at Starbucks with your headphones, a coworking space in your community, the backseat of your car in a parking garage, a park bench, a public or university library, a lit walk-in closet.
It takes work to find an isolated place free from distractions, but it’s well worth the hunt and can be 75% of your battle towards increased focus and productivity.
Turn off distractions that are under your control
I know it’s gonna be painful, but just remember, these things will still be there when you remove yourself from isolation. Close the Facebook tab, your Twitter client, your IM windows, exit the browser completely if you have to. Hell, turn off the internet or disable the wireless connection if you can. If you work on the interwebz a lot like I do, disabling the wireless connection would be counterproductive, but at the very least close out all those social networking connections.
With practice, I’ve gotten a lot better at resisting temptation and I no longer have to put up a fight with myself. Sometimes when I KNOW I must buckle down to get shit done and I don’t want to take any chances, I get assistance from Anti-Social. This app blocks all social networking sites + a few other distracting sites for a set period of time that I choose. I won’t be able to access the Facebooks and the Twitters (and any other site I decide that they don’t already include) until that time period is over, unless I reboot my Mac. Rebooting is an annoying and tedious process so I never get the urge to do so just to check my Twitter feed. I can wait.
Other apps I’ve heard good things about are Concentrate (Mac), Self Control (Mac) and Stop Distractions (PC). Even though I haven’t used them and can’t vouch for them personally, they’re worth exploring as alternative options.
Turn off distractions that AREN’T under your control
This is a little more difficult to do. For aural distractions, you can retreat to a quieter spot or even a place that forces silence, like a public or university library, which I’ve mentioned above. You can use over-the-ear headphones or isolating earbuds to block outside noise while listening to music. If you don’t usually listen to music, you might want to try some jazz a la Davis or Coltrane, instrumental like RJD2, or world music like Brazilian samba tracks or Cesaria Evora. Since you most likely don’t speak the language, your brain won’t be working to subconsciously process and visualize the stories in the songs, which can be pretty distracting when you’re trying to focus on work.
If there are visual distractions, you can face the wall while you work, scout out a room with no one in it, or post in a corner of the library that generates low foot traffic. Honestly, ignoring visual and peripheral distractions is much more difficult; it just takes pure willpower and maybe a little self-training to not look up every time someone walks by.
Make sure you have everything you need
Grab a water, a snacky snack, maybe your phone and / or choice of music player (assuming these two things aren’t on your list of distraction items), pencils… whatever you need to have at your disposal so you don’t have to get up and wander around looking for them.
Use a timer
Your smartphone should have a countdown timer built in. You could also use an egg timer, a stop watch, whatever gets the job done. Time yourself on individual tasks to get a better idea of your efficiency. See if you can beat your time on the next task while maintaining the same quality of output.
Having a timer by your side guarantees you wont thumb-twiddle your way down a task list, getting one or two items done in five hours when it should’ve taken you only 30 minutes. It also gets you into the habit of consistent production, keeping you working and forcing you to settle for “good enough” on the first pass. This is critical, because hours can be spent attempting perfection, when in most situations, “good enough” works just fine.
Considering something “good enough for now” is tough for perfectionists who want a flawless outcome before moving on to the next item. This mentality hinders productivity SO MUCH. I catch myself doing this from time to time, and I have to snap myself out of it. You have a limited amount of time during the day, and attempting to perfect something is counterproductive because 1.) you can work on something for hours and hours, tweaking every little aspect, and 2.) it’s never really going to be perfect, and you’re going to find yourself at the end of the day with only one task worked on (and still unfinished).
Train yourself to realize you can always go back and refine later, and that it’s more important to get stuff done. It takes less time to perfect a block of tasks that are 80% awesome, than it does to work every task until it’s 100% perfect before moving to the next one.
Focus on completing the task at hand
There are a million things to do at all times of the day. Working with this mentality is pointless; you will just feel overwhelmed and won’t get anything done because you’re sitting there worrying about the million things you have to do. Instead, hone in on what is the biggest priority, and out of those tasks, which one can fit in your alloted block of time. If they are all bigger tasks, break them down into smaller sub-tasks (3-5 depending on the complexity), and concentrate on tackling just one or two if you only have a few productive minutes.
Another method is to create processes and include break points where it’s okay to move onto other things. This is an idea adapted from Pat Flynn’s site, Smart Passive Income. His latest podcast is all about productivity and he discusses this method in detail. Listen in when you have a free minute.
Essentially, Pat talks about having individual (physical) folders for repetitive projects such as setting up a website, or writing a proposal. He creates a detailed, ordered list of steps from beginning to end of everything that needs to take place in order to complete the project. He includes stopping points, which are times when you may need to wait for something (a deliverable, information from an outside source, or client approval.) The key is to work distraction-free until you reach a stopping point. Then you can move on to another task.
This is an especially useful method for defined, repetitive tasks because every step is laid out; you just have to follow your own procedure. Can’t get more straight-forward than that.
For uncommon, non-repetitive tasks, have a predetermined list of items to complete
Limit yourself to one big item a day (three a week), and have three smaller items at hand in case you complete the big item, or want to take a mental break from the big item and decide to switch over. Your one big item should have 3-5 smaller steps in order to finish completely. Listing these steps makes it more manageable, so don’t overlook this step.
Set expectations, and stretchy stretch
Depending on your block of time, you may only get a certain amount done. Set those expectations in your brain, and don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t get to everything.
If you have several hours to work, make sure to give yourself a minute or two of stretchy stretch time every 30 minutes or so. If you only have 30- to 60-minute blocks of time to work throughout the day, sometimes a Post-it note with three items that need to be done is the simplest, most straight-forward method you can use. Have one Post-it note for each block of time, and do your best to complete those tasks within the allowed time.
It’s easy to get sucked in and surrender to the distractions that invade your personal space by the second. Hopefully some of these tactics will be helpful to you. It’s one thing to know about these solutions (honestly, they all have been talked about on the interwebz somewhere before,) but it’s another to put them into practice. That takes a bit of discipline, willpower, and determination that only you yourself can muster.
Keep your eye on the prize and realize why you’re attempting to focus in the first place. Whether it be to get an article published on your favorite blog, author your first novel, land your biggest client, or escape the corporate safety net for a life of freedom and self-employment, let that be your main motivator to nudge you towards your successes, even if only an inch at a time.Tweet Follow @barroncuadro