Seven Strategies to Help You Focus on Hectic Work
We talk a lot about time management, but despite our best efforts to make time for important projects, we are missing one key thing: the ability to focus on actually completing them, rather than constantly switching between tasks.
This post was originally published on Fast Company .
The reason concentration can be such a problem even after you’ve made space on your schedule is because your brain gets used to working in a fast, reactive mode. Intentionally or otherwise, many of our jobs and work habits contribute to this high-octane cognitive state. And unless you deliberately switch your mental gear ahead of time, you’ll struggle with it all the time you’re trying to focus on one big project. These seven strategies can help you slow your mind so you can focus on important work.
1. Make an appointment … with yourself
If you wait until your important project becomes urgent before starting work on it, it is probably too late. It’s all about avoiding the pressure of urgency on your ability to focus. Instead, make an “appointment” with yourself in which you plan to do nothing but work on the task. Then make it your priority to keep this meeting alive. This will help you avoid the trap of not even trying to focus because of all the smaller and more important things that you could solve faster. Moreover, you will prepare your brain in advance to anticipate the upcoming goal-oriented time.
2. Shift down to a low gear and stay there.
To make your focus as easy as possible, immerse yourself in your important work after a natural break from more important activities. Maybe it’s right after you arrive at the office – ideally, shortly before other employees start showing up – or right after lunch. In both cases, you avoid agitating your mind too much with quick victories just before you need to concentrate.
3. Take a short break.
If you can’t avoid going into “done” mode before starting your important tasks, at least take a short break before trying to get started. Take a short walk outside, even if it’s only a few minutes. It can calm you down and help you get into a more distracted, creative mode as opposed to a divide and conquer mindset. It can also help you start thinking more strategically – not just in practice – about how you want to achieve what you need. Whether it’s thinking about a project plan, writing an article, or putting together a presentation, you can start thinking about the big picture before embarking on it, so that once you sit down, you already have an idea of your approach.
4. Designate a place to focus.
Instead of staying in the same place where you are doing urgent tactical work, move to another place when it comes time to do important things. This could mean reserving a conference room, working from home, visiting a library, or opening a coffee shop. When you move to this new location, try not to answer emails or do other non-urgent tasks. This teaches your brain that while in this place, you are only focusing on important projects, just as your mind knows that when you are in bed, you are asleep. (If possible and practical, you can even go to a place without an internet connection.)
5. Move away from the computer
Just as your mind can associate being in a particular place with a particular type of mental activity, you can also unconsciously associate being in front of a screen with a particular style of thinking. If you need to do more creative, reflective work and find yourself staring blankly at your computer screen, try a different medium. This could mean pulling out your pen and paper and start jotting down your thoughts, or even starting to sketch your ideas on the chalkboard. It may seem like it will take longer because you will need to type your notes later, but it can actually help you achieve results much faster by putting your brain on the right mode from the start.
6. Switch between important and important.
If all else fails, try switching between an important task and an urgent one. Maybe you spend just 10 minutes on an important project and then five minutes on an urgent one. Or you can divide and conquer: Take one important step in a large project before giving yourself permission to reply to multiple emails. This is not the most effective way to get to an important point of action, but if it helps you untie you, it may be the most effective you have at your disposal.
7. Get Positive Peer Pressure
The second last resort is to get a colleague to help you be accountable. Maybe a colleague is also struggling to find time to take on a large project in a busy environment. Find an hour you can save, and plan to spend that time collaborating on important projects. You can even talk to your boss and set up a series of quick checks where you report status updates on a specific initiative. This accountability can help you cope and make important work as urgent as the small tasks you are so used to doing right away.
There will always be pressure to give up what you’re focusing on and respond to a notification on your phone or computer, but you can take these additional steps to set aside time to focus and move on to less urgent but more important tasks.
7 Strategies for Restoring Focus in a Hectic Workplace | Fast Company