I am hoping you might be able to give me some tips on how to increase my productivity at work. I think my biggest issue is being able to focus. I get distracted really easily, never finish my to-do list, and feel like I am derailed from my top priorities by about 10am. I would love some help. Thanks.
Danielle, Sales Manager, Retail
Ah productivity at work, that old chestnut! I find that for most upwardly mobile professionals, a lot of our productivity issues come down to one thing – the inability to focus our attention for any length of time on one thing, and doing that one thing until it is completed. Imagine how effective you would be if you could actually focus on the thing you were doing, and only on that.
It may be hard to even imagine that right now, as the majority of us struggle with this. We live in a world where we are expected to be always on, always increasingly more efficient and effective, and are constantly bombarded with external stimuli from social media, email, smart phones, and yes, real people wanting things from us (bosses, kids, partners, peers, team members, the list goes on).
So how do we actually cultivate our attention? In order to really focus on what we set out to do, here are some of the best picks from the research I have done about enabling your ability to focus, and getting the right things done.
- Pick three – Each day, pick just three key things that you have to get done and write your list the evening before so you are crystal clear. Of course, there will be lots of other stuff that happens during your day. But by having three and no more than three big things to do, you can stay centered and focused, and ensure you accomplish them. Let’s call this your Most Important Stuff list (MIS – sorry I couldn’t think of a cooler acronym). These should be the things that are really high impact and will make the biggest impact on your day/week/life.
- Do them first – don’t do anything else in the morning until you have done your MIS’s. Ok, you can go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, take a shower, get breakfast, drop the kids at school etc. etc. etc. – of course. I should have said, when you start work, don’t do anything else, just your list. This means no email, no Facebook, no twitter, no phone calls, nothing, unless it is one of your top three. We know that our brains focus much better first thing in the morning, when our self-regulation resources are strong and our brains are active after a nights sleep. So power through your list without interruption first thing.
- Clear the path – when you sit down to work, and you really intend to work, clear your path of all of the things may distract you. You know what they are – turn off your email alerts, close all programs that you might be tempted to flick over too, you know, just to check what is happening (losing another hour). Yes that would be your social networking sites, your personal email, blogs, and any other Internet connection that will pull your focus away. Shut it all down. There are software programs that you can use that will actually lock you out of the Internet for a set period of time, so check them out if you really can’t control yourself.
- While you’re at it, clear your desk – don’t our desks just become the biggest dumping ground you have ever seen? The more we have around us, the less focused we are, and the less energy will flow into our workspace, and our work. Get rid of anything that doesn’t need to be there.
- Work in 90 minute cycles – research from performance management guru Tony Schwartz has found that we perform at our peak when we operate in 90 minute cycles, which is similar to the sleep cycle. Where you can, structure your day around blocks of time where you can really focus on your work task, and then have a break. This goes for meetings too. Those boardroom meetings that run from 8am to 6pm with 15 minute breaks and a working lunch? They could be about the worst way to structure a meeting for optimal productivity. Try working in 90 minute time slots and see how your attention improves.
- Give yourself good breaks – we all need periods of time to just goof off, and our brains certainly do. So don’t be unrealistic with the amount of time you are expecting yourself to be focused (see 90 minute rule). We need brain breaks. Give yourself a good chunk of time each day to just do nothing, to play, have some fun, do all that social networking and connecting you are longing for, and just waste time if you want to. When you go back to work, to focus your attention, you will be much more primed to do so. I tend to have mini dance offs in the kitchen while making my tea, or small meditation or yoga moments. They don’t have to be long, five or ten minutes can be enough to recharge your energy reserves and give your brain a rest.
You need to train your brain to be able to focus. It can be hard work, but if you really want to increase your productivity at work, and your effectiveness in other areas of your life, give these things a try. Be persistent and consistent. You might also like to check out my recent column on boundaries, and look into starting a meditation practice, which is one of the most powerful ways to cultivate attention. Check out my book for more on this, or my website for some free resources that might help.