How to Stay Focused and Get a Shit-ton Done

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Between Slack, fun-loving and curious colleagues, meetings, emails and other distractions, how to stay focused on getting that primary thing called work done at work can be hard. And, there are the unrelenting demands of the work itself. For most of us, the endless pulls on our attention can induce something close to madness. But here’s the thing – you have the power to make it better. Want to get started?

Here are some things that have worked well for me.

Realize you are the boss of your own schedule

Sure, you have a boss to whom you are accountable, but the boss looks best when you are doing your job well. And doing your job well often starts with arranging your day so that it works well for you. Sure, this is a balancing act as you can’t just decline every meeting that comes your way, but starting with this perspective can have a huge impact on your productivity and happiness.

Every single work day, I’ve blocked out my first hour to attend to daily/weekly planning and to emails/Slack/tasks (marking this time on the calendar shows me as busy to anyone who tries to invite me to meetings). During this hour I prioritize the top few things I need to accomplish in the day, and I consider what’s coming in the rest of the week. I calculate what advanced preparation I’ll need for meetings, make notes or assign myself tasks accordingly, and I weigh the priority of everything ahead of me. And, on the rare occasion when all hell breaks loose, I know I have this hour that can be more flexible should I really need it.

Once I’ve established my “must dos” I block specific time to work on them on my calendar. At stable|kernel, we have two extended periods of time each day when we do our best to keep distractions to a minimum so we can be heads-down on our tasks. I try to schedule my “must do” items during these blocks. Do my plans get moved around? Absolutely. But I am less flustered by changes when I already have a process for adjusting to them (simply slide that dedicated hour to the next available time). And, when attention is being pulled in many different directions, the calendar helps keep me stay grounded in the most important stuff that needs to get done.

Establish a routine that matches your natural periods of energy and focus

The way you start your day matters. My operations mind is wired to prevent/control chaos, so I feel better all day when I’ve started with a clear picture of what’s ahead of me. Before I jump into planning mode, I’ve adopted the habit over the last year of taking 10 minutes to meditate. I have found the Headspace app to be really helpful. It’s not too new-agey for me, I enjoy the interface of the app, and I don’t have to plan what to listen to – it queues up the next day for me. Ideally, I practice this as soon as I wake up but I’ve snuck it in once I get to the office, too. I just feel better all day when I make time for this.

I tend to feel more creative in the morning, so I schedule this time for my more inspired endeavors – brainstorming, outlining new projects, etc. In the afternoon, I can easily slip into deep work, perfect for taking action on those brainstorms, doing some research, or digging into creation and task work.

And when my day is really working well, I slip in at least 15 minutes of “brain-clearing” time before I go home. Having a literal and metaphorical clear desk makes it easier for me to leave work at work, and it allows me to start the next day without distraction.

how-to-stay-focused

Find your happy place

Your surroundings can do a lot to impact your mood, focus and productivity. For task-driven work I do best sitting at my desk (ok… it’s not really a desk. It’s a round table that I believe facilitates better collaboration. But that’s another topic). For less-structured conversations and creative work, I prefer to settle into my office armchair. And if I really need to dig in? My back porch, the cafe just down the BeltLine, or Dr Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party are hard to beat. And don’t forget your creature comforts – a freshly brewed cup of coffee, some music, something to fiddle with (my colleague loves poker chips; I prefer Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty).

Your mom was right – eat well, stay hydrated, get a good night’s sleep, and exercise

You might not attend to each of these every day, but the more often you do, the better you will feel. We all know there is gobs of research to back it up, so stop denying it and just take care of yourself. At least a couple of times a day, I try to get out of my chair and walk around the office, stretch a bit, or even wander down the BeltLine. And because all of these activities are better with a friend, urge a co-worker to join you.

Be efficient

The less context switching you do, the more productive you will be (and the more sane you will feel).

  • Group small tasks that don’t require deep thought and hammer through them in a single session.
  • Schedule recurring events. Anything I do on a regular basis gets set up as a recurring task in my calendar.
  • Limit distractions. Slack, texts and alerts have made many believe that action needs to be taken right away… but this usually isn’t true. Go ahead and turn off the device or set yourself as “away” while you focus on other things. Your notifications will be waiting once you are ready for them (please do check at least every couple of hours). If something urgent is going on, people can find you. And if you want to limit in-person interruptions, try donning a pair of headphones.
  • Save yourself work later. For me, this often means gradually building out company programs and initiatives in a deck. I can then use that deck to get buy-in from people who need to grant approvals, and can later repurpose the deck for broader sharing and training. I try to avoid writing something in a notebook, then moving it to a document, then adding related tasks in ActiveCollab, etc. I also build templates for myself (and others) when I know an action will be repeated.
  • De-clutter your brain. It’s not kind to keep all of your responsibilities floating around in your head. In fact, it’s crazy-making. I love making lists because if “it” is on paper (or in ActiveCollab), my brain is free to think of other things. Find the list-making method that works best for you and stick to it: lists all over the place won’t do you any favors. I am also an avid user of Boomerang for Gmail. I use it to schedule messages to myself and others, and to re-schedule the appearance of emails I don’t yet need to attend to.

Everyone works differently, but I hope a glimpse into my process and mindset will help you find tools and rhythms that work well for you!

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