We’ve all been there: You get to work, ready to tackle that high priority task with the best of intentions to finish it. Then the phone starts to ring, you open your email and get sidelined by fires to extinguish, and then a colleague drops by with an issue that takes way longer than you want it to take. Throughout all this time you’re aware your cell phone is buzzing with the usual non-stop notifications and another team member is carrying on a very loud and raucous discussion nearby.
Before you know it, it’s lunch and you’ve barely started to dig into that project that was supposed to be your sole focus. Just when you’re about to start work on it, your boss needs to discuss something important. You finally stop to eat and take a moment to check social media and the next thing you know, you’ve been sucked into Facebook updates way longer than you should have.
Staying focused is a challenge for many folks and small wonder! We live with constant distractions from technology and, often, coworkers (and that’s on the good days – bad days find us also trying to cope when everything goes wrong on top of all the typical interruptions!).
Human nature conspires against us, too, making it inherently difficult for us to ignore notifications from devices or avoid eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Add in any level of ADD (I’m speaking from experience here folks) and it’s a hot mess.
One study on distraction showed that disruptions resulted in workers losing their place in a task and made them two to three times more prone to making errors than those not interrupted (not surprisingly, the longer the interruption, the higher the error rate).
How significant is the problem of distraction for office workers? A researcher with the University of California, Irvine, studied workplace distractions. According to Gloria Mark, today’s office workers typically have only 11 minutes between each interruption. Perhaps more concerning, Mark found it takes most people nearly 30 minutes to refocus properly after being interrupted.
What can you do?
Be clear with your goals
We’ve discussed before how many of us feel we’re living in a constant state of urgency. It’s crucial that we determine what is urgent versus what is important so that we spend our time focusing on the real priorities.
Setting clear and achievable goals is important – for ourselves, for our teams, and for the business. (If you missed them, check out our ultimate goal setting worksheet and how to set performance goals for your team).
That’s one step. The next is to stop distractions from getting in the way of actually meeting our goals.
I recommend you spend a bit of time to focus on your next work day before you leave the office. It is a simple step to add to your routine, but it makes the most of your time (especially Friday night so you’re ready for Monday morning!).
Simply take a few minutes to create a list of two to three primary tasks to accomplish when you return to work (this way you don’t have to refocus and remember what your priorities are the next work day – you’ll be ready to get started!).
This list should consist of a few key tasks that need your attention, not mammoth projects. These must be tasks (ie. parts of a bigger goal) that get you closer to your bigger goals and you need to be able to DO them, not be so daunted by them that you keep putting them off.
It may help to have your two to three big goals on a piece of paper posted near your computer or taped to your desktop – anywhere that you can see them each evening as you write the primary goals for your next work day. Just remember that your goals must get you toward the big, audacious goals (but not be, in themselves, big and audacious goals!).
Having a focus on a few priorities will help you tackle what is most important with a running start first thing, rather than react to all the inevitable distractions that will arise. Additionally, it is much more helpful to determine that you’re going to do X, Y, and Z by noon than to resolve to work hard all day. A concrete plan is far more effective than vague ideas.
Have you ever found yourself facing the same task day after day because you really just dread starting it?
It can be satisfying to work through the easiest tasks first, but moving that dreaded task to the next day’s priority list, again and again, might leave you feeling as frustrated and ineffective as Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. The solution is to tackle the biggest or most difficult tasks first.
If you can focus on completing the hardest task first, it soon becomes routine. And let’s be honest: if we put off doing something we don’t want to do, isn’t it easy to take longer doing all the other things just to delay the inevitable?! Reversing the order and doing the hardest thing first may end up saving you a lot of time you’d otherwise waste (even subconsciously).
This kind of discipline will help you accomplish goals efficiently rather than just stay busy. When you’re not just starting tasks, but completing them, you’ll feel competent and successful – which will give you a boost in your step and makes facing the next loathsome task a little less daunting!
If you’re still not sold on starting with your most difficult tasks first, there are other reasons to leave the easier tasks till later. Just as our muscles can get overworked, our brains get tired. And just like physical exhaustion, mental fatigue will impact our ability to work effectively.
So if you start with the hardest task first, you’re going to have more energy and focus (which is helpful if you need concentration and creativity!) If you do other less demanding or time-intensive tasks first, you’ll end up doing the difficult task with less mental acuity.
Additionally, when you tackle the most difficult tasks first, you keep your priorities at the forefront of your day. Leave the easier work like responding to emails till later in the day.
That’s right: Do not start your workday by reading your email first. Why? Because email is a list of other people’s priorities. Remind yourself of that – OTHER PEOPLE’S priorities.
Instead, set aside time to go through your email after the key tasks for your day, or perhaps the most difficult tasks for the day, are accomplished. And don’t forget to check email at scheduled times so you are in control of your time, not constantly responding to others.
Be realistic (don’t plan more than you can accomplish)
When you have tasks to complete, be realistic about the amount of time you will require. Staying on track when you have deadlines to meet is crucial.
Set goals based on time – relatively short time periods where your goal is to simply stay focused, working on the single task at hand. At the end of the set time, take a set time for a break – and actually take the break. Walk around, have a snack, talk to a coworker (one who can afford the interruption, not someone on their own focused task!). Just keep an eye on the clock and get back to your next task on schedule.
I particularly like the Pomodoro Technique, which is as effective as it is deceptively simple. It is an easy method to learn and flips the paradigm so that you’re working with time instead of perpetually trying to beat the clock.
The Pomodoro Technique was invented roughly 30 years ago by Francesco Cirillo, a world-renowned expert on time management and organizational productivity, and it is used by millions of people around the world.
There are a few basic steps to follow:
Start with a task that you need to do. It can be huge and important or small but necessary – it doesn’t matter.
- Give yourself 25 minutes to focus one hundred percent on this task (set a timer and mitigate distractions – turn off your cell phone and other notifications and let calls go to voicemail).
- Work on this task for 25 minutes. If you think of another thing you have to do, just write it on a piece of paper so you can get to it after the 25 minutes is up (same with other interruptions – if a coworker needs you, ask to get back to them shortly).
- When the timer rings, that’s one Pomodoro done! Note on the paper that you’ve completed a 25-minute Pomodoro stretch and take 5 minutes for a break. Clear your head by getting a cup of coffee, stretching your legs, or taking two minutes to just meditate.
- Start the timer for another 25-minute Pomodoro round and give your complete focus to the task. After four Pomodoros, you’ve earned a bigger, 20-30 minute break.
What’s great about the Pomodoro Technique is that it helps you refine your concentration and focus, minimize distractions while you focus on your work, track how long it takes to accomplish certain things, and still make time to rest and renew yourself (without overdoing it and losing valuable work hours!).
Over time, using this technique will also help you estimate the time and effort you will require to complete tasks or achieve goals. It also helps you sustain momentum as you work on myriad tasks, avoiding burnout.
There are even several Pomodoro Apps available to help you manage your time using this technique.
Multi-tasking doesn’t work
Raise your hand if you’ve ever described yourself as an excellent multi-tasker on a curriculum vitae or in an interview – or asked for it to be included as something you require of a new hire, in a job posting. (All of us, I’ll wager?)
We’ve been lead to believe that multi-tasking is a great skill. It can be a skill, but like most things in life, only in moderation.
Science is showing us that there is a downside to multi-tasking (read Your Brain at Work by David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute). When we multi-task, we are distracted. This means increased errors (spelling, grammar, mathematically). We might also miss the nuance of things that we would otherwise notice and, not surprisingly, feel more frustrated and consequently be more temperamental.
We get used to multi-tasking, priding ourselves on being able to work while responding to people by text (maybe sneaking in a bit of Facebook or Twitter) and chatting with colleagues. And all the distraction can feel exhilarating, like we’re accomplishing more than average folks (oh, the efficiency!).
However, being focused on one task at a time, free of distractions, can greatly improve our performance. Limiting distractions in your work environment is transformational.
There are many different steps you can take to protect your work time from interruptions. Try turning off your cell phone and forwarding phone calls to voicemail while you work on a task for a 25-minute Pomodoro stretch.
Find an escape
If you have an intensive project that requires your complete focus, try booking a meeting or conference room away from the team members you are tempted to chat with or those coworkers who regularly interrupt you. And leave your cell phone at your desk!
Super noisy coworkers nearby and no meeting room available to you for escape? Try earphones and soft classical music or a White Noise app. Too loud? Try out a brown or pink noise generator.
Avoid keeping social media accounts open and disable notifications during your work hours. If you find the temptation too much, there are even apps or browser extensions designed to discourage visiting YouTube or other sites.
Even better, become mindful of when you are tempted to stop work and engage with things that distract you. Are you hungry or tired? Feeling bored or anxious? Knowing when you are tempted toward distraction will help you to avoid giving in (we all know “just a minute” with social media can gobble up an hour very quickly).
Keep the distractions you see as positive as a reward for meeting milestones – just be sure to stick to your break schedule or keep them to after hours.
Just like physical training, you need to intentionally practice mindfulness and paying attention to one task at a time. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at ignoring distractions of all kinds and focusing when you need to get work done.
What are your biggest distractions at work? What strategies will help you stay focused? If you could stick to those strategies, how would you benefit??