Staying Focused At Work

Perhaps I jumped ahead of myself when I discussed strategies for leaving work early.  What if your work isn’t done?  This makes it a lot harder to squeeze free time out of a standard work day.  Not everyone works at the same pace.  We all know intelligence varies, and certainly impacts the time we need to put into work in order to produce acceptable results.  I don’t consider “intelligence” a controllable factor though.

Logically, we should turn our attention toward what we can control: our focus.  How many times have you started working on something, only to be distracted by a coworker or by your incessant desire to check Facebook and Twitter?  I know I’m guilty of this.  In some respects, we purposely distract ourselves.  It keeps us from getting bored of our jobs and keeps us in touch with life outside of the office.  There’s nothing wrong with that, unless it’s keeping you from optimal productivity.

Here are some good strategies for helping you stay focused on your work, so that you create the opportunity to escape work and enjoy your free time (or pursue some other form of productivity):

  • Wear headphones/earbuds, even if you aren’t listening to music.  This is pretty simple, yet effective.  It’s antisocial to intentionally avoid conversation, but in many cases, it’s necessary if you want to be productive.  If you’re wearing headphone or earbuds, your co-workers will only bother you with important matters.  They’ll save small talk for when you appear to be available.
  • Install an application to only allow yourself a certain amount of time to look online, or block certain sites completely (PageAddict for PC users – Firefox browser, Freedom for Mac users).  There are probably more sites out there with software or web applications that accomplish this – feel free to suggest them in the comments.  If you could only look at Facebook for 30 minutes total per day while at work, wouldn’t you change your Facebook checking habits? 
  • Make a list of essential and nonessential tasks to be completed during the current day.  Don’t touch any nonessential items until you’ve crossed everything off the essential items list.  Often times, you’ll find yourself getting work done, but not the work you NEED to be doing.  I think we desire to feel productive, and we can get that feeling from completing smaller, less critical tasks over those that really require our attention.  To avoid this, make a quick list to help identify the tasks that really require focus.
  • Give yourself small rewards for crossing items off the list.  This may seem silly, but give yourself small rewards to work toward.  For example:  I have 4 essential tasks to complete today.  After each task is complete, I’ll allow myself 10 minutes of internet browsing, a 10 minute coffee break, etc.  This is far to superior to taking a break in the middle of task.  When we pause a task and later revisit it (even only 10 minutes later), there’s a transition period where efficiency isn’t maximized.  This low efficiency transition time may come from both software (needing to reopen a file or program) and/or your brain (refocusing your attention on a given project), among other things.
  • Set deadlines, and make others hold you accountable for them.  Aside from rare occasions where last minute problems derail entire projects, isn’t it funny how you always complete something by a due date or time?  If you’re given a week to complete a task, you’ll finish it in a week.  If you’re given a day, it’ll be done within a day.  Deadlines and a sense of urgency force us to work within a given time frame and force us to achieve the necessary level of efficiency.  A project or task with no deadline may seem to drag on forever.  
    • Example:  Next time a superior gives you a task and says something like, “Just get it done sometime this week or next week,” instead of nodding your head and walking away, you should reply, “No problem.  I should be able to get it to you by the end of tomorrow.”  Note that you’ve made a soft commitment by saying “should.”  You leave yourself a cushion in case something unexpected comes up or another task escalates in urgency.  By setting a deadline, you will force yourself to be efficient and waste less time, in order to complete the task by the deadline.
  • Group tasks that are identical or similar.  This is also known as batching and it’s very important concept that will get its own post at a later time.  Tim Ferriss refers to this constantly in The 4-Hour Workweek (introduced in Chapter 7).  If you’re someone who checks your email once every 5 minutes, try cutting it down to once per hour.  Even if you have no new mail, the act of checking your email forces you to pause whatever you’re working on, seriously damaging your efficiency.  If you tend to file away documents as you receive them, stop.  Accumulate the documents, and do your filing once per day or once per week (depending on how much you have, etc.).  There’s an endless list of examples where batching can implemented, and I plan to explore this in great depth through several forthcoming posts.

What else helps you stay focused and productive?  Share your tips in the comments.

30-Day Challenge Update – Day 14 (2/8):

Day 14 Total                      $  0.00

30-Day Challenge Update – Day 13 (2/7):

Coffee/Breakfast:               $  10.00
Pizza during Super Bowl:          0.00 <–Domino’s screwed up badly, and gave us our pizzas for free!
Day 13 Total                     $  10.00

30-Day Challenge Expense Total: $228.66

“Allowed” Expenses Remaining $271.34

Average Daily Expense to Date:  $16.33 (Target Average: $16.67/day) 

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