Oh, that’s right, I was trying to work on this blog post. Over the past week or so I’ve been trying to sit down to write this post only to be distracted time and again by that annoying thing called “work.” I had multiple ideas, most of which died before I even started typing. That’s when I finally realized what I should write about–focus.
Focus is something I’ve struggled my whole life with. So what do I mean when I say focus? This isn’t about “Oh, I don’t feel like working so I’m going to play Minecraft for two hours at work today, instead.” though that certainly is a lack of focus. I’m talking about those valid, work-related distractions that actually make you accomplish less; about trying to keep everyone happy and all of your tasks moving forward rather than completing the task you’re working on.
Work the Task at Hand
Of course, that’s problem number one–trying to get everything done at once. What happens when you have 20 tasks you’re trying to complete, a client calls with an issue, and two people stop in your office to ask you to help them with a problem while you’re on the phone? You could start drinking heavily at work. Or you could pull out all of your hair in frustration (where do you think all my hair went?). But neither of those helps with the problem at hand: your brain is being pulled in so many different directions that none of the things you’re trying to accomplish are going to get done in anywhere near a reasonable amount of time. More likely than not, some things what get done at all.
You’re just one person, kids. Don’t try to work those 20 tasks at the same time. Every time you shift gears to pay attention to something new you waste time and effort mentally “putting down” one task and “picking up” the next. And, because you didn’t complete the first task the same happens when you go back to it. Where did you leave off? Were you working on a script to check data when you put it down? Maybe you should re-read through the task notes again. Instead of doing these mental gymnastics, focus on one thing and work it to completion (or a blocking point). Yes, your other tasks will have to be lonely for a while but, in the end, you’ll finish your 20 tasks in far less time, and with better results, if you don’t shift mental gears 10 times a day.
Manage Expectations–Not Everything is a Fire
When your client calls don’t let them distract you from this rule. I know it’s hard; this is the trap I fall into more than any other because my clients are mostly support-related, so I’m on the phone with them regularly. It’s just in my nature to keep them happy and productive so when they call my gut reaction is to drop what I’m doing, regardless of the size of the issue, and help them through whatever they need. But I need to remember not to be afraid to have a quick chat, take some notes, ask them put in a support ticket, and tell them “Hey, I’m in the middle of something right now and, as long as Milton hasn’t set the building on fire, I’m going to finish it up and then move over to your issue. I should have an answer to you by X”. That last part is important–make sure your client knows you’re not blowing them off, set a reasonable timeframe for getting back to them, and then get back to them within that timeframe.
This same rule applies for co-workers. Don’t be afraid to say “Hey, I’m working on something right now, but I’ll come grab you in about 15 minutes.” 15 minutes later you’ll be one task lighter, have a sense of accomplishment, and be in a much better mental spot to help with your co-worker’s problems.
Lists Aren’t Just for Santa Claus
An important tool to help you manage all of this is your task list–make sure you have one. If you have something you need to accomplish, make sure you write it down and keep your list in the order you want/need to complete your tasks. Writing everything down will keep you from dropping the ball. Granted, this advice is coming from someone who can’t remember what he had for dinner on Monday, but it applies to everyone–even the most organized of us will have a problem staying on top of everything they want to accomplish without a list.
Even with a list, there’s nothing more overwhelming than looking at a sheet of paper or computer screen full of “to-dos” and knowing there’s no way you’ll be able to tackle them all. This is where keeping them in order becomes important. When a new task comes in, prioritize it right away and rearrange your list if necessary, placing things in the proper order. Then, as you’re working your task list for the day all you have to do is work your way down your list, completing each task (!) and moving onto the next. This process doesn’t have to be rocket science; you can use a small notebook that you keep with you at all times or one of any of a hundred digital options now available. Just make sure that, if you go with a digital choice, it’s safely stored so you when you drop your phone in a sink you don’t lose your tasks for the week (I’m not talking from experience at all, here). I’m a nerd, so I use Google Tasks so they’re synced on my laptop, phone, and tablet.
Consider breaking your task lists up into smaller chunks if that makes them more mentally manageable; it may help you survive the overwhelming nature of a longer list.
The best part about having a task list of any kind is looking back and saying “Hey, look what I accomplished today!” That’s a great feeling.
Disappear…Like a Ninja
Don’t be afraid to drop off the grid for a little while. One of the most effective focus methods is shutting down your email for an hour or two while you work. Some people have set timeframe during which they respond to email: a block in the morning and one in the afternoon where the only thing they work on is email. I haven’t taken this approach yet, but I can definitely see its value. Close your door, if you have one, or put on headphones and disconnect from the world if you’re working on a difficult task. In extreme cases, ask to be moved to a separate office space if you think it will help. Trust me, if there’s a real emergency, someone will find you but, if not, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand with greater ease.
A Break From it All
Finally, remember to take some mental breaks during the day and get away from your desk for a few minutes. I’m fond of taking walks during lunchtime; it’s great exercise and healthy, from a mental standpoint, to see that ball of fire in the sky. Even if you just walk across the hall to make a new cup of coffee, your brain will disconnect between tasks and you’ll feel ready to attack the next thing in your list when you get back to your desk.
For now though, I’ve got to go. My phone is ringing and I haven’t touched my email yet this morning.