While the popular headline that our attention spans are now smaller than that of a goldfish is incorrect, focusing in today’s information-saturated world is difficult.
The average worker spends about 13 hours a week on emails and that’s not accounting for social media platforms that take up even more time.
This is bad in a society where most of us are increasingly becoming knowledge workers and are exposed to these kinds of distractions daily:
Workplace trends like open offices aren’t helping matters either and have been shown to actually decrease productivity. There are also tools like Slack which are supposed to be the answer to debilitating emails but only changed the platform the problem was on.
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On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week and power users can send out more than 1,000 messages per day.
The ability to concentrate is important now more than ever, it’s a skill that can not only raises your value in your organization but can also improve your quality of life.
Focus is important, here are 4 ways to get more of it at work:
1. Prioritize your tasks for the day
How you start your day can determine what you accomplish by the end of it.
The thing about how most of us plan our day is that we tend to clump tasks together regardless of importance. We arrange them based which we’d like to do first or just take care of each task as they arise.
But this is a very inefficient way to plan your activities for the day because all your tasks aren’t equally important.
And while we’ve all heard the popular advice to do the hardest tasks first, this fails to take into account that we might have several difficult tasks that demand our attention and that difficult doesn’t always mean important.
One of the best ways to plan your day is to use a tool known as the Eisenhower matrix.
United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a very productive person, and he attributes a large part of this to his system for prioritizing activities which are now known as the Eisenhower matrix.
The Eisenhower matrix, segments tasks into four groups based on their urgency and importance:
- Important and Urgent (Do immediately)
- Important but not urgent (Schedule a time to do it)
- Not important but urgent (Delegate to someone else)
- Not important and not urgent (Eliminate them)
For example, planning your day with the Eisenhower Matrix might look like this:
- Important and Urgent: Call a client to discuss a service agreement.
- Important but not urgent: Get plane tickets and accommodations to an industry conference that’s a month away.
- Not important but urgent: Replying messages on Slack.
- Not important and not urgent: Changing your profile picture on Facebook.
This simple framework helped a president lead a nation and it can drastically improve your focus.
2. Set time-limits
According to Parkinson’s law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This means that if you allocate 3 weeks for an activity it’ll likely take you 3 weeks to complete. A large time frame leaves you with room to procrastinate and the luxury to worry about things that matter very little to your task.
If you have 4 months to plan an event, you can afford to care about things like seating arrangements and the fonts of your powerpoint presentation.
If you had only a month, these things would matter less.
Parkinson’s law teaches us to constantly evaluate the work we do because there’s always room for improvement.
Is that task really going to take four weeks to complete? Or is four weeks just the timeframe you’ve always done it in.
Is there no room for improvement?
When you set time limits, you force yourself to get more creative, to eliminate the minutiae and focus on aspects of a task that provide the most value.
Next time you plan a task, you should set a personal time limit that’s 10% to 20% shorter than the usual time frame, and see if quality drops.
If quality doesn’t drop that should be your new timeframe and you should reduce it by another 10% or 20% next time to see just how quickly you can do it.
3. Use proactive metrics
We’ve all been at that point where we’re staring down at a massive project and feel overwhelmed. The usual response is to procrastinate until the approaching deadline forces you to take the first step.
Project overwhelm happens to all us, thankfully there’s a way to solve this.
Internet entrepreneur Noah Kagan has a process for dealing with complicated tasks. He says that most of the confusion of large tasks comes as a result of people worrying about the final result, essentially obsessing over something that’s not in their control.
The solution lies in what he calls proactive metrics. The idea of proactive metrics is powerful and can change the way you work for the better.
Imagine if you had a goal to increase user signups at your company by 20% this quarter. That’s a pretty large goal that’s dependant on a lot of contributing factors, it’s the perfect scenario for overwhelm to set in and the right use case for proactive metrics.
With proactive metrics, you can break this large goal into smaller goals. You can’t control how many signups you get but there are factors that directly tie into sign ups that are in your control.
You can turn 20% more signups into:
- Publish 5 blog posts a week
- Host one webinar a week
- Speak on two podcasts a month
- Run a giveaway every two months
- Write 5 guest posts per month on large publications
Now rather than the overwhelming task of increasing user signups you now have a set of simple tasks that you can focus on which will lead you to your final goal.
4. Start doing Deep Work
The term deep work was coined by computer science professor Cal Newport in his book of the same name. Deep work describes a way of working in which you focus completely on a demanding task and block out all forms of distractions for a specific period of time.
Its effectiveness is based on the fact that humans are bad at multitasking and that the quality and speed of work increases when we concentrate solely on a single task.
The benefits of going into deep work are backed by a lot of science, according to research from the University of California once you’ve been derailed from a task by an interruption, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on track.
If you take 5 minutes out of your work to reply to a coworker, you’ve lost more than just 5 minutes as the cost of switching attention lasts long after the interruption has passed. Compound this over an entire workday for each interruption and you can see how bad this can get.
The solution to all of this is doing more deep work.
Here’s how to get started:
- Create time blocks for the important tasks in your day (use the Eisenhower matrix).
- Use a tool like pomodoro to set breaks from deep work.
- Avoid distractions like emails, phone calls, etc. And if you work in a noisy office get a good pair of headphones.
- Set clear instructions to coworkers so they know not to interrupt you during deep work unless an issue is critically important.
Focus is an extremely valuable skill in a world that increasingly places more importance on mental work. Becoming focused can help you stand out while boosting the quality of your work and life.
But focus isn’t a switch you can just turn on and people that focus don’t do so by accident, rather they plan and improve themselves continuously.
At the end of the day increasing your focus at work is all about making smart choices in the way you work and the tactics in the post will help you do just that.