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October 17, 2018

How to Stay Focused at Work

Running your own business is tough. You find yourself running in 10 different directions, answering texts, phone calls and emails at a moment’s notice. At the end of the day, you wonder what, if anything, got done.

Running a business out of your home can be even worse – you may have kids running around, the cable guy knocking on the door, laundry to do…

According to a study from UC Irvine, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back on track after you encounter a distraction at work. So the challenge is how to stay focused at work with all those interruptions.

The good news is that there is plenty of advice out there for dealing with distractions. The bad news is that there is plenty of advice out there for dealing with distractions – maybe too much. Don’t worry, though; we’ll help you sift through all that advice and give you the most successful ways on how to stay focused at work.

What may not always work

All the advice the experts give may not be practical for you. For instance:

Not answering email/texts/phone calls

This is a common piece of advice – turning your phone off and closing your email program so you can concentrate on the task at hand. However, if you’re a small business owner, it’s important to get back to customers, especially if they have a pressing need. A lot of people find this advice impossible to implement.

Scheduling your day

The best-laid plans…You may have a good idea of what you want to do when you come into work, and may have a carefully thought-out schedule. But when you walk in the door and the phone is ringing because your service is down, that important client wants a meeting ASAP to talk about it, and you have 77 messages in your inbox, all scheduled activities may fall by the wayside.

Making a to-do list

Again, this list may be things that you should get done or want to get done. But on a crazy day, you may not get very far, and that’s not good for your confidence – or your productivity.

Limiting social media

If you’re prone to skipping off to Facebook for 30 minutes at a time, it’s a good idea to limit your interaction with these sites. There are ways to help you with this. But what if social media is one of your customer service vehicles? What if it’s part of your marketing strategy? You may have to interact with them.

What May Help

Pomodoro Technique

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Focus on one task and one task only for those 25 minutes; once the timer stops, take a 5-minute break to answer emails, phone calls or stretch. Every three rounds, take a longer break (about 15-20 minutes). Staying focused on one task will help to create “flow” in your work routine, more commonly known as “being in the zone.”

Getting Things Done

GTD takes a little practice and is somewhat complicated, but it has its adherents. The object is to get everything out of your head and into some type of system.

Gather all the tasks you have to do into an inbox – either virtual or physical. If it takes less than 2 minutes to do, go ahead and do it. If you don’t need to do it, delegate it. The rest can be put into some type of list – Next Actions, Waiting For, Someday – and can also be grouped by project and by context (where you are at a certain time – phone, home, computer, etc.). For instance, if you’re in line to buy groceries, look at your @phone list and see if there are any calls you can return.

You determine how many lists, projects and contexts there are. As new tasks come in, complete the short tasks immediately, then either delegate or assign the rest to a list, project and context.

Luckily, there are dozens of apps, both web-based and phone-based, that help you with the GTD system. Finding one that fits your work style is a bit tougher.

Limiting your expectations

The good thing about GTD – getting everything into a system – also is a bad thing. Where do you start? Some people advocate coming into work in the morning with your mind set on three major tasks that you want to complete. What three tasks would make today a success? If you finish those three, great. Move on to something else. Some say to tackle the hardest task first – “swallow the frog” – so the rest of your day can be easier. Others say start with an easy task so you can feel accomplished and get into that zone.

Still another school of thought narrows the tasks down to one major task to concentrate on. It all depends on your workload and how quickly you can move things off your desk.

Schedule annoyances

Remember those 5- and 15-minute breaks in the Pomodoro Technique? We mentioned that it’s a perfect time to make those calls and answer those emails. Find a time to do that – you don’t want to wait too long to get back to sales leads – but try to handle as many at one time as you can, then move on to your next task. And remember the GTD rule: if it takes less than 2 minutes to do, go ahead and do it.

What definitely helps

Get enough sleep

This may be a no-brainer to some, but about a third of us don’t get enough sleep. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep; 8 is best. You’ll enter work feeling refreshed, your head clear and your mind set on being productive.

Learn how you work

We all work differently, and what may be good for some may not be good for others. If you’re deadline-oriented, put those tasks on a calendar with a time that you need to complete it by. Distracted by sounds around the home or office? Find some good noise-canceling headphones and play some music without words to keep you focused. Are you a morning person? Try to be most productive in the mornings, and get those difficult tasks done then. It’s only by examining our work styles that we find out what works and what doesn’t.

Take a break

Sometimes our brains are too tired to go on. If you’re stumped on a problem or mentally exhausted, take a walk around the neighborhood or block. It only takes 10-15 minutes, and it clears your head. You can mull over your problem, or clear your mind. It’s your time by yourself. Recuperate.


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