We are living in a world of always on, always connected, information overload and constant distractions. Meetings, emails, web surfing, social media, reacting to other people’s priorities, and saying ‘yes’ to requests that don’t get us closer to achieving our goals are just some of the ways we get seduced into doing work that ultimately doesn’t “move the needle”. It doesn’t move us closer to achieving our goals.
I certainly struggle with achieving focus and avoiding the incessant distractions. Here are some of the best ideas and tips from science and experts that can help us all make 2016 our best year yet.
According to author Cal Newport (as described by blogger Eric Barker of Barking Up the Wrong Tree), “there are two kinds of work:
- “Deep work” is using your skills to create something of value. It takes thought, energy, time and concentration.
- “Shallow work” is all the little administrative and logistical stuff: email, meetings, calls, expense reports, etc.
“Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted.” It also makes you happier.
Schedule deep work
Think about how we typically schedule our days – we often build in time for meetings and other people’s priorities and hope to get in some deep work in between.
“Don’t schedule distractions and hope to fit in work where you can” writes Barker. “Invert your schedule. Block out a few hours for real, deep work. Cluster your email and other administrative shallow work into “batches.””
A viral email recently sent out by a Google employee to his staff and colleagues agrees: you must schedule deep work – he calls it Maker Work --- and protect it. Ideally, you should aim to schedule this kind of work first thing in the day, before shallow work gets a chance to derail you. Also, the email points out that our energy and attention tend to flow differently on different days of the week, so aim to achieve most of your ‘Maker’ work on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“Unless you can concentrate on what you want to do and suppress distractions, it’s hard to accomplish anything, period.” — Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (via Farnam Street)
One of the biggest focus-destroyers: multi-tasking. You might have heard by now – multi-tasking is B.S. It doesn’t work. All you’re doing is rapidly switching your attention from one thing to the other. But studies show that there is a 25% switch cost involved – that is, if you did two activities simultaneously by switching back and forth you would lose 25% of your productivity in the switch, as compared to if you just did them one at a time.
Just stop it.
4 Tips for making focus happen so you can crush your goals in 2016 and beyond
Okay, we’ve scheduled our deep work and stopped multi-tasking. But what can we all do to fight off distraction, procrastination, and the allure of shallow work?
I’ve got four tips to help …
Follow Elaine’s Focus Formula: One of my mentors, Elaine Biech, described her Focus Formula during her recent interview on my podcast. She’s written dozens of books using this simple but brilliant four-steps formula:
- Go away. Step out of your normal environment to break away from the usual distractions. At least, close your office door for a couple of hours if that’s all you can muster.
- Be ready. Since you’ve scheduled this time for deep work, ensure that you have all the needed supplies (including snacks and beverages) ready on hand before your deep work session begins. You’ll be less likely to distract yourself by having to go fetch stuff.
- Eliminate distractions. Turn off social media, email, and any other buzzers and dingers you have. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t accept visitors. (See step 1 above to help with this.)
- Enlist help to protect your time. A common mistake is to hope people understand and to pray they don’t break your flow. Instead, TELL them what you’re doing and ASK them for their help in avoiding interruptions and protecting your time. You can always return the favor for their scheduled Maker time.
Use the Pomodoro technique: One of my favorite focusing trick is the Pomodoro Technique. Put on a timer (like the Pomodoro kitchen timers shaped like a tomato… get it?) for a chunk of undistracted focus time (usually 25 minutes). Work only on that one task until the timer goes off. Then, you can take a short break before moving on to the next time chunk. There are now lots of free apps you can download to your smartphone or other devices to help you implement this tip. But all you really need is an old fashioned kitchen timer!
Harness the Power of the Zeigarnik Effect. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered that we tend to remember unfinished tasks much better than completed ones. This is because our mind seeks resolution and closure to interrupted tasks. These ‘open loops’ cause our mind to ping us about them, over and over again. Try using the Zeigarnik effect to battle procrastination: if you find yourself procrastinating on starting something, do something – anything – that gets you started on that task (even if it’s the easiest part of the work or a trivial aspect of the project). You’ll be much more likely to finish it since your mind will see it as an open loop and cause you to crave closure."
Work Fewer Hours. Shorter workdays can force you to work smarter, not harder, and to protect your time from distractions, as Tower Paddle Boards CEO and employees discovered when they shortened their official company hours to a 5-hour workday. Because people knew that they could get out of work at 1pm if they got their work done by then, they resisted shallow work and zeroed in on work that made a real difference. And then they went surfing.
I’ve been working on improving my focus for years, and I’m determined to get even better at it in 2016. I know that it will allow me to achieve my big, scary goals, to make a bigger difference, and to have more free time to boot.
What do you say – will you join me in declaring 2016 the year of our best focus? Let me know in the comments below.
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