How busy are you today?
Chances are your instinctive answer will be “very” – a long to-do list and nowhere near enough time to do it in.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
But are you really as busy as you feel or are you simply trying to give too much of your focus to the wrong things?
Very often we’re guilty of creating our own chaos, by failing to recognise the really important tasks and not setting the boundaries we need.
In this blog post we’ll look in more depth at this issue of attention management, and how understanding where and how we focus our time can bring us a greater sense of calm and control. Let’s learn how to focus…
Why busy is bad
I always say that it is easy to be busy.
It’s an easy excuse – “sorry I haven’t done that, I’ve been really busy” or “sorry I haven’t got back to you, I’ve had so much going on”.
But what’s really happening here is we are prioritising other things. It may not feel like it during really hectic periods, but you have a choice over how you spend your time and energy. Understanding this and taking steps to reclaim control of it is hugely important.
There is an important caveat here however. Busy as an excuse is what we are talking about. It’s still completely acceptable to have a busy day. But when it’s a reason for not doing things, that’s when we need to catch it.
Failure to manage time properly can make us feel rubbish and leads to:
- feeling overwhelmed with the number of tasks you have to do
- feeling like you say yes to everyone all the time
- not having the time to do what you want to do
- missing deadlines
- feeling burnt out
- missing out on things that are important to you
From the outside, it can look to others like you’re unorganised, unreliable and inconsistent, as they notice a drop in your performance.
Why can’t I focus?
Human brains are programmed to be easily distracted. They like novelty. In fact, most of us naturally switch focus every four minutes.
If we are completing a task that is dull we are likely to welcome an interruption. In fact, research tells us that 44% of all interruptions are self-initiated and that it takes us 23 minutes to recover from interruptions like phone calls or email alerts.
Even if you think you’re good at multi-tasking, science shows us that it’s an inefficient way to work – studies have shown that doing so can increase the time it takes to complete a task by 40%!
What is useful to know, when we wonder why we can’t stay focused in a three-hour meeting, is that the optimal time for us to focus is 52 minutes followed by 17 minutes away from your desk.
It’s no wonder our brains begin to wander in long meetings or workshops, before you even begin to add in the distractions posed by social media and emails and all those notifications on our phones.
How can I improve my focus?
The good news is that once we begin to understand more about the way our brains work, we can begin to make changes to the way we work – working with them rather than against them.
Sometimes relatively simple fixes can make a big difference. One organisation we worked with decided to change their meetings to 45 minutes as a result of learning some of these insights. They still do this today and it helps people stay focused and removes the stress created by back-to-back meetings.
Individually, we need to get better at communicating boundaries and editing our choices.
In Matt Haig’s book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, he talks about the fact we cannot read every book or watch every film in existence. We cannot possibly do all the things the world today has to offer us, as much as we might like to.
To be successful, we must edit things out in order to do the things that help us achieve our goals. This will be personal to us, so try not to be swayed by what others are doing. Keep your own goals in sight.
Six top tips for improved focus at work
When it comes to work, there are six key things you can do to help improve focus and maintain boundaries:
- Be clear about time in your diary and when you’re available. No one is available all the time and they shouldn’t be either. Work out what works for you from blocked time to write or do admin to full days that are meeting free.
- ASAP is not a deadline. If people give you ASAP as a deadline ask them for a date – what’s as soon as possible for them won’t be the same for you. Get clarity.
- Timers are your friend. Break your day up into timed slots and do different types of work to address the need for novelty – for example, 30 minutes on emails and then 30 mins of writing and then 30 minutes of something else. You might decide on longer or shorter intervals, but they will help you stay focused.
- Turn your wifi off when doing focused work and keep notifications to a minimum. This puts you in control of when you check emails or look at social media.
- Try the rule of five. Never give yourself more than five things to do in a day. Never all big tasks – maybe one big and four small, or three small and two medium. Any more than that and you’re overloaded. Be realistic with what you can achieve in a day.
- Eat the frog. Do the hardest task of the day first thing because there will be nothing as bad and you won’t procrastinate as much (procrastination can be helpful, it’s not all bad!).
Some of these might sound simple, and starting to practice attention management instead of time management can have a huge impact on your productivity.
Being clear about the impact of others’ requests on your time and having conversations about what is achievable in a timeframe is fundamental to creating an engaging and efficient organisation.
If you want some help as an individual or for your team or even your whole organisation, drop us an email and we can discuss 1:1 consultancy, workshops and speaking options for internal events. You can reach us at email@example.com
You can listen to me talking about this subject in this episode from our Redefining Communications with Jenni Field podcast.