We talk a lot about using communication to improve relationships at work and managing your time and attention is a big part of that. After I read the book Busy By Tony Crabbe a few years ago, I started to read more about what we need to do to be able to thrive and how to focus. I’ve read several books since then about forming habits, how our brains work, and mental resilience.
The main thing is to focus your attention, not worry so much about time and to add or remove friction to help you build sustainable habits.
How to focus and get more done
These are the five things I often share with 1:1 clients and when I’m running the Coaching Retreat with The Calm Edged Rebels.
Turn off notifications
We are easily distracted because our brains are naturally curious and like novelty. When something pings on our screen or our phone we are interrupted, and our brain will want to check it out. It can become addictive to keep checking, and an additional source of stress. On average it takes us 23 minutes to recover from these types of interruptions.
The only notifications I have on my phone are for text messages and phone calls. WhatsApp, email, and all social media have none so I can control when I check them without being interrupted (self-interruption is a whole other topic!)
Take a break
Research suggests we should spend 52 minutes on focused work followed by a 17-minute break. This will be different for everyone, but make sure you aren’t trying to spend too much time on concentrated work – we all need a break!
Getting some fresh air, and stepping away from a screen to make a cup of tea are all things that help us have a little pause in our day.
You can’t multitask – stay focused and become productive
No one can. Multitasking increases the time it takes to complete a task by 40%! Stay focused on one thing at a time and be present in the meeting, conversation, or on the specific piece of work. If you are in a habit of doing emails while on video calls, stop it. Not only is it clear to the other people on the call and a sign that you’re not paying attention to them (which damages relationships) it also means you’re not really paying attention to either.
Ask yourself how urgent or important things are so you’re not trying to do it all at once. Practising being present, in the moment, allows you to calm the pace of work. It does take practice but it’s worth it once you learn how to actively listen to those you’re with.
Use Timers and Mix Up Tasks
Setting a timer for your work helps you stay focused. When the timer goes off, you can give yourself a reward for completion – maybe a cup of tea or a walk. Mixing up tasks also helps, as the brain can move from deep work to admin and back again (addressing the desire for novelty).
Sometimes you’ll get into deep work and a flow state which is often needed if the work you’re doing requires some deeper thinking. I like to have meeting free days for this sort of work so that I can immerse myself in whatever it is.
Try timers to help you focus on a project and then admin and then back to the project – for example I would do 30 mins of a client proposal, then 30 mins of emails, then a 10-minute break before going onto something else. 30-minute timers work best for me but you need to work out the right time for you.
The Rule of Five Things
Firstly, a to do list is never done at work because there is always something to do. It’s your job so if the list was complete, what would you be doing?
To help you manage it, your to-do list for a day should be a maximum of five things – maybe one big and four small, or two big and three small. But never five big tasks. Remember, your day is made up of interruptions, reactive things you need to deal with and meetings. Don’t put the pressure on with a big list.
If I have a meeting heavy day, there is nothing on my to do list. Where my gaps are I’ll be in my inbox making sure I’m dealing with anything urgent or actions from the meetings that have taken place. I often plan out my days in the week on a Monday morning and spread tasks out across the five days.
I’ve talked about this on my own podcast and on Calm Edged Rebels – the links to those are here:
If you’re struggling with managing this and the relationships across your team or your boss, drop me an email email@example.com and we can talk about some 1:1 sessions or a team workshop to help you align on ways of working together.