In a world of constant pings and competing priorities, it can be tough to stay on track during the workday.
There’s no doubt that lack of focus keeps us from getting work done efficiently, but its negative impacts are extending even further than that: it’s bringing down our mood and outlook in general.
In our recent study, 84 percent of people said that constant interruptions at work are making them less happy.
Next time you feel stress creeping up, try these techniques for staying focused at work. You might find that adding a little structure to the madness is all you need to reach your maximum productivity — and be a little happier.
1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix - Prioritize work by value.
We’ve all experienced that disappointing moment: You complete a task only to realize that it was, well, useless. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix helps you eliminate those tasks from your workday, so you can focus on initiatives that make a big splash. It’s simple, and you can draw it anywhere when you need to prioritize your work.
As Intercom’s Geoffrey Keating explained, “It places anything you could spend your time doing on two spectrums: one going from the most urgent possible task to the least urgent, the other going from critically important to totally inconsequential—and using these as axes, divides your work into four quadrants.”
The goal of this exercise? To keep your focus on high-impact work, and cut the distracting fluff. Spend the vast majority of your time on tasks that land in Quadrants 1 and 2. For work in 3 or 4, see what you can eliminate. Ask yourself: Why is this task necessary?
“By ‘batching’ urgent and important work, we minimize the switching costs involved in moving from different types of work,” Keating said. “It allows us to work on the most valuable initiatives and, more importantly, finish them.”
2. Deep Work - Be honest about which tasks require your full attention.
Some tasks can be done while chatting with your coworkers or sitting in a buzzing open office space. Other tasks require you to draw the figurative blinds and block out the external world for a while. And that’s perfectly okay. Labeling your “deep work” helps you be more self-aware about the environment you need to accomplish certain tasks.
“It’s important to make the differentiation between shallow and deep work when we’re talking about distractions,” HelpDocs Customer Education Lead Matt Bradford-Aunger noted.
“With shallow work, a few distractions aren’t that big a deal,” he said. “It’s the deep work like development or content creation — where being ‘in the zone’ is critical to getting the job done — we find most hindered by distraction and context switching.”
To try out the deep work technique, spend 10 minutes in the morning going through your to-do list. Label activities as “deep” or “shallow”. Then schedule your calendar accordingly. You can put “deep” initiatives in the morning when you’re most focused, or schedule “shallow” tasks intermittently to give yourself a brain break between tough tasks — just pick a schedule that agrees with your working style.
Last, don’t be afraid to tell your team about your deep work time. Whether it’s putting on headphones, working from home, or setting your Slack status, make it known to your team when you’re cracking down, so they can respect your focus time.
3. Batching - Knock out short tasks together.
Being “on a roll” feels great: you’re checking tasks off your to-do list, left and right. That’s where batching helps: you can get in the groove and figure out the most efficient way to do something.
“Batching is my secret weapon for productivity,” explained Teamweek’s Emily McGee. “With batching, I do the same task or type of task for an extended period of time. For example, instead of doing keyword research and coming up with new blog post ideas every day, I spend two full days at the beginning of the month doing keyword research and filling in the content calendar.”
”Batching requires you to be organized and plan ahead, but it saves you tons of time and ensures you aren’t context switching,” she said. “I batch everything from writing emails to attending meetings, and it makes me much more productive.”
4. Pomodoro - Avoid “Now what?” syndrome.
Ever find that you’re able to focus better when you’re on a tight schedule? The Pomodoro Technique gives you strict timing to help you blast through tasks and avoid distraction.
Pomodoro, named after a tomato-shaped timer, helps you train your brain to stay on track for short periods of time. It capitalizes on a sense of urgency to help you keep plowing through your work.
“It enables you to move through your tasks without having to think about what to do next,” said Sophie Worso from Focus Booster, an app that uses the Pomodoro Technique. It’s pretty simple:
Set your timer for 25 mins, and start working.
When the time’s up, take a short 5-minute break.
Repeat this for 4 intervals of 25 minutes.
After the fourth working session, take a longer break, (25 to 30 minutes)
What’s nice about Pomodoro is the feeling of growth and accomplishment: you get better at focusing for the entire 25 minutes over time, and you feel rewarded with a break at the end of each work session.
5. SMART Framework - Set attainable goals.
It’s a lot easier to stay focused when you have a goal that you actually feel like you can achieve. Assess what you’re working on. If your goal is:
can’t be measured, or
not really existent...
then you’re more likely to fall into the context switching trap.
“Plan out where you need to be a month from now, a year from now or even longer. Put notes or a calendar on your wall so even when you do occasionally get bogged down in the details, you always remember where you’re trying to get to,” Benz said.
Take back your focus
On days when you’re feeling extra distracted, just remember, sometimes physically removing yourself and taking a walk outside is the easiest way to clear your head.
Written by Emily Hackeling
Originally Published: 17 April 2020