You’re not the only one struggling to focus. According to Time Magazine, around 50 percent of employees in the U.S. get distracted after only 15 minutes of work. 15 minutes! Better keep this short…
There are, however, plenty of articles out already that offer tips on how to focus on work—so why write another one?
It’s not because they’re no good; I refer to many of them in this post, and I added links to the best resources at the end, should you be interested in diving deeper.
But they mostly cover broader tips, or ones that require rather drastic changes to your lifestyle—like switching to a morning rhythm or picking up meditation. Great tips, no doubt, but I’d like to share more direct fixes—ones that you can apply to your workflow today. An instant focus guide for the office soldier, so to say.
These are the 15 favorite off-the-shelf tips from the team at Userlike to help keep focus, ordered as a checklist that you can go through at the start of your day. To help you put these tips into practice, I’ve added the actual checklist and supporting workflow sheet at the bottom of this post.
1. Clean up your workstation
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
― Albert Einstein
Well, Einstein… you’re kind of an intimidating figure to argue with… and I don’t want to sound smart, but… it’s a sign of a clear mind. A mind like water, as David Allen calls it in his book “How to Get Things Done“. The more you have on your desk, the more you can get distracted by.
This extends beyond your physical desk to your desktop and browsers as well. For many people these look like mine-plagued warzones, paralyzing the focus of whoever tries to work in them. Clean up!
2. Plan your day
The worst way to start your day is to just start working. Not having a plan, a roadmap for your workday, is how you will lose your way and stand on the side of the road with an empty gas tank.
Instead, write down your one to three most important tasks (MITs) for the day. Focus on these first, when your energy levels are highest – and make sure you complete them. The remainder of your day you can spend on small stuff.
One benefit of a to-do list is that when you’re disturbed, you won’t need to think about what you were working on again – you simply look down on your list.
According to Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits, the main pitfall people make in their daily planning is writing down vague to-dos. For example, the to-do ‘write awesome blog post about how to focus on work’ is vague. I might write it down as a MIT, but my mind will keep stressing about it because it’s not clearly defined.
That’s why Leo suggests that you break down your daily to-dos into small, physical steps—until they are ‘crankable widgets‘. A digestible version of the awesome blog post would be to break it down into smaller steps, as you can see in the below screenshot of my Asana task:
Once you’ve made your plan for the day, stick to it. Or, as Dale Carnegie puts it in his book on “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”:
“Once you have made a careful decision based on facts, go into action. Don’t stop to reconsider. Don’t begin to hesitate, worry and retrace your steps. Don’t lose yourself in self-doubting which begets other doubts. Don’t keep looking back over your shoulder.”
You need to accept that your plan might fail, like the samurai accepted that they might die in battle. It’s this acceptance that allowed them to stop worrying and focus everything on the execution.
3. Set up incremental time goals
After setting up your to-do, a great way to force yourself to stay focused on your task at hand is by attaching a time goal to it. When your focus slips, you’ll remember: “I’m supposed to finish this by 11 a.m. Back on it now.”
The mistake I initially made here was to set time goals for all my to-dos at once. But then miscalculating for one messes up the schedule for all the others as well. So instead, write down time goals for your first task at hand only – and set up a new goal when you continue on to your next task. Make these time goals challenging, but realistic.
4. Keep a NOT to-do list
This is a handy supplement to the to-do list suggested by the guys at Help Scout. A lack of focus is basically the inability to forget about the unimportant, and we’re all tempted to the unimportant in one way or another. For me, it’s football news websites—with useless updates about transfers and empty interviews with players. It’s on the top of my NOT to-do list, followed closely by checking 9GAG and BoredPanda.
5. Switch off notifications
Notifications: the poison of our digital society. Whenever I open WhatsApp it begs me to turn them back on–but switching them off has been an undivided blessing for my focus.
Evolutionary psychology can explain our hunger for information and our helplessness against updates. When we were wandering around Africa’s savannahs around 70,000 years ago, information about our environment was crucial for our survival.
And not only information about droughts, water reserves, and lingering lions, also gossip about fellow tribesmen was mightily important. What was everyone’s position in the group? Who could you trust? In his book “Sapiens“, Yuval Harari even acknowledges gossip as one of the driving forces behind the development of human language.
The difference is that information was a scarce commodity back then–just like sweet, fatty, and salty food were. And just as it’s become a challenge to maintain a healthy body with today’s abundance of fast foods, it’s become a challenge to maintain a focused mind with today’s abundance of information delivered to your phone every day.
That’s why it’s so darn hard not to check a notification when you get one. What’s beyond that bleep or red dot? It could be anything–surely something important. But how often is it important, really? And how often is it just another silly remark in an equally silly group discussion?
So switch it all off. Not just Messenger and WhatsApp, but also Slack and all your other apps. If it’s crucial, they’ll call. Block everything and enjoy your newfound ocean of focus.
6. Write down when to check updates
All right, maybe quitting all updates cold turkey is a bit extreme. It’s nice to stay informed—and often necessary when it comes to collaboration channels like Slack. All I’m saying is that you should be in control of when you receive the updates.
A good way to do that is to plan the times when you’ll be checking your communications. I keep a piece of paper next to my keyboard with the times at which I’ll check which channels.
Some I check more than others. Slack, for example, I open up to five times per day. Email I check twice per day, at noon and at the end of the day. Facebook and WhatsApp I also check twice—right before and right after work.
Planning your ‘update times’ robs you from any excuse to check messages and break your focus. You’ll not only save time, most of all you’ll save energy from switching back and forth between contexts.
7. Track your urges
This is another tip by Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. It originates from mindfulness practices and really works to put a halt to your procrastination flings.
Keep a section on your ‘working paper’ to keep track of your urges—the urges you feel to break any of the commitments you made above, like checking WhatsApp or yesterday’s post-match analysis.
Instead of giving in when an urge arises, you make a simple mark on the paper. You’ll start to recognize when your mind pulls towards distraction, but by noting down the mark you turn from being a victim to being an objective observer of your urges.
8. Note down surfacing ideas
Where some people are slaves to their emotions, others are slaves to their ideas—which is just about as bad when it comes to keeping focus.
When you have an active mind—and I bet you think you do—ideas will come to you when you’re working. Some of these are too good to be ignored. Being a disciplined person, you might say “I’ll stay focused on what I’m doing now—I’ll make a mental note to work it out later.” But that’s not how your mind works.
If you have a good, exciting idea, your mind will keep coming back to it until you work it out—or until you’ve forgotten about it. So don’t wait; jot down your ideas as quickly as you can. Get it out of your head, so you can get back to your MIT.
9. Set up a few hours of quiet time
Human interruption is by far the most pervasive of distractions. You must be extremely gifted in the art of rudeness to be able to ignore a colleague with a question—as is brilliantly illustrated in the comic below.
It’s one reason why messenger collaboration tools like Slack are so popular. When a question for your colleague pops up, you can ask it right away over the chat without disrupting her workflow.
But even chats are disrupting, especially when you didn’t put a leash on their notifications. “Chat apps = shoulder taps”, notes Gregory Ciotti—which is why he suggests you should ask for quiet time even when you’re working remotely.
If you’re in a managing position, you could install a company/team habit of a few hours of quiet time every day—for example, between the morning stand-up and lunch hour. IM client are switched off, there’s a ban on disturbing others, and everyone goes in full-throttle focus mode.
If you’re not in a position to make such changes, you could communicate your ‘quiet hours’ to your team, log off the chat during this time, and set up a natural barrier with headphones.
10. Dedicate browsers to work or private
It’s good to draw clear barriers between your working and your private areas. That’s true for physical places, like not taking your working laptop to bed, but it also counts for inside your computer.
At Userlike we encourage our team members to set up both a private and a working browser identity. The private browser can be used for, well, private stuff – like checking Facebook or 9GAG. At your planned update checking times only, of course.
The working browser, then, is used for nothing else but focused work. Install some browser extensions with which you can block your favorite time-wasting websites. Website Blocker does the trick for me.
On the one hand, this gives you mental support, reminding you that you are in work focus mode. On the other, it creates a barrier for procrastination urges. Switching to Facebook becomes a conscious effort – making it more likely to realize your transgression and put a halt to yourself before it’s too late.
11. Bookmark frequent websites
If you want to focus on your work you shouldn’t waste energy on searching for your most visited websites and pages. So bookmark them. Set up a solid and properly organized bookmark collection inside your working browser. And don’t limit yourself to websites only – also the specific pages inside those websites.
Above is a screenshot of my current bookmark setup. Note that I bookmarked specific pages inside my Asana, so I don’t have to search further for the specific destination from its home page.
Do keep this bookmark folder clean, and don’t let it grow indefinitely. In fact, probably you shouldn’t let the number of top bookmarks grow beyond seven—the magic number for our working memory.
12. Don’t control the music
Gregory Ciotti crafted a cool post about how music affects productivity. It can be a great stimulant for your focus, depending on the music you’re listening and the task you’re doing.
But if I’d have to give one tip about working music, it’s this: put the controls away. When you keep the control (e.g. by playing a Spotify list from your work laptop) your mind will stay in optimizing mode.
You stay conscious about the music, while you should be aiming for mere background noise. Whenever you switch to change a song, you lose your focused workflow—much like you lose the flow of a house party when your drunk friends have access to the music and keep switching songs.
When you work at home, play music by connecting your smartphone to the stereo—to not control it. If this isn’t possible in your working environment, connect your headphones to your phone and play music from there instead. It’s an extra barrier to controlling the music, and it won’t intervene with your workflow as much.
13. Keep water and healthy snacks close by
Mental labor is heavy labor. Maybe you’re not sweating (let’s hope not), but your brain is a heavy consumer when it’s focused. So keep a big bottle of liquid next to your desk.
Drinking plenty of water throughout the day keeps your mind fresh. Don’t go for the sweet soft drink. It’ll give you a spike in energy – quickly followed by a dip. When you’re bored by water, add a slice of lemon, or go for a tea.
Hungriness or a low sugar level will make you lose focus as well. Sweets, however, will cause the same energy dip as soft drinks. The easiest and healthiest snack food I know are nuts—such as walnuts, which also contain good fats for your brain.
14. Get up, stand up
They say sitting is the new smoking. But if health isn’t enough of a reason to move your but, then maybe you’ll be convinced by the fact that sitting for too long also eats away at your ability to focus. The video below explains the harmful effects of sitting, including a lack of oxygen flowing to your brain. Sounds kind of crucial, right?
Now, the first fix is to stand up more regularly, maybe by using a reminder app like Stand Up! The best is to go for a standing desk, one that you can adjust so that you can work a few hours standing and a few hours sitting. You’ll notice the difference in energy and focus capacity right away.
Standing desks are expensive, though, which is why I’m quite excited by Oristand, a great inexpensive solution that can turn your normal desk into a standing one.
15. Work 48 minutes, break for 12
The idea is that instead of burning all your energy within the first 3 or 4 hours, you’ll be able to work with energy and focus throughout the day. For this to happen, you must maintain your energy reserves—which you achieve by taking regular breaks.
Now the 48/12 minutes rule is just a setup suggested by speaker Don Crowther at the NSA Summer Symposium, but it’s a good benchmark to start off with.
Those are our tips to help you focus on work! To actually put them in practice, you can download the Focus Checklist (Excel/MS Office or Numbers/Mac) and the Workflow Paper (Excel/MS Office or Numbers/Mac). You can either print those out or use them in digital format.
If you’d like to deepen your understanding of focus, flow, productivity, and the human mind in the workplace, I recommend the following reads:
- Getting Things Done – The all-time classic on productivity by David Allen.
- Zen Habits Blog – Blog by Leo Babauta about living a better life, much of it based on mindful living.
- James Clear Blog – Blog by James Clear about science-based ideas for mastering your habits and living an optimal life.
- Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time – A great Harvard Business Review article by The Energy Project.
- Rework – book on working lessons by 37signals.
- Flow, the secret to happiness – insightful TED talk about flow in work, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
- Train Your Brain for Monk-Like Focus – Lifehacker article by Thorin Klosowski.
- What Are Your Guerrilla Office Tactics? – Funny lifehacker discussion on guerilla tactics to protect yourself against disturbances in the office.
Now… Procrastinating for too long already, you have. Back to focus on work, you must.
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