The stats on how many ads, images, videos, emails, texts and more that the typical American encounters daily are staggering. For leaders, this clamor of all these distractions has a real cost. Precious time devoted to deep thinking is being eroded. Finding any level of focus takes more energy and it is hard to say no to constant disruptions. Relationships, productivity and health can all suffer as a result. In addition, there is a measurable toll on our energy and brain power by jumping from task to task before anything gets done. This is often referred to as switching costs and can lead you to wondering where all your time went, why little got done, and why you are so tired.
It’s not my nature to be gloom and doom so here are some approaches to regain control over your attention and focus and a couple of client success stories to give you a sense of hope and possibility.
Adam Grant shared this thought on attention and focus in a New York Times article, “A better option is attention management: Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes. Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.”
Time Management Techniques
We all have rhythms and cycles to our energy and productivity. There may be times of day when we feel more capable of doing creative work or analytical work. Other times of day might be lower energy and require outside stimulation or doing more routine tasks. Gaining understanding of your energy throughout the day and week can be a powerful tool to do work when you are most apt to be efficient.
Starting with a to-do list, pick one item to complete. It doesn’t need to be the hardest or most complex item — just one that you can do in one sitting from start to finish. Once you have completed your work, take a brief break of 5–10 minutes. This can be a good time to stretch, get a fresh glass of water or cup of coffee.
Break your digital or paper-based to-do list into sections. Identify the work that must be done today and the work that can wait a little longer. The goal of this is not to do everything at the last minute, which can cause other kinds of stress, but rather to narrow your focus to the most time-sensitive work first. Other categories on your to-do list might be “due soon” and “non-essential.”
The pomodoro technique which involves using a timer for set periods of work has gained popularity recently, and there are a variety of apps if you prefer not to use a traditional kitchen timer. Timeboxing or timeblocking is a related time management technique that involves assigning set amounts of time to each task to avoid overdoing or overcomplicating the work.
A client of mine who was working on time and priority management discovered the power of using these tools. We initially set up our check in meetings for Fridays because it was his lightest meeting day. What we discovered after meeting a few times was that he was so exhausted by Friday, that our meetings weren’t as productive or helpful as he needed them to be because he didn’t have the energy to prepare for them. By switching our meeting time to earlier in the week, he saw a profound difference in how much he was able to accomplish. This improvement didn’t require more time or effort, just an acknowledgement of energy and attention patterns over the course of a week and the need to do the highest priority items when he had the most capacity to accomplish them.
Brain Building Approaches
Give your brain space to focus on the task in front of you by eliminating or minimizing notifications from your phone, email and social media applications. Each ping of interruption pulls your focus away from your current work and starts to add to the switching costs of moving between tasks, draining your energy and your phone battery.
Meditation and breathing exercises are frequently cited approaches to enhance focus and attention. They are each, in their own ways, an active practice of building attention and awareness. If you are just getting started, there are a range of apps and programs to choose from for guided meditation and breathwork.
Being overtired — or even just tired — makes focusing even harder. Prioritize rest to get the most out of your days. There’s no shortage of advice on how to get a better night’s sleep, but one of my favorite techniques is to keep my phone in another room while I am sleeping. That removes the temptation to scroll if I have trouble falling asleep or wake up during the night.
Some of these approaches will be a better fit for your workstyle and projects than others. Adopt a curious mindset when considering and trying different approaches. If you can keep your goals and purpose in mind when sitting down to do work, you may find yourself more energized and getting through the tasks that matter most to you.
I will leave you with this thought from Adam Grant in the article linked above, “If you’re trying to be more productive, don’t analyze how you spend your time. Pay attention to what consumes your attention.” If you need help connecting to what energizes you, building self-awareness of your work patterns or want to explore how strengthening emotional intelligence can improve your focus, let’s talk. You can find me at Leadership Refinery.
This article was also published on Medium.com.