Who would have thought that one of the greatest struggles of the early 21st century would be something so seemingly simple? I’m talking about focus – the ability to train our attention on a single task for a sustained period of time, and get it done.
We multitask at work – flitting between 12 browser tabs, chatting on IM, taking phone calls, processing our inboxes. We multi-task in the car – driving, texting, listening to the radio. We multi-task in the kitchen – talking to our partners, chopping vegetables, checking our Blackberries or iPads. Yet, multi-tasking has been proven time and again to be a miserable failure.
So how do we fight back? Here are eight tips on reclaiming – and rebuilding focus – culled from some of our favorite productivity minds:
1. Build up your focus through good old-fashioned practice and single-tasking using the Pomodoro Technique.
Clay Johnson, Lifehacker:
"I've been using interval training with great success. Modeled after how I trained to run my first marathon using Jeff Galloway's technique, I practice attention interval training. I got this timer installed on my computer. It's an excellent interval timer based on a technique called the Pomodoro technique, but I'm primarily using it based on its ability to make sound, set good intervals, and support logging.
"I started small: 10 minutes of work with two minute breaks. My strategy: when the timer goes off that tells me it's time to take a break, I feel like I can keep going. I'm up to 35 minutes now with 2-minute breaks. This is about as far as I'll get probably while still being able to keep Instant Messaging on. I've found that about 35 minutes is the max response time for IM to be useful."
2. Block out time for mission-critical tasks and schedule them like meetings; then do a weekly review to regroup and re-prioritize.
Gina Trapani, Fastcompany:
"If your workdays are scheduled out with wall-to-wall commitments more often than you'd like, start making appointments with yourself first. I call this defensive scheduling -- or time blocking, as discussed in an earlier episode. If you need an uninterrupted hour or two to focus on a single project, schedule that time as a meeting with yourself on the appropriate day and time, and honor the commitment the same way you'd honor a meeting with a coworker. Your time is YOUR time -- and you can claim chunks of it using your calendar first.
"Schedule a weekly, recurring block of time to regroup and review your projects and to-do lists and what you have accomplished that week and what you need to accomplish the next week."
3. Offload distracting tasks and information streams to an iPad so you can focus on a single task on your desktop computer.
Ben Brooks, The Brooks Review:
"Aside from email (which I hate) there are two things that really distract me while I work on my Mac during the day: Tweetie and Things / OmniFocus… Keeping them on their own space was not good enough – I had to remove them from my Mac. The answer was of course the loyal iPad sitting in its lovely stand next to my computer.
"Now I check Twitter during the workday on it with Twitterific and review my tasks on it as well. I keep the task management app open on my Mac, but the window closed, so that I can quickly enter a new task, but I never actually mark off tasks on my Mac. Same goes for Twitter, Tweetie stays open so that I can tweet quickly if I desire, and so that if someone DM’s me I can see it via Growl, but I never read through the stream on my Mac.”
4. Work on airplanes whenever you have the opportunity – they’re like flying focus chambers.
Mark Shead, Productivity 501:
“One hour of work on an airplane is equal to three hours of work in the office... Maybe it doesn’t scale to something you can do every day of the week, but if you’ve ever worked on a long plane ride, this statistic doesn’t sound completely unreasonable. Planes offer the following:
- A bunch of people you probably don’t want to try to chitchat with.
-You are physically tied down to your seat.
- It is usually so uncomfortable that you couldn’t go to sleep even if you wanted to.
- Your work surface is 16.5 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep, so you can only single task.
- No phone calls.
- No internet access. (Well, that is changing for some planes, now.)
- The roar of engines cover up other conversations.”
5. Be aware of what you’re unconsciously focusing on. Consider what ideas are occupying “top of mind,” and make sure they’re the right ones.
Paul Graham, PaulGraham.com:
“I suspect a lot of people aren't sure what's the top idea in their mind at any given time. I'm often mistaken about it. I tend to think it's the idea I'd want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it's easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it's not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.
"You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. If you're controlling them, they're not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.”
6. Focus on the most important tasks – the ones that will really move the needle on your business – first thing.
Marc McGuinnes, Lateral Action for 99%:
“The single most important change I've made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there's any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.”
7. Take time every day to turn OFF your work focus, and dedicate some time to giving your worrying brain a rest.
Cal Newport, Study Hacks:
“I spend time, every day, tending to my mind. For example, I practice walking meditation each morning, and I use a shutdown routine, backed by extensive organization systems, to free my thoughts from work-related rumination during the evenings. These are just two examples from a large and aggressive collection of strategies I dedicate to cultivating my focus — a collection I review and polish once a week.
"If you find yourself in a state of constant, draining, distracting thought, don’t confine your efforts to the outward causes.
"You should also dedicate effort inward, to weeding your mental garden, preventing the next batch of concerns — and there will always be a next batch — from leeching so many nutrients from your soul matter.”
8. If you really, really can’t focus, consider whether you’re putting your time and energy into something you really care about. Or not.
Merlin Mann, 43 Folders:
“Speci?cally, if you discover, in frustration, that you’re pathologically incapable of doing one thing at a time, consider the possibility that you’ve been unknowingly trying to “focus” on two, twenty, or twenty thousand disparate things that you don’t really care that much about. Just consider it.
"Because, in the absence of caring, you’ll never focus on anything more than your lack of focus. Think about it.”
This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.