You grab a cup of coffee, turn on your laptop, and take a deep breath; it’s time to focus. You open a blank note to start writing a project plan, and rather than wrapping up a first draft in the usual hour or two, you find yourself on social media, checking your phone, or simply zoning out.
If you’re distracted by the current newscycle, adapting to working in a new place (or working from home for the first time!), or trying to calm your worries, it can feel impossible to concentrate on work. But the goal in times of uncertainty isn’t to match your peak productivity levels. Instead, it’s about finding pockets throughout the day that are more conducive to focusing, and gradually reducing distractions.
Here are four ways to stay on task and get your work done.
1. Train your mind to ignore distractions
When you need to focus for long periods of time, less is more. That’s according to studies by Joe DeGutis and Mike Esterman from the Boston Attention and Learning Lab who found that the most effective way to get things done was to focus for a bit, then take a short break before going back to concentrating.
This is the science behind The Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method where you break your workday into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. Each work interval is referred to as a pomodoro, and once you’ve finished four pomodoros, you take a longer break of 20 or 30 minutes.
While this sounds easy in practice, distractions can still find a way to creep into your work, even within a 25-minute time block. Stacey Harmon, an Evernote Certified Consultant and Getting Things DoneⓇ (GTD) practitioner, recently released a training video on how to focus in uncertain times using The Pomodoro Technique, including how to reduce the number of distractions during each pomodoro.
Stacey says the best way to combat distractions is to first understand if they are internal or external. Internal distractions are made up of your own ideas and thoughts, like when you sit down to do work but suddenly feel the urge to check your email or look up something on the internet. You can avoid wasting your pomodoro by making this distraction visible and writing it down. By capturing your distractions, you’ll be able to clear your mind to focus on the task at hand.
External distractions are when you are interrupted by others, like a coworker needing help on a project or a friend sending you a text. Because your goal is to reach the end of the pomodoro, you should take a few seconds to deal with the interruption and go back to focusing. Stacey recommends saying something like, “I’m in the middle of a pomodoro, I’ll get back to you in 25 minutes” or “I’m not in a spot where I can respond right now.”
Over time, you’ll be able to train your brain to complete the full 25 minutes of continuous work without any internal or external interruptions.
2. Schedule tasks around your ultradian rhythm
Your ability to focus fluctuates throughout the day and week. There will be times when you can quickly write that email or finish that project, and others when it feels so unnatural and challenging to sit down and get work done. While you can’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate the less productive times in your day, there is a way to recognize when you’re most likely to be at your best, and optimize it.
We all run on a 24-hour internal “clock,” referred to as our circadian rhythm. This dictates when we go to sleep, wake up, and experience peak levels of energy. Within that 24-hour day, we cycle through 90-minute blocks of productivity and heightened focus, known as our ultradian rhythm.
To understand your own ultradian rhythm, record your levels of focus, enthusiasm, and energy at the same times each day at hourly intervals. Make sure to add a note describing any changes to your daily routine (like if you took a mid-day walk). After a week or two of data gathering, you’ll start to see a pattern emerge. You’ll be able to pinpoint when your focus and energy are at their highest and lowest, and match your tasks accordingly.
For example, save your most creative, strategic projects for when you feel most focused. Then, work on your more manual, admin-like tasks when you have less energy and are more easily distracted.
3. Make time for zoning out
Many productivity strategies teach you how to quiet the mind and stop it from wandering. While it may seem counterintuitive, a more efficient approach is to encourage daydreaming—at predetermined times.
Paul Seli, a psychologist at Harvard University, has identified two types of daydreaming: deliberate and accidental mind wandering. He says that only accidental mind wandering harms productivity, and that people who carve out time for deliberate mind wandering—while doing mindless tasks, for example—suffer less than those who find themselves daydreaming randomly throughout the day.
“If the task is easy, intentionally mind wandering will likely not result in performance costs, but it should afford people the opportunity to reap the benefits of mind wandering, such as problem-solving and planning,” Paul says in a BBC article.
What does this mean for you? Allow yourself 10 to 15 minutes each day to zone out, but choose this window of time carefully. Perhaps you choose to let your mind wander while cleaning your desk after lunch or going on a walk to get coffee. This way, you’ll be less likely to daydream during deep work or important meetings.
4. Choose the right work location
Stepping into a different space hits the reset button on your brain and allows for more productive and creative thinking.
Daniel J. Levitin
One of the easiest ways to change your behavior is to change your environment. For example, if you want to sit less during the day, buy a standing desk for your office. Or, if you want to improve your focus, work in the right location.
“One way to exploit the hippocampus’s natural style of memory storage is to create different work spaces for the different kinds of work we do … If you’re working on two completely separate projects, dedicate one desk or table or section of the house for each. Just stepping into a different space hits the reset button on your brain and allows for more productive and creative thinking,” wrote Daniel J. Levitin in his book, “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”
For example, if you’re working from home, you’ll have more luck concentrating on tasks in a dedicated office versus sitting on the living room couch, where you usually watch TV.
If you don’t have a home office, contextual clues can make a shared space feel different. Let’s say you have to work at your dining room table. You can focus on rearranging the environment to feel new, like putting away your centerpiece and any plates or glasses, and replacing them with visual clues that signal focus—like your work notebooks, an office plant, or an external monitor. The key is to put away these things when you’re done working to make sure these contextual clues are only associated with focus and concentration.
Staying focused during times of unpredictability
Getting work done is never only about the work itself. Sure, your ability to complete tasks depends on how simple or complex they are, but it also depends on your mood, your environment, and what’s happening around you.
When things are especially stressful and changing at a rapid pace, look for small ways to stay on task. Try one new strategy each week and keep track of what works and doesn’t work for you. And, as you’re adapting to a new way of working, remember to celebrate the times you do find focus.
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