Picture this: You started work an hour ago and decide to check emails on your phone. You don’t want to miss an important question from a stakeholder or a status update from your staff, after all. As is often the case; however, a glance at your email turns into a “quick” scroll through Twitter, and before you know it, 45 minutes of your morning have been spent doing virtually nothing.
As a project manager, there are days when my brain is so full and going in so many different directions that I get almost nothing done. Since I am responsible for the health and progress of the projects I am managing, I can’t really afford to have days where time seems to disappear or I have nothing to show for eight hours except for the shame that comes with unproductivity.
Being an effective project manager means being able to juggle a lot at once. Staying focused on the task at hand while keeping an eye on the big picture, ensuring your staff are working efficiently, and managing the needs of stakeholders is a lot for one person to manage all at once. Staying on top of things sometimes means equipping yourself with the right project management tools, of course. Even with the right tools, in this age in which distractions abound, it can require a concerted effort on your part to stay focused.
The reality is that we are, and will always, be exposed to distraction, whether at the office, at home, or when working remotely from a favorite coffee shop. An important skill you can train yourself on is how to focus. Let’s take a look at some ways to regain (and maintain) focus and get into the flow of work and productivity.
As someone with the attention span of a squirrel some days, the Pomodoro Technique has been a lifesaver for me. This is a proven and popular time management tool.
The main premise behind the technique is to work in blocks of time, typically 25 minutes long (each block is called a Pomodoro session), followed by a five minute break. Each session should demand your full attention on one task or tasks you’ve pre-planned, and every break should be used as an opportunity to step away from your work and give your brain a rest. The result is greatly improved productivity during focused work sessions. Even better, you are effectively managing distractions and taking regular breaks.
There are free downloadable apps to use on your phone and/or your internet browser to help you keep track of your Pomodoro sessions. The one I use even has the option to block certain websites during my designated productive minutes (Facebook and Twitter are on my block list!).
Eat Your Frogs in the Morning (No, Not Literally)
Author Mark Twain once said, “If you eat a frog first thing in the morning that will probably be the worst thing you do all day.” He didn’t mean eat an actual frog, though. Your “frog” is the most difficult or most important task you have on your to do list for the day. It is common to put your “frogs” off until the end of the day, spend time thinking about them (while not completing them), and even pushing them to tomorrow’s to do list. When we do this procrastination dance, the “frogs” typically get harder to accomplish, and as we delay the inevitable, we lose our focus.
Set aside the first part of your day’s uninterrupted time to “eat your frog” and get it done. The first thing you accomplish can set the tone for the rest of your day and help you stay focused and productive throughout. This frees you from thinking about what you’re procrastinating about. Once you’re done with the “frog,” you can feel more relaxed about any unexpected meetings or issues that pop up later on.
Check Your Email Less Frequently
There are times when I am “in the zone” working on something and I hear the chime from my Outlook letting me know there’s a new email awaiting a response. That little notification causes me to completely lose focus. It takes longer than anyone cares to admit to get back to a task after an interruption, even one like an Outlook chime.
Carve out specific times in the day that you set aside to check your emails and respond to them. One of my former colleagues suggested the email schedule to me a few years ago, and I’ve noticed that on the days I check my email only a few times a day, my productivity and focus increase exponentially. If the idea of checking your email only a handful of times throughout the day makes you too nervous, try turning your email notifications off for short periods of time so you’re not distracted and are able to increase your focus for short productivity bursts.
Give Yourself Permission to Be Distracted for X Number of Minutes a Day
It may sound counter-productive to plan time for distractions, but giving yourself a reasonable amount of time each day to relax and step away from work actually increases your focus and productivity.
I’ve tried going for a short 10-15 minute walk, which gives me a new burst of energy and allows me to come back with a refreshed mind ready to focus on my tasks again.
Create a Task List at the End of Each Day
At the end of each day, write your to do list for the following day. Remember to put your “frog” at the top of the list. Highly productive project managers are focused on their most important tasks and activities from the moment they begin work each day because they have written up a clear list of priorities at the end of the previous work day.
If you wait until the morning to create your list and determine your top priorities, you’re using some of your most focused minutes to make a list rather than get things done.
While we can’t always avoid every distraction and some days our focus is sharper than others, we can do our best to avoid distractions that pull our attention away from our work. Making a habit of these productivity tips means having more control over my day. It also allows me to spend more time spent on activities that bring me and the projects I am working on the best results.
Do you have any tried and true tips for increasing your focus at work?