Like many people, I often struggle with staying focused throughout the day. Each day, I start by re-writing my to-do list based on my highest priority, but by mid-day that is often abandoned for new urgent incoming requests.
If you use Microsoft Outlook, you’re likely familiar with the Daily Briefing email from Cortana. The email reminds the recipient of outstanding items (based on an analysis of email content) and allows you to set a reminder for follow-up. I usually ignore the email, but today I scrolled all the way through and noticed the recommendation to schedule time to focus. The system recommended three time blocks and allowed me to block that time on my calendar with one simple click. I’m working on a specific project today, so I clicked the button and easily blocked time in my calendar to focus.
Around an hour later, an incoming call popped up on my screen and quickly disappeared. The caller messaged me apologized for interrupting me while I was presenting. I returned the call and explained that she didn’t interrupt my presentation; I just had the time blocked in my calendar to focus on a specific project. Thirty minutes later, I ended the phone call with three new action items and a laugh at how quickly I sabotaged my own focus time.
Focus doesn’t happen without effort. It takes strategy, commitment, and balance to focus on high-priority needs effectively.
First, be mindful of what instigates your distraction on a daily basis. Remote workers may experience distraction from children, pets, or household needs. In-office workers may be distracted by co-worker conversations, office noise, or individuals dropping by for a chat. For me, the main distraction is from technology. As soon as I see an IM pop up or notification on my phone, I lose focus immediately. To maintain focus, take steps to mitigate distractions. That may include noise-cancelling headphones or a note on your door/cubicle requesting no disruptions for a specific time. For those who are distracted by technology or social media, use the Do Not Disturb option on your phone and IM platform. Additionally, it can be helpful to go through each app on your phone and disable pop-up notifications that are designed to draw you in (and drain your energy).
Once you set a boundary, it’s up to you to follow through. Setting Focus Time on my calendar didn’t stop me from answering a phone call because I wasn’t committed to staying focused. Remind yourself of your goals and the benefit of staying focused. Once you have a strategy in place, you must actively choose to follow your own rules and stay committed.
Remember to set realistic focus goals for yourself. If you expect eight full hours of focus, you’ll likely fail to achieve that goal. To optimize your focus and reduce the likelihood of mental burnout, set aside a realistic block of time to accomplish a specific task. Also, create a reward system that balances your time and replenishes your energy. You could reward yourself with a fresh coffee, walk around the block, or catch up on social media for 10 minutes. If you know a break is in sight, it’s easier to stay committed and finish a task.
Finally, give yourself grace. Don’t strive for perfection. Just work towards incrementally improving your focus and removing distractions each day. Over time, you will experience improved productivity and feel less overwhelmed as you take control of your time.