How to Stay On-Task…Every Day

TaskDo you have trouble staying focused?

Whether you work for yourself or for an employer, spending hours surfing the net and updating your Facebook profile won’t get you any closer to your goals … yet you find it hard to keep on-task.

Even when you do try to concentrate, you might get to 5pm and feel like you’ve not accomplished anything.

Here’s how to stay focused and get more done – every day.

Minimize Interruptions
If you live alone and work from home, interruptions are unlikely to be a big problem. If you work in a busy office and your job involves a lot of reactive tasks, like answering phone calls or emails from clients, you might be getting interrupted every few minutes.

Your target isn’t to cut out interruptions altogether – that’s not realistic – but to get rid of as many as you can. Some good ways to start are:

    • Close your email program – if necessary, check it once every 30 minutes to ensure there’s nothing genuinely urgent 
  • Let your phone go to voicemail – or ask a colleague to cover it for an hour or two.
    (You can always return the favor at a later point.) 
  • Shut your office door. If you work in an open-plan office with other colleagues, putting on headphones will make others think twice about interrupting you to chat: it doesn’t matter whether you’re actually listening to music or not.

Get Prepared
Some tasks need a lot of concentration – like writing a report, coming up with a plan, or analyzing some complex data. If you’re tackling one of those, you don’t want to be breaking off every few minutes to find the right file. You definitely don’t want to be re-opening your email program to search for a crucial bit of information.

Before you get started on a big task, take a few minutes to make sure:

    • You’ve got the information you’ll need (e.g. pull up relevant documents, make a quick phone call or print out emails) 
  • You’re physically comfortable. Grab a glass of water or a coffee, get a snack, or go to the bathroom if necessary. 
  • You’ve cleared some space on your desk so that you can spread out any necessary files. 

Avoid Distractions
There are plenty of tools that can help you to avoid distractions, like software to block certain internet sites (for all the Twitter addicts out there), or programs that run full-screen so that you only see what you’re working on.

If you find a tool that helps you, then use it, but remember that distractions don’t just come from your environment – they also pop up in your mind.

You might be bored or struggling on a task, and get the urge to check your email or just idly surf the net. You might suddenly remember something that you need to take care of.

A couple of things that you might helpful are:

    1. Label the distraction in your mind. Think to yourself “I have an urge to check my email” or “I’m feeling the impulse to surf the net”. That might sound a bit daft (and you probably won’t want to start saying it out loud), but simply recognizing your tendency to get off-track can help you stay on the rails! 
  • If you remember something that you need to take care of, make a note of it on a piece of paper or in your notebook. It can almost certainly wait an hour or two until you’ve finished your current task – and writing it down means that you can stop paying attention to it until then. 

It’s hugely satisfying to finish your work day and feel a great sense of accomplishment. Cut out the interruptions and distractions that are knocking you off-task, and you’ll see how much more you can get done.

What sort of work environment do you have, and what challenges do you face that make it tricky for you to stay on-task? How do you tackle them? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Written on 9/27/2011 by Ali Luke. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: Editor B
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