Have you ever noticed that the times when you really need to focus are the times when it’s toughest?
On days when you have far too much to do — an overflowing inbox, meetings to prepare for, chores to complete — it’s easy to end up darting from one task to the next, never making any real headway.
- Write a List
It’s impossible to focus when you’re constantly thinking “I mustn’t forget to send that email” or “I need to call John.” Write down everything that needs to get done today. Your list doesn’t have to be complex, and you don’t need to worry about sorting it at this stage.
Some people like to keep their work and personal lists separate; it’s up to you how you do that.If something’s on your mind, though, make sure you record it somewhere — even little things like “buy milk on the way home” can drag down your mental energy.
- Decide on Priorities
Once you’ve got your list, it’s time to figure out what order to tackle your tasks in for today. First, look for anything that can be delegated or postponed: pare your list down as much as possible.
Next, work out what you want to do first. It’s up to you how you prioritize; normally, it makes sense to tackle the more important and urgent tasks first, but you may prefer to go for a few quick wins in the first half-hour of the day to build up a sense of momentum.
Put some sort of mark against your first, second, and third tasks. (I use one, two and three asterisks; you might prefer numbers, or colors.) That way, you can relax and get on with your tasks in order, knowing that you’re dealing with things efficiently, and that you’ll be able to get all the important stuff done.
- Resist the Urge to Multi-Task
However tempting it is to have your emails open in one window while you reply to Tweets in another and edit that document in a third … don’t. You can’t focus on several things all at the same time, and you’ll end up making silly mistakes or forgetting to finish part of a task.
Tackle things one by one. That might mean:
- Setting a timer while you work on the report for 30 minutes
- Dealing with your emails as a batch, perhaps every few hours, not as they come in
- Closing social media programs until your lunch break (if they’re part of your work, treat them like your emails)
Any time you find yourself trying to tackle several things at once, stop. Remind yourself that you’ll work more effectively when you complete task A before moving onto task B.
- Work Steadily, Take Breaks
None of us can focus for hours at a time — but when we’re busy, we often try to. This just leads to slowed progress, mistakes, and procrastination. (You know the kind of thing; you tell yourself you’ll just check Facebook quickly while waiting for a file to download, then you end up clicking on links, leaving comments, sending happy birthday messages…)
To stop yourself procrastinating, plan for regular breaks. Work for, say, 45 minutes on your report, then take a 5 or 10 minute break to stretch your legs and grab a glass of water. When you know you’ve got a break coming up, it’s a lot easier to stay focused.
Hopefully, your too-busy-to-think days don’t come up too often. If you seem to be in a constant pattern of rushing around, juggling more tasks than you can manage, then look for ways to make changes. That might mean learning some better time management skills, or talking to your manager about your workload.
If you’ve got a great tip for staying focused when life is hectic, share it with us in the comments below.