When it comes to focusing at work, I do all the wrong things: I start my day with email. I answer phonecalls. I respond to interruptions. I compulsively check email too often.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of corporate life, it’s this:
You can spend a day’s work (or more!) answering emails and urgent requests. All you need to do is let it happen.
And your important work will remain last.
How do I then get stuff done?
It all boils down to three steps:
1. Know thy productive time;
2. Build a brick wall around it;
Your productive time
Are you a morning person or an evening person? Many people nowadays give in to the trend of Early Rising (here are some tips on how to get up early, if you want to give it a try).
But most importantly, if you work in an office, is to know how to match your productive time with other people’s requests.
I found that in the corporate world, there are a few peaks:
- from 9 am to 10:30 am
- around noon, just before people leave to lunch
- between 4 pm and 6 pm
If you look at them, you will recognize normal high’s and low’s in energy in your daily life.
The good news? We all have them.
The even better news? You can work around them, not against them.
Be available at those times when requests are peak, and you’re needed the most. Then, for the more quiet hours, try to not respond at all. If you repeatedly make yourself unavailable at a certain time of the day, people will get used to it, and respond to your schedule. They might even envy you for being so disciplined.
Build a fence around your productive time
If you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door, close it. Put a Do Not Disturb sign on the back of your chair (or “Scram!” if you’re feeling adventurous).
In a word, make it clear to people that you’re not to be disturbed.
If you’re working in an open space, there are still some things you can do:
Politely explain to the person who pats you on the shoulder that you’re working on something right now and that you will get back to them within an hour. If they say “But it’s really important!” ask what it’s about and give an estimation of a solution, or direct them to someone else who can help while you are unavailable.
Most instant requests are:
a. not (only) your competence, someone else also might have the answer
b. not that critical, could wait for another hour
c. misleading – even if they start with “but it’ll just take a minute”, develop into a 15 minutes meeting
One answer I’ve seen people give is “send me an email and I’ll get back to you on that”. I think that’s the biggest mistake you can make. If you’re flooded in email, why encourage more?
The only thing that you MUST do if you promise people to get back to them is REALLY get back to them once you finish your work. Otherwise, you’ll lose face and next time won’t get off that easily.
If you ask me, one of the biggest problems in the corporate world today is that we have an overflow of tasks and a shortage of people who know how to say No.
OK, you’re at your computer, there seems to be silence around (for now), so what do you do?
Make a short list of what you want to achieve in that time. If you’re deciding to push away external interference, have a clear result in mind, and make an estimation of how long it will take.
Next, remove all internal interference. Stop Internet access, if possible. Limit your programs to only the ones you need at that moment. Take a small notepad and a pen. No phone. And don’t worry about other tasks.
I’ve discovered that most times, sitting down somewhere quiet with a notepad and writing down the steps that need to be taken for a project doesn’t take more than 20 minutes, and creates more clarity than a 2 hour meeting. Talk about 80/20!
A few more tips on focusing:
- Make it a ritual. Get used to going to the same physical place over and over again, and focusing there on what you need to get done. Next time you get to that place, your focus will install by itself.
- If you can’t change your location, change your environment. Move your position in your chair. Make yourself some tea. Build one or two things around your that act as reminders or anchors.
- Get a buddy, or someone who can watch over you. If they see you wasting time in the “Focus zone”, they should tug on your sleeve and have you reschedule it, or reminding you to get back to business.
Try it tomorrow. You might be surprised to get more done in one hour of quiet, uninterrupted time, than the entire rest of the day.