Ambitious goal-setting is great fun.
It can work out in two ways:
- Either it’s extremely motivating and pushes you to achieve the most that you possibly can,
- Or it does the exact opposite. The goals are so unachievable that it’s demotivating.
Here’s an example from my past experience:
We had five quarterly goals, with clear priorities. They were amibitous but motivating. Then the company was hit by unforeseen external circumstances that doubled our normal workload.
Our manager could’ve responded by reducing the goals and letting us focus on the emergency. Instead, he wanted to push all of them through:
- All five goals suddenly became equally as important, so they could be completed as quickly as possible.
- One day, the deadline was set in two weeks. A day later, the deadline got shortened to only week. One week, the direction was “let’s only manage the emergency.” A week later, the direction was “our quarterly goals are the most important thing to focus on right now.”
- Within a month, almost all team members were sitting on a well of resentment and frustration.
This is a perfect example of how focus in your work can have a direct impact on your outcomes and environment.
Why am I so distracted and unmotivated?
This is a question that all of us ask ourselves sometimes.
- The environment itself creates distractions. Everyone is easy to reach almost all of the time. We get pings and notifications constantly through our phones. Your culture forces you to reply to every messsage you get with a high degree of urgency because the expectations in your environment are that everyone reply asap.
- You don’t know how to adapt your workload to your current mental state. If you’ve never properly learned under what conditions you are most productive, it’s going to be hard for you to make that happen. You might thrives best under pressure and need strict deadlines, enjoy working on 20 different tasks at the same time or only effective if you focus on one thing. All of these are valid styles of working but it takes time to know which one applies to you, how to deal with its shortcomings, and how to maximise its benefit.
- There’s a lack of direction and prioritisation. It’s very easy to underestimate how much of a difference having clear priorities can make to your productivity.
How to focus on the task at hand
Minimising distractions in your environment
Start by thinking about your physical environment when you’re working, whether you’re working from home, in a coworking space, or in an office. Do you sit comfortably? Is the temperature ideal? Is the noise level bearable?
If you find yourself stopping to think about any of these things, you should look into a long-term solution.
Whenever you sit down to focus on a particular task, mute everything. Put your Slack on “do not disturb,” mute your phone and put it somewhere you can’t see it, make yourself as difficult to contact as possible.
You don’t need to do this for whole working days or even for hours at a time. If you’re worried about not being reachable if something urgent happens, set an alarm for yourself in one hour’s time or something similar. In order to be able to work with any kind of focus, your brain needs time.
Set ground rules for communication.
- Is it acceptable to ping at all times of day?
- What’s considered an urgent topic and what isn’t?
- Which communication avenue should be used when?
This is especially important if you’re working in an office setting, where it’s possible for your colleagues to simply walk up to your desk and make conversation. You need to be able to say “sorry, I’m in the middle of something right now, can you set something up for us to talk about this later?” without being impolite or feeling at all nervous about the other person’s response.
Discussing it with everyone sets expectations and will make it easier to do this.
Maybe you feel that being reachable is essential for your team.
Why? Are you the only person knowledgeable enough to be able to help them? Do they have to go through you to get certain tasks done?
Look at this as an opportunity to improve processes. Instead of being the only go-to person, you could:
- Document more of your knowledge.
- Delegate tasks to other people in your team.
- Train others in the same areas.
You need to carve out time to work.
Set clear boundaries for yourself. This might mean:
- Saying no to meetings sometimes and asking people to reschedule for the next week.
- Blocking out focus time in your calendar. Maybe it involves blocking out time in your calendar to make it clear that you’re unavailable during those hours.
Minimising the distractions in your environment is a prerequisite for everything else.
It’s your responsibility to create an environment for yourself in which it’s even possible for you to work.
Increasing your personal productivity
Being more productive is something we all aspire to be.
Figuring out how is the challenging part. It requires discipline and concerted effort.
The following are just some tips and tools that you can use to figure out what works for you.
You are not your own task master. Don’t try to whip your brain into shape, as if you’re a drill sergeant training a cohort. You just want to set everything up around you so it’s easy for you to be productive.
The first thing that helps is some kind of routine.
Productivity is a habit.
The mundane, trivial habits that you have every day are the ones that make up your life when you string them all together.
- What habits do you do every day?
- Are any of them useful?
- Do they help you at work?
- Is there anything you could start doing today that would make your life a lot easier?
Set out priorities for yourself at the beginning of every day and organise your tasks: figure out what the top task that needs to be done today is, what the “nice to have’s” are and what has to be done this week but would be fine if done later.
It’ll make you feel like you have more of your tasks under control and it’ll give you the perspective you need to set yourself up for success.
Figure out the time of day you’re most effective.
Do you do the most work in the first two hours of the day? Are you basically half-asleep through the morning and only manage to get your head straight and work on something in the late afternoon?
One way to do this is:
- Break up your day into one or two hour long blocks and rate your productivity and focus.
- Think about how alert you felt, how much you got done, and how much of that time you were able to use effectively.
- Do this for a full week.
- Work with the patterns you find.
If you always feel very drained after a particular kind of meeting, like a one-on-one, maybe always schedule some break time after that kind of meeting. If you know you always do your best work towards the end of the day, give yourself as much of that time as possible to focus on your tasks. Once you figure this out, you can break up your day into something that makes sense for you.
Block out time in your calendar to dedicate to certain tasks or projects.
The longer the period of time you can give yourself to dedicate to a task is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get immersed in it. That feeling of immersion is when you hit maximum productivity. It takes time to get there, so don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts result in a few minutes of work, followed by a few minutes of distraction, followed by a few minutes of work and so on.
Experiment, be open and understanding, and remember you’re just trying to find out something that works.
You can use the much-touted Pomodoro technique, which breaks it up into 25 minutes of concentrated work followed by a 5 minute break. There’s a great app called Forest, which you can open on your phone while working on something to watch a little tree grow. It’s a very small technique that helps you stick with what you’re doing for a longer period of time.
These things might seem gimmicky and not very serious but they do work extremely well. You just need to find the thing that clicks for you.
It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed when you’re working on a larger project or when you have a looming deadline or when you’re trying to manage multiple things at the same time.
Break it down into smaller tasks.
Focus on what’s urgent, what needs to be done as soon as possible, and set yourself realistic goals of what you can manage. Don’t focus on having the perfect outcome or result at the end. Just drill down, think only about what absolutely needs to be done and get that out of the way.
Figure out your own organisation system.
- Do you work really well with checklists? In that case, a to-do list might help you organise your work enough.
- Do you need to be able to visualise your work and set deadlines or reminders for it? A more comprehensive task management tool like Trello might be best.
- Do you sometimes want to remind yourself much further in the future to do something? A calendar reminder would be the ideal solution.
There is a huge number of different tools and methods out there, all centred around organising your work, keeping track of your tasks, and managing your projects.
There is an inherent desire to please in a lot of people. If you give in to it, you can make yourself unreliable and it can make work much more stressful. Don’t do that to yourself. You can be ambitious but also be realistic about what you can achieve.
Try not to get caught up in shiny objects; if you’re in the middle of a task and you come across something that just looks cool and you want to check it out, don’t do it! Note it down for yourself and get back to it later.
A lot of focus leads to a lot of energy
Focus is one of the most undervalued and underestimated commodities we have today.
Finding the right techniques can transform your day-to-day productivity, both in your professional and personal life.