Focus is something of a novelty these days. We’ve got cellphones for texting and calls, IM, Twitter, Email, RSS feeds, Facebook, Myspace… the list goes on and on. If you don’t have ADD before you start working online, it seems it’s almost inevitable thanks to these inputs. If you’re a web worker who uses the Internet for the majority of the day, you’re especially at risk for losing focus.
Focus is something that must be fought for. It’s not something that automatically switches on when you want to. You have to make sure your surroundings are perfect for working if you want to be focused. Here’s a few ways I’ve found this to work:
- Use offline tools. Paper products, pens, and other physical tools are a Godsend for those of us who have a hard time focusing throughout the work day. They’re so simple that we can use them quickly, without having to worry about becoming distracted.
- Take more breaks. More breaks = More productivity. It may sound wrong, but it’s true. Breaks allow us to re-group our thoughts and focus for the task at hand. They also keep us fresh so that we don’t end up burning out after only a few hours work.
- Smaller tasks to check off. When you’re planning your day, make sure that your “action steps” (aka items in the checklist) are small actions. Instead of “Paint living room”, try breaking it down into many tasks, like “buy paint, buy rollers, pick colors” etc.
- Keep a steady pace. Don’t try to do to much. Keeping the pace manageable allows you to keep your focus. Unfortunately, people can confuse this with “Work till you drop without breaks”. See number 2.
- Keep a daily “purpose” card. It’s pretty easy to get lost staring at the computer all day long. We’ll find rabbit holes to wonder down (ie. Youtube, Myspace, etc.) if we’re not careful. Having your daily purpose card gives you clarity and a reminder as to what you’re doing today.
- Develop the mindset that the computer is only a tool. It’s easy to try and use the computer for too much. At its core, the computer is merely a tool (albeit a freakin’ awesome one) that allows to do work more efficiently. If we’re using it as something more than that, (like as a solution for your life), you’ll ultimately fail. It’s like trying to eat a steak dinner with only a spoon.
- Plan your day to the T. If you’re finding sporadic periods of laziness throughout the day, it could be because you don’t take enough breaks (see #2), and you don’t have the day mapped out as efficiently as you could. Make sure your list of todos has lots of small, actionable steps that can be done quickly. This will gives a really satisfying feeling when you’re crossing things off your list like crazy.
- Notice your lazy routines. Everyone has recurring lazy spots throughout the day. Plan to have your breaks for those times. You’re going to be lazy then anyway, right?
- Plan the night before. Planning the night before is a great way to really get focused on the next day. “Sleeping” on your tasks and goals for the following day can really help your mind expect what’s going to happen the next day. Essentially, you’re preparing your mind for the following day. Advanced focus.
- Turn off extra inputs. These are IM and email for me, but we all have our Achilles heel. Completely turn off any distracting piece of technology that you own. Every one of these inputs tries to steal bits of your focus. And they won’t rest until they do.
- Set time limits for tasks. There’s no motivation like a deadline. Giving yourself real deadlines is a great way to stay motivated and focused on the task. Given the fact that we human are natural procrastinators, it’s no surprise that we’ll take as long as we’re allowed to finish something. Setting real but attainable limits is a great way to keep the project humming, so to speak.
- Keep a journal of what you did throughout the day. I like to use a moleskine notebook for my lists just so I can go back and review it every now and again, to see what I’ve done. Knowing how far you’ve come can keep you sharp and motivated to finish.
- Use programs to track where you spend your time. This is a real eye-opener. Knowing just how much time you spend every day/week/month on a certain site or with a certain program can quickly show you where your priorities lie. I recommend Rescue Time, but there are many others.
- Visualize the day in the morning, before it starts. A little pre-work meditation on the day’s events is a great way to start the day off focused and productive. Don’t worry about a full 30 minute session, a quick review before you start the day is fine.
- Start the day right. Starting the day with a good breakfast, some quiet time and/or exercise is a great way to set your day up for success. Sounds like a cliche, but it really works.
- Clean yourself up. It’s why my track coach in high school made us dress up for big races: you perform the way you feel. And if you feel polished, groomed and ready, you’ll be more likely to be productive. For me this is just taking a shower, brushing my teeth and putting on casual clothing. I used to work all day without taking a shower in my PJ’s, but I never got much stuff done. Let’s be honest here… if you’re dressed really casually, odds are you’ll be working really casually. Just taking the time to clean up a bit before you buckle down for the day is never a bad idea.