Voicemail: “Hi Stephanie, sorry I missed you. I’m about to leave for the day so we’ll touch base tomorrow.”
Snapchat: “Lucy has sent you a Snapchat.”
iMessage: “OMG, I have to tell you about my date last night!”
Work email: Marked URGENT: “Stephanie, I need you to send me the Edwards’ file right away.”
Personal email: Marked URGENT: “We need to plan our Girls Night Out on Saturday!”
Facebook: “Patricia has tagged you in a picture.”
Co-worker: “Stephanie, did you hear what I said?”
With so many notifications and distractions, my brain sometimes feels like it’s being pulled in a multitude of different directions. There are days when it feels impossible to stay focused at work.
So what are we supposed to do when the work is piling up, but it seems like everyone and everything is barking for our attention? Here are 5 tips for staying focused at work.
Tip #1 – Turn off social media
This tip is borderline impossible for me to follow and to be honest, I almost feel like a fraud to suggest it.
“My name is Stephanie and I’m a compulsive notification clearer.”
I cannot bear the thought of missing out on the What’s App group convo in which my childhood friends are debating who did and didn’t get the rose on the Bachelor last night.
Or, the back and forth on Slack between coworkers about the pros and cons of getting a coffee now versus in an hour:
“I’m tired now, I should just get it now.”
“But waiting an hour would give you something to look forward to. Plus, Starbucks has bonus stars if you order after 2 pm.”
So, how can a social media obsessed millennial like me even begin to cut myself off from the notification squad?
This is a question for a professional. Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist, suggests setting an alarm for 1 minute, during which you can check your social media (yay!). After that minute is up, set an alarm for 15 minutes (since that is the maximum attention span these days).
During those 15 minutes, work on the task at hand without checking your smartphone or email. Turn your phone face down, turn off notifications, close all browsers or tabs unrelated to the task.
After the 15 minutes, pat yourself on the back, take another 1-minute break, reply to all your messages, and then try for another 15.
Tip #2 – Organize workstation
Sometimes I feel like my desk could get a guest feature on “Hoarding, Buried Alive”.
It feels like an archeological dig, sifting through piles of paper to find those notes from last Tuesday’s meeting. I try to take 10 minutes a week to organize my workstation.
You know what they say, “Cluttered desk, Cluttered mind.”
Tip #3 – Tackle thinking tasks in the morning
Is it just me or is your brain fried by the time afternoon hits?
“Where’s my bed? I need a nap.”
I try to get all of my more difficult tasks out of the way in the morning, while my mind is still fresh. I’ve noticed that if I leave tasks that require brain power until the afternoon, like analyzing data or writing up a report, I find it difficult to stay focused at work.
I end up spending hours staring at the same spreadsheet while intermittently checking what’s trending on Twitter.
Tip #4 – One task at a time
For example, let’s say I’ve decided that I’m going to spend the morning writing a financial report.
Just as I’m getting into the groove of things, an email pops up.
“Stephanie, can you set up a meeting for us with Shawn?”
Now, here comes the dilemma.
Do I remove myself from my current task to set up this meeting? Part of me is always tempted to stop what I’m doing and knock this new item off my to-do list.
But another part of me knows it’s not that simple.
For example, setting up a meeting requires me to contact my boss’ admin assistant, who then needs to check my boss’ schedule. The admin sends the available dates to me and I forward those dates to Shawn’s admin assistant. Shawn’s admin now has to check Shawn’s calendar and reply to me. As usual, none of the dates work and we have to start the cycle all over again. If that gave you a headache to read, it gave me a headache just thinking about it.
There is always going to be something that will derail your focus off from the task, be it organizing a meeting or something else. I notice that my priorities never get crossed off the to-do list (especially if the priority task is bleak like financials) when I fall into the trap of switching tasks.
Therefore, I just have to suck it up, get into the zone and focus on the original task at hand.
Science backs me up. Scientists say that multitasking is virtually impossible.
The constant switching between tasks makes us slower, less efficient and prone to error. Therefore, it also leaves us feeling tired and unable to stay focused at work.
By the way, for more tips on how I stay on top of my emails, see my upcoming article on email overload.
Tip #5 – Give yourself something to look forward to (mini-rewards/breaks)
This tip is my fav because who doesn’t love to treat yourself (just not with a donut!)?
My breaks are as simple as refilling my water bottle or running a quick errand next door. Or perhaps even getting a chocolatey treat to share with a co-worker.
Choose whatever motivates you!
I’d like to end by saying I’m in no way perfect, and I don’t always practice what I preach. However, my to-dos do start getting accomplished faster and easier when I do implement these 5 tips.
How do you stay focused at work? Share your tips in the comment section below!