How to become laser-focused at what you do
If you compare the work life of today to what it was 20 years ago, you can see a lot has changed. You are expected to be available all the time through modern communication tools such as e-mail, cell phones, and instant messaging.
Unfortunately, this leads to a workday full of interruptions, making your task list even longer and making you more stressed.
To tackle interruptions and their side effects, one needs to find ways to maintain focus in order to stay productive.
Fortunately, there are ways to do this, and in this article, I present six focus-enhancing ways that help you navigate your workday.
1. Your personal qualities
Do you know the time of day when you operate at your best? On the other hand, do you know which parts of the day you feel more distracted?
BPT is a term introduced by Sam Carpenter in his book Work The System. BPT stands for Biological Prime Time and it’s a way of describing those hours of the day when you perform at your best.
For instance, I know that I’m most productive between 6:00 a.m. and 12:00 a.m. After lunch, I might feel sleepy, so I’d rather take a nap or do some physical activity, rather than doing any brain-intensive work.
When the clock hits 5 p.m., I start feeling tired again. At this time, I try to exercise in order to gain more energy for the rest of the day.
Knowing your BPT is simple: just log down information of what your energy levels are for a reasonable amount of time (at least a week). You can then analyze the data and see your peak productivity hours.
When you know your BPT, it makes you better prepared when planning your day. It also helps you increase your focus, as your energy levels are up.
One of the things that you may have heard is why multitasking is not beneficial. But have you heard about mindful multitasking and how it will help you get work done — even the mundane tasks?
Enter the Yerkes-Dodson law and the upside-down U-curve. Your goal is to be in the middle of the U-curve because that’s when you are the most focused. You can think of the U-curve as a speedometer in a car, where on the left side, the needle indicates the car is going very slowly and on the right, the car is speeding.
When you are bored, the needle of the speedometer is on the left, so your goal is to get the needle back into the center. This is where mindful multitasking comes into play.
This term was expressed in Find Your Focus Zone, by Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD. In her book, Dr. Palladino describes that with some stimulation, you get excited, and this helps you regain your focus.
For instance, a tedious data-entry task may cause you to lose focus quickly. But if you do something energizing for a while (like reading the Daily Dilbert) and then hop back to your main task, you are able to complete the task much easier.
Even if switching between tasks is not ideal and perhaps not the most effective way of working, you can do it for the sake of regaining your focus.
When you feel energized, this feeling can be carried towards the boring task, thus helping get it done more easily.
2. Environment and work
Your physical location
Where you work can have a huge impact on your focus. It’s a completely different thing to work in a noisy office when you could be very productive for instance at your home, working remotely.
That’s why you should spend some time figuring out what kind of focus your task needs and whether changing your location could be beneficial. For instance, if your workspace is too noisy, perhaps the work could be done elsewhere, like in a public library or in a coffee shop.
If you feel that absolutely no interruptions are allowed, you can even isolate yourself by finding a secret location where you do your work. Just let your closest ones (for instance your spouse) know how to reach you in case of emergency.
The world is now much more fast-paced than decades ago, thanks to new methods of communication. Though even if the new tools can help us become more effective, they have their downsides too.
Where digital interruptions are concerned, some scheduling is in order.
For instance, you could define the times of the day when you make or return phone calls or when you process your e-mail (or if you keep your e-mail client open in the first place).
Additionally, you could define a policy where you are unavailable through instant messaging tools when you do productive work.
When defining the rules, communication is key. If your policy is to check e-mail two times per day, let other people know that you are not replying immediately after they send an email.
With proper communication, it’s easier to set the right kinds of expectations. This helps to cut down the number of misconceptions and unrealistic expectations.
Understanding how much sleep you need
Sleep is a crucial building block where productivity is concerned. Sure, you can manage for some time being sleep-deprived (yes, I have been there), but living like this is a very short-term strategy and has severe disadvantages.
So rather than cutting down the amount of hours you spend in bed, you should ensure that you get enough quality sleep that you personally need to operate productively.
One way to do this is by having a simple sleep log, where you mark when you go to bed and when you wake up (waking without an alarm clock is something you could try doing when on vacation).
After collecting this kind of data for weeks (I logged my sleep for four weeks), I was able to see how much sleep I needed on average in order to feel good when I wake up.
When you know how much sleep you need and actually schedule your days according to this information, you are going to feel much better and you will focus much better too.
I may feel sleepy even if I have slept well the previous night. For instance, this may happen because of the food I ate (carbohydrate-full meal) or after an intense exercise session.
As stated before, if you feel sleepy, you can’t perform at your best. That’s why you should do a “reboot” that can turn your day back into a productive one.
There are numerous studies that praise napping and its benefits. But one particular type of napping is especially beneficial for you — power napping.
The main difference between power napping and traditional napping is related to the duration of the nap. Power naps are short, lasting 20-30 minutes maximum. As such, they don’t take up too much of your work time and can give you a really great performance boost for the rest of the day.
All you have to do is take a nap early enough (I take ones before 3 p.m.), find a quiet and dark place where you can sleep, and set the alarm for 25-minutes from when you start your nap.
In many cases, you may wake up before your alarm goes off, feeling refreshed, full of focus and full of productivity.
The topic of improving focus is a very big one and this article has only scratched its surface.
This topic is worth exploring more, though, as proper focus and productivity go hand in hand. The fact is that when there are less distractions, your quality of work improves and job satisfaction increases.
Photo: Flickr / Tormod Ulsberg CC BY-NC-ND 2.0