You’ve created the perfect working environment and defined your new routine; however, you may still find it difficult to concentrate. Especially if your children, partner, roommates or pets are noisily swirling throughout the day. Don’t worry though! There are several strategies you could try that may increase your focus.
While this blog is being written, my eyes wander over to the dirty dishes before bouncing to the unopened mail scattered on the counter. I remember that I haven’t rescheduled my dental appointment or contacted my insurance company. As my cell phone dings and lights up with text messages and news feeds, I contemplate what time the puppy last went out. I’ve been perched on this kitchen barstool for two hours and my lower back is screaming.
What’s wrong with this picture?
I am not physically located in the office environment that I created for myself. I am not seated at my comfortable ergonomic chair, with the door closed to drown out activity. I’m not surrounded by my productive or calming tools (see blog 1 - Build a Productive Environment) and I’m clearly not in “focus mode”. The surrounding noises fight for my attention and my brain is on overdrive. I sympathize with the animated dog in the movie “Up”, who is continually distracted by squirrels. The struggle is real.
Does this sound familiar to you?
When this happens (and it will), immediately walk – no run! - to your designated workspace. Sit down. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Fill your ears with calming music or white noise. Write down whatever is on your mind; these will be dealt with later. Turn off your devices (phone, watch etc.), or better yet – set them elsewhere in the house. Create an automatic reply for the next hour and then close email, chat and your browser windows. Let your colleagues know you will be off the grid for a little while. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door to indicate that you are unavailable to the folks at home.
By eliminating distractions, you will become better at concentrating, but this takes deliberate practice. Eventually you’ll find yourself being able to resist temptations which will improve your focus and allow you to accomplish your goals.
In the morning, prioritize what needs to get done and identify any activities requiring your undivided attention. Review your schedule and block off time in your calendar where you can work without interruptions. This doesn’t have to be excessive; you can achieve a significant amount of work within a 30-minute time block. The key though, is to respect the appointment. Treat it like you would treat any other meeting, by starting on time, being present and ending on time.
Music. Makes the Focus. Come Together.
If you’re struggling to find your groove, grab your favorite noise cancelling headphones and get ready to tune out, by tuning in. The right kind of music (or sound) can help relax your mind, increase concentration and optimize your productivity by reducing distractions. In addition, music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, which maximizes learning and improves memory (bonus!!).
For the best focus music, choose tunes that keep you awake but won't cause you get up and shake what your mama gave you (wait until you have a break for that). Some musical options include:
Whichever you choose, noise levels matter. Ensure the sound isn’t too loud or too soft, so you can receive the maximum benefit.
Just Say No to Multitasking
Multitasking is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously, such as writing an email, editing a document or responding to slack while attending a conference call. In theory, this sounds amazing. Look how much we can accomplish at once – it’s as if we have 4 different brains, all working in perfect harmony tackling our to-do list at an overwhelming speed! Look at us go!!
Sorry friends, researchers at Stanford University have bad news for us.
Multitasking is doing more harm than good.
According to this study back in 2009, “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
It’s all a mirage. Multitasking is less productive than doing one single thing at a time. The American Psychological Association backs this up with their own research. They uncovered that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking.
Switching between tasks causes a significant loss in time, due to the cognitive load imposed. When you ricochet from one task to another, you need to remember where you left off in the task that you are returning to. The more complex the task, the more time you will need. And the more prone to error you are.
Although these time switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just one second per switch, they can add up to large amounts of time when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Think about it. How many times, in the past 60 minutes, did you switch contexts? Now take that number and multiply it by the number of hours you are awake. That’s a lot of wasted time.
If you want to get things done (and get things done correctly) without losing precious time, then just say no to multitasking.
Define Your Focus Time
As mentioned in the previous post, the Pomodoro technique is a time management method which structures your day based on 25 minutes of focused work followed by 2-5 minute breaks. This approach teaches you to work with time, instead of struggling against it.
Start by identifying the task you need to focus on and then make a small oath to yourself: “I will spend 25 minutes on this task, and I will not allow for interruptions.” You can do it! After all, it’s just 25 minutes. Set a timer and get to it. If a new “must do” item pops into your brain before the timer ends, write it down and get back to work on your task.
When the timer rings, stop whatever you are doing, pat yourself on the back, and grab a 2-5 minute break. Stretch your limbs, get outside, grab a cup of tea or do some other non-work-related activity. Whatever you do, make sure you use your break as a purposeful pause.
Consciously settling into your quiet space, blocking outside interferences (Squirrel!!), and following the Pomodoro technique will go a long way to promoting clarity and focus. This leads you to greater productivity and accomplishment… which automatically lends itself to an overall feeling of triumph and joy. Who doesn’t want that?
Keep your eyes open for part four of this series, which will provide practical techniques to foster amazing collaboration with your colleagues.
Just an agile-dork writing about dorky agile things.