Today’s modern office is a cacophony of distractions: open floor plans, noisy conversations and people moving around. It’s hard to find time to get real work done.
Even our tools are making it harder than ever to find time to focus. We’ve embraced productivity apps like Slack and Google Calendar without taking the time to build norms around them. While these tools are incredibly useful, left unattended they can fill our workdays with chats and meetings, but no time to get work done.
As a result, attention has become fragmented between checking email, social media, Slack, reading the news, going to meetings, then getting back to the work we should be doing. In a recent study, Dr. Gloria Mark of UC Irvine found that a typical employee only has 11 minutes between distractions – not nearly enough for real focus.
In order to get focused work done, we need to escape the distractions that surround us in the workplace. In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport explains that “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.” But, there is a solution: intentionally planning Focus Time helps us get more quality work done by minimizing interruptions, and allocating time to truly go ‘deep’ on the task at hand.
Diving into work
As Newport points out in Deep Work, “Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to lock yourself in a meeting room or stop going into the office entirely, but does mean that it’s worth examining a more intentional approach to time management.
There are a few techniques that can help with this process. As they become habits, it will be easier to keep to them, and the practice will ultimately improve your day. Each strategy won’t work for everyone, but we suggest trying a few of them yourself and choosing the ones that fit your workflow best.
Work in bursts
One key change to underpin your new habit is setting aside dedicated time to complete tasks without flicking between them. Our favorite way to do this and help stay on task is with Pomodoro timers, which breaks tasks up into 25-minute sprints.
To start a ‘pomo,’ create a list of what you want to achieve today and pick one task. Choose something to serve as a timer, such as a physical timer or a handy focus app on your computer, and set the clock for 25 minutes. Then, hit start and force yourself to work for 25 minutes straight on that single task. Don’t switch, check your email, or do anything else!
The first few times may feel pain if you’re a window-switcher. The temptation to pop into your email or check Twitter is strong, but as you resist it for longer, the work will flow.
Block out focus time in the calendar
Another powerful habit is blocking out time in your calendar to avoid other people disrupting your flow during the day. Tim Ferris hints at this in his book, The Four-Hour Work Week, when he says that “Focus on being productive instead of busy.”
Set aside a few hours each day for focus time to make it clear that you’re not available to meet during that time—see our post about creative naming excuses for these, if you need one—then stick rigidly to that during the day. When the slot approaches, flip on Do Not Disturb on your phone and computer, and sign out of your social media accounts: it’s focus time.
“Focus on being productive instead of busy” -Tim Ferris
These focus blocks allow you to ensure that nobody slides into your calendar unannounced, and ensure you mentally switch modes into “work”. To take it to the next level, tools like Clockwise automate this process by scheduling in focus time for you, helping your entire team by reducing the distraction of quick meetings as well as warning people when they’re interrupting you.
Building a habit like this is important for mastering a skill and truly getting work done requires the same level of focus. As Newport describes in Deep Work, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.” This technique is even more powerful when combined with timeboxing.
Write it down
Another way to ensure you stay on track is thinking about your day and what you need to achieve, then forcing yourself to write it all down with a pen. By doing so, you can internalize what needs to be done – it’s much harder to let something slip through the cracks to another day – and the act of using a pen makes you take the time to process the task.
Bloomberg’s Works for Me podcast is a great place to start if you want to learn about it, but the Bullet Journal system turns a ritual into a habit by forcing the user to write down everything they must do in the day. If something is missed in a day, it must be written down again the following day, which eventually gets tiresome so you either address it, or eliminate it entirely.
“Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking” -Cal Newport
Using a to-do list makes how you spend your time throughout the day much more intentional, particularly when combined with the Pomodoro Method, so that you’re never left with nothing to do. If you can’t bring yourself to write tasks down, an alternative is scheduling to-do tasks in the calendar, estimating how long those tasks will take, and ultimately building a realistic view of what you’re able to achieve in the work day.
In the Four-Hour Work Week, Ferris describes how powerful this intentional planning is, by keeping things simple: “To enjoy life, you don't need fancy nonsense, but you do need to control your time and realize that most things just aren't as serious as you make them out to be.”
The best approach for navigating a busy, distracting day is to intentionally make choices about how you’ll use the time. Whether it’s using Pomodoro timers, a Bullet Journal, or time blocks in the calendar, if you really plan what you’re going to do each day and when, you’ll get more done and be able to better manage and communicate your workload. Apps that help you focus are also worth investing in.
If you have any other techniques that you use to get the most out of your day, let us know! We love hearing about new ways to wield your calendar, or a helpful hack you use to get stuff done.