Sometime today, someone or something is going to distract you. Instead of wishing things were different, or hoping for the best, set yourself up for success. 

Yes, set yourself up to focus on your Most Important Things!

Have you set a goal to get more things done today? Are you hoping that you’ll be more productive today, and maybe even get home in time to have dinner with the family, or return to the hotel in time to get a workout in before dinner? Step back and reflect on the environment you work in and ask yourself, “Is this work-space designed to help me focus on the work I have to do?”

Maybe you work in a section of the office with low-walled cubicles. Maybe you have a door you can close. Maybe you’re going to be traveling – planes, trains and automobiles with a late check-in at a hotel. If you’re going to be productive, you must recognize the impact that your environment has on you getting the right things done. Or, even getting anything done!

It All Starts With Your Focus
Every time you are distracted, the energy and momentum you had moving a project forward is halted, and you need to start over. Too many times, you need to gather new strength to pick up where you left off, and you may waste valuable minutes trying to figure out exactly where that was.

According to a study published in 2007*, the maximum time a desktop computer user spends in one application before switching to another is 4 minutes, with the average being a switch every 60 seconds. If you’re trying to get something done, and you’re switching windows, looking for the mouse cursor, and getting distracted by the incoming input, it’s going to be much harder to get things done.

What To Do About It
Identify one piece of work that deserves about 45 minutes of focused attention. Then, go to a place where you can be alone for that time. It can be a different office or conference room in your office building, or even the coffee shop around the corner (or across town). By getting away from your desk, you will not be available for phone calls or to check your emails.

(NOTE: If 45 minutes is “unimaginable,” as it surely will be for some people reading this, start with a smaller block of time. Over the next week, implement this technique 3 times, at 15 minutes each. See what happens.)

I recommend that you let your co-workers and team members know that you will not be available during this short time, because you will be focusing on a particular project.

Before starting a work session, think of the people that might interrupt you and interrupt them first. Use the time before your focus period to contact them and ask for anything they may need from you. You can also mention that you will be unavailable during the next 45 minutes because you will focus on a specific piece of work that you need to get done.

They will understand and over time, they will respect this focus time and avoid interrupting you. There are several benefits to this kind of workflow (and time) management:

  • You implement a “Focus to Finish” mindset. Sit down, work on one thing until it’s done, and then move on to another project.
  • You let your coworkers know that at some points during each day you need – and the entire team/department/company can benefit from – extended periods of focus time while you’re at work.
  • You (may) cut down the amount of time you do this “non-interrupted” work after hours, on the commute home, or during the weekend.
  • You train yourself to stay on task for longer than the maximum (4 minutes) and beyond the average (60 seconds) you’ve grown accustomed to.

Nothing works, until you work it. And, you won’t know if there’s a benefit to extending the amount of time you find yourself working on one, significant, high-priority project, until you try. Open your calendar, schedule a 15 or 45-minute block of time, and work on something important.

Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks: Field Study, Analysis, and Directions