Have you ever been caught in this vicious cycle?
Step 1- Know what you need to get done.
Step 2- Work hard all day long.
Step 3- Realize at quitting time you’ve not accomplished any of what you set out to do.
Step 4- Go home feeling defeated.
Step 5- Vow to do better the next day.
Step 6- Rinse and repeat.
With so much on our plates at work, minor tasks often distract us from the most important projects, or we become overwhelmed and generally lose focus.
So what can you do to stay focused on getting stuff done? There are a lot of tips and tricks out there, but here are ten I’ve tried and personally recommend because they’re simple, practical, and effective.
Declutter and organize your workspace.
When I have nothing going on, I can sit in a mess all day long and be perfectly ok with it. The second a pressing task appears, all I want to do is clean. Perhaps it’s simple procrastination, but numerous scientific studies link clutter and psychological well-being. Physical clutter creates mental clutter. Until we clean our physical space, we just can’t focus well.
Not only that, but when a workspace is disorganized, it’s more difficult to access the necessary tools and information. If you’ve got a big project coming up, and suffer from messy desk syndrome, take some time to get organized first!
Prioritize your to-do list.
A to-do list is great, but some tasks are more important than others. The “Urgent-Important Matrix” is an excellent tool for helping prioritize. After assessing each task as important, urgent, both, or neither, you can easily decide what needs your attention first. At the end of the day, you’ll feel a lot better if you’ve accomplished one or two really important tasks rather than a dozen unimportant ones.
Set a timer.
Some people can muster up self-motivation with little effort, but I have to trick myself into it. Setting a timer and working in chunks is an excellent way to make substantial, overwhelming tasks feel easy enough to tackle. After all, you can do anything for 20 minutes, right?
This also appeals to my competitive nature because I feel like I’ve won something if I finish the task before time is up. If positive reinforcement works for you, there are timer apps, like Pomodoro, that reward you when you complete cycles of work. (Mine gives me a little tomato icon each time I complete a cycle. Don’t mess with me when I’m trying to get my tomato!)
Additionally, setting a timer helps you develop a routine of working and taking breaks, which leads us to...
Build in breaks.
It is not productive or healthy to sit at your desk all day. Your body and your brain function better when you build in breaks that allow for physical movement and mental rest.
A true break involves getting up and getting away from the task at hand. This has numerous benefits:
- Your body gets a chance to move and stretch so it is not stuck in a sedentary, static position all day. Too many days without physical activity will take a serious toll on your health and productivity!
- Physical activity raises your heart rate which pumps more oxygen to your brain. Oxygen is necessary for optimal brain function.
- Physical activity releases endorphins in the brain that are known to relieve stress and create a feeling of peace.
- Your eyes have a chance to rest from the blue light of your screens.
- You have built in time to communicate with your colleagues.
- You return to your work with “fresh eyes” and a clear perspective.
When you have a pressing task to accomplish, it can be easy to think you should just power through, but intentionally taking breaks will improve your focus, and therefore, your productivity.
Eat healthy foods.
Halfway through my morning, I can definitely tell if I had eggs and avocado or Captain Crunch for breakfast. Sugary foods taste good and give you a quick burst of energy, but once that wears off, you’re left feeling drained and hungry. I don’t know about you, but I can’t accomplish anything when I’m hungry!
Eating healthy foods throughout the day obviously has many health benefits, but it can help you focus better too. Managing carb intake can help you fight off that mid-afternoon slump, and maintaining a healthy blood sugar level has been associated with having the willpower to stay focused (1).
If you know you’re always hungry at a certain time of the day, schedule a break for that time and have a healthy snack on hand. There are many foods that have been shown to boost your focus and concentration like blueberries, dark chocolate, fatty fish, dark green veggies, avocados, and nuts (2).
Also, be sure you’re drinking enough water during the day! All your body and brain functions depend on it.
Get enough sleep.
A sleepy brain is a foggy brain, and a foggy brain is not good at staying focused for long. Establish a healthy sleep routine that allows for getting enough high quality sleep. Stay consistent to optimize your body’s capacity for energy and focus.
Create a correspondence routine.
Nothing can derail productivity faster than checking your email or looking at your text messages. Most often, communications fall into the urgent, but not important category of the Urgent-Important Matrix. If you get a notification in the middle of working on a project, you will feel compelled to check and then respond to that message. At best, it will interrupt your flow. At worst, you will get sucked into the messaging vortex and emerge hours later without any significant progress being made on the tasks that matter.
The solution? Set a schedule for when you will work and when you will check emails. During work times, turn off all notifications on your computer and your phone. When you do finally check your messages, set a timer for how long you will deal with correspondence. When time is up, move on.
Have a landing pad for stray thoughts and ideas.
Our brains are constantly going a million miles an hour. It’s normal for stray thoughts to pop up at inopportune times. Keep a notepad nearby to jot down those thoughts when you have them. That way, you won’t expend extra energy trying to remember important things because you’ll know you’ll have them available to deal with later.
Establish a reputation for being busy at certain times of the day.
Coworkers can be helpful and enjoyable, but they can also be incredibly distracting! Set a schedule or come up with a signal to use when you cannot be interrupted (maybe a sign on your door or an away status on your computer). Then, kindly enforce it. Be sure to also schedule enough time during the day to allow for collaboration and catching up with coworkers. If you keep a routine for long enough, your colleagues will expect it and plan to speak with you when you are available.
Invest in office equipment that feels good.
Sometimes you lose focus because you’re uncomfortable. If your body is strained by your workspace, you’ll be less efficient and suffer after hours too! Get an ergonomic chair that allows for good posture, and invest in a mount for your computer so it is at the right height. Have different work surfaces or an adjustable desk so you can alternate between sitting and standing throughout your work day. And don’t forget to take those breaks!
If you find you can’t sit still or your body just wants to move every time you sit down to work, you might consider buying office exercise equipment to help you manage that energy with physical activity so your mind can be free to focus on the task at hand. Our Bike Desks and Under Desk products allow you to be physically active and mentally focused at the same time. Students and adults who use our products report increased focus simply because their bodies have something enjoyable to do. Plus you get the added benefit of physical activity even in between breaks.
Focus and fitness, all in one, is a definite win!