How to avoid overwhelm and stay focused in your business, Part II
Welcome back to our two-part series on getting focused (or re-focused!) in your business. If you missed Part 1, you can read that right over here.
So, jumping back in: let’s talk focus.
Specifically, let’s talk about how to choose focus when distraction is knocking at your door and it smells like coffee, sounds like the ding of a new email, and feels like you just need to organize your desk RIGHT NOW before you do anything else productive. You know what I’m talking about.
Distraction sucks. You know and I know that it keeps us from a more productive work life, but it’s SO hard to fight! How do you choose focus consistently, when distraction is so easy?
Last time we talked about the two major things you need to have in place in order to focus effectively: clearly defined goals and a clearly defined “No” list. Based on those two things, you should have a clear idea of the specific actions you need to be focused on in order to make progress on the things that are important to you.
So last time was about choosing the work. Today is about doing the work. How do you stay focused in the moment-by-moment, day-by-day reality of getting things done?
I’ve got three things to suggest — and a handy tool to help you make it happen.
Batch your work
Start with batching your tasks — grouping the same or similar tasks together and doing them all in one go, rather than switching from one type of task to another.
This is important because your brain doesn’t like the constant changes in direction that happen when you move from one type of work to another — it much prefers doing the same kind of work over and over again. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that switching from task to task could take up as much as 40% of your productive time:
"Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time."
Bottom line? Grouping the same types of work and doing them all at once improves your focus and helps you to be more productive.
So how do you do this?
1. Decide what to batch.
Go through all the types of tasks you do on a regular basis (writing blog posts, social media, finances, admin, client tasks, etc.) and group them together based on the kind of work and thought processes that are involved in doing those tasks.
For complex tasks, break them down into smaller chunks — for example, writing a blog post could be broken down into writing; creating blog post and promotional images; setting the post up in your website; and scheduling social media to promote your new post. Even though they’re part of one big task, these are all different types of work, and you’ll find it’s easier to separate them out and work on them in chunks.
2. Decide on a frequency for each “category” you’ve identified
Next step: Ask yourself, how often do you need to take action on each category? For some things, like commenting and engaging with social media, you may want to set aside time each day. Other things will only require weekly, monthly or even quarterly attention.
Go through each category and decide how often you need to work on those tasks. You should also think about how long you’ll need to work on each category (we’ll talk more about this next).
3. Block off time in your calendar for each category
Once you know how your activities are grouped and how often you need to do them, it’s time to make sure that you’ve set aside the time you need to buckle down and focus. That means going through your calendar and blocking off chunks of time for each “batch category”.
Start by asking yourself if there’s a specific time you need to do this. For example, I find that my brain is at its sharpest and the words flow easier in the morning, so I schedule any tasks associated with writing or other focused creative work in the morning. Stuff that, for me, doesn’t require the same amount of mental energy — admin, product design, social media, website updates, things like that — get scheduled for the afternoon when my brain is starting to slow down.
Once you have a sense of when certain things need to get done, sit down with your calendar and schedule everything out! Create blocks of time weekly, monthly, quarterly — whatever the time frames you identified — and clear space in your calendar for steady, repeated, focused work. Make sure that the tasks are recurring so your future time is blocked off too!
4. Commit to working only on the relevant tasks during your allotted time.
Once you’ve done alllll the other stuff, here’s the thing: it’s time to sit your butt down in a chair and GET ‘ER DONE.
The whole purpose of batching is to help you choose in advance what you’re going to do. That means that in the moment, you don’t have any decisions to make. You just need to do the work.
You’ve already planned for when you’re going to do the other things you’re thinking about doing… or they’re sitting on your “no” list and you’ve already chosen you’re just flat out not gonna do them.
Either way, this is the time where, again, you just need to do the work. No distractions, just focus on making progress on the task at hand. If you’re used to multitasking or jumping at every distraction, this will be a challenge at first. KEEP GOING. Commit to staying focused on the things you’ve said you’d do, and trust the system you’ve built for yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll get done… and how good it feels!
Block out distractions
Next step to focused work? Deliberately block out anything that might distract you or tempt you to multitask. Here’s what that could look like:
Shut down your email.
Close the 582 browser tabs you have open. (I see you.) If you don’t need it for the task at hand, close your browser completely.
Put your phone in airplane or do not disturb mode. If you find your phone too distracting and the urge to scroll is too tempting, put your phone out of reach or in another room.
Use headphones to block out any ambient noise.
Close the door.
Another way to head off distractions as they arise: Keep a pen and paper handy. Any time you think of something you need to do, jot it down so you can come back to it later. You’ll feel better knowing that the thought is out of your head and in a place where you can respond to it later, but you won’t have lost your flow or focus on the thing you’re working on right now.
Set a timer
Once you’ve blocked out all your distractions, setting a timer is a great way to make sure you stay on track and have a deep, productive period of work.
A lot of people swear by the Pomodoro technique, where you set a timer for 25 minutes of focused, no-distractions work, then take a five-minute break. Repeat the 25+5 cycle four times, then take a longer break.
Personally, I love the concept but find those time blocks are too short, especially if the task at hand is writing. For me, I’ve found that 50+10 is more productive — it generates better results, and I look forward to the longer break! But even then, I often start with a 25 minute timer. Especially if I’m just starting the workday or struggling to focus, 25 minutes feels more achievable. Often I’ll hit the end of the 25 minutes and be in such a groove that I just restart the timer and keep going. I’ve found FocusBooster to be a great tool for this.
The point is not that there’s a specific formula here; instead, it’s committing to an achievable period of time where you are focused on one thing and one thing only. As you repeat this process, you’ll be amazed at how the results pile up.
Focus is a choice
If you go back through everything we’ve talked about in the last two posts, it really boils down to this: Focus is a choice.
And I’ve learned that it’s way easier to do the distraction-busting things we’ve talked about in this post — small choices like setting a timer for 25 minutes, closing a door, saying “no” or “later” to distractions that come up — when I’ve been intentional on the front end of that process: reminding myself of my goals and priorities, and clearly defining my “no” list.
That’s why it’s so important that these two posts go hand in hand. Resetting your focus takes two things. It starts with beating overwhelm and getting clear on what is most important to you. Next comes a commitment to blocking distraction and getting to work.
I hope that the ideas and techniques in these two posts give you some inspiration and a place to start! But of course I’m not going to leave you on your own — so I’ve come up with a couple of tools to help you get started.
Tool #1: Free printable and checklist
First up: a free printable and checklist that you can post to your bulletin board and use to get ready for focused work. You can get that here.
Tool #2: Reset Your Focus Guidebook
I’ve also created a Reset Your Focus guidebook. This 44-page resource is your all-in one roadmap to choosing your priorities with intention and then kicking your productivity into overdrive. It goes through all of the steps that we’ve covered in these two posts, with journaling questions, worksheets, and checklists to help you every step of the way. Grab your copy here, print it out, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and get started!