The One Skill That Will Actually Help You Get Stuff Done

Creatives are rarely described as Type-A. Creative people are usually described as flaky individuals that are easily distractible. They are project hoppers; they are people who like to follow “shiny-objects,” and they haven’t exactly been known for their ability to focus or follow through. Fortunately/unfortunately, focus is a skill that is in short supply these days. 

The reason for our decline in focus is pretty obvious: technology.

This lack of focus is effecting the productive output of many industries.

Take academia for example. Email, smartphones and the internet have been readily adopted by knowledge workers because they supposedly save time. Now, we can easily organise meetings and projects through the convenient format of email (a prolonged and fractured conversation); colleagues/family/friends are constantly contactable, and we have convenient access to a wealth of (free) knowledge and information.

However, scholarly output has not increased alongside the introduction of these technologies, some argue it has plateaued and others say it has declined

Distractions: Emails, smartphones and unexpected drops ins

One reason why our collective output has suffered is that it is so easy and convenient to contact one another. We all know that it is difficult to get back into a focussed state after being interrupted, but studies show that it’s equally difficult to concentration if we expect to be interrupted. 

Ever noticed how it’s so much easier to get work done when you’re the only one at home or when you go into the office on the weekend?

You may think this is binal — obviously, it’s easier to get things done when no-one else is around — but I think it’s fascinating that our productivity can drop (measurably) simply because we fear potential interruptions. 

These interruptions are not limited to a knock on the door the bing of incoming emails, text messages or notifications are just as disruptive. 

How Long Can We Focus For? 

Our society is structured around the forty-hour workweek. (Note: this is an arbitrary number that was based on machinery during the industrial age and it’s not based on research data. Humans are not machines. Go figure.) And yet, studies show that we can only focus for four or five hours a day. Max. After that, the most you can handle is low-grade task such as admin, email or any other unspecialised task. 

In fact, Sweden is moving towards a thirty-hour work week (6 hour days) after a study showed that productivity remained the same (despite the shorter workday) while workplace drama decreased. 

It typically takes 20 minutes to get into a state of deep concentration. However, the average office worker is interrupted (via email, phone, or a colleague) every 11 minutes. You do the maths. Basically, we’re all struggling to get meaningfully task done. 

The main reason why so many writers do their work early in the morning or late at night is because there’s no one around to interrupt you! 

You can push yourself to remain in a state of deep focus for longer periods of time (8-12 hours), but you must take frequent breaks. Do not work any longer than 90 minutes and make sure that when you do take a break (10-20 minutes), that you’re engaging with tasks that are unrelated to the project you are working on. Go for a walk, talk to a colleague or family member or friend (about something other than work!), read an article in the newspaper (only if it is unrelated to your project) or make a cup of tea and stare out the window.

You can open your email inbox, but only if you are very very disciplined.  

The problem with email is that you may not have enough time in your 10-20 minute break to adequately reply to a request. If you read an email and think, “I’ll reply to that later when I have more time,” and then you return to your work, one part of your mind will still be thinking about how to respond to that email while the other part is trying to focus on your project. It takes at least 20 minutes (approx.) to ‘rid’ your mind of this distraction and to get back to work. 

Simplify to Amplify 

If you want to achieve big things, then you have to say, ‘No, thank you’ to all the requests and opportunities that don’t align with your goals. 

As Marie Forleo says, “You have to simplify to amplify.”

Take a look at your workload and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which tasks do I really have to do?
  • Which of these tasks will really move the needle?
  • Is this task going to lead to my desired result?
  • Is this task actually important, or am I using it as a way to look busy?

Mmmm that last one stings a little bit, doesn’t it?

When you can pinpoint what your priority tasks are, it is way easier to let go of frivolous tasks. 

For example, writing a book or an article may be a top priority.  The thirty minutes you spend crafting social media posts and replying to comments (every day) may now seem less important in light of this goal. Building an online audience is a good idea, but what use is an audience if you don’t have any books or publications for them to read?

The ability to focus in a world filled with distractions and interruptions is a specialised skill, but it is a skill that you can develop and strengthen.

If you’d like to improve your ability to concentrate, then I recommend scheduling large blocks of time (2-4 hours) several times a week for doing just that. Treat this like you would any other appointment. Log out of your email (set an auto-responder if you have to) and put your phone on flight mode. If your fingers itch to “just check” your phone or email, strengthen your resolve to stick with the task at hand. If “looking up” a certain fact, method, procedure, recipe or dog grooming technique suddenly seems vitally important, write this thought down on a notepad with the intention of Googling said query after you’ve finished working. 

Learning to focus isn’t as easy, and few would describe this process ‘fun’, but there is little satisfaction in a workday spent replying to emails. Just remember that the next time you go to check your inbox. 

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Batching Your Tasks

As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve recently started my doctorate. I’m presently enrolled fulltime, but the completing of this research investigation is hardly the only project on my plate. (Who the heck has ONE project on their plate anyway?)

Over the years, I developed a time blocking schedule where I worked towards the completion of tasks/goals by spending a little bit of time every day working on each task or goal. This meant that I shifted between 3-5 different projects every day and I would spend 1-3 hours on each task. Although I was constantly shifting gears, this system worked because I was strategic in how I organised the completing of these tasks.

For instances, I’m a morning person so my mornings were always spent working on high priority projects or projects that required a greater amount of cognitive or creative clarity such as novel writing, reading and analysing journal articles, or drafting/revising assignments. My energy is much lower in the afternoons, so I usually spent this time working on lighter tasks such as marketing, administration or research.

In between these tasks, I would frequently check my emails, ebook sales (published under a pen name), tend to domestic tasks (laundry/baking/candlestick making) or run personal errands.

For years, this flittering between tasks worked for me. I enjoyed the variety that came with each day and the satisfaction of daily, steady progress. This system suited me and my temperament and I had no problems winding down and switching off at the end of the day.

Then something changed. With no warning at all, the system that I had used to organise my life stopped working. Shifting between 3-5 tasks every day no longer felt invigorating or satisfying. Instead, I felt scatterbrained and overwhelmed. What made matters worse was that I could no longer switch off. I was waking up at 12am to the sound of my inner taskmaster reading out my to-do list. I had worked hard to train my brain to focus intensely on one task for a short period of time before switching to another task and now my brain didn’t know how to switch off.

The system that worked seamlessly for years was defunct. I needed to find a new system!

I first heard of ‘batching’ a couple of years ago, but I never gave it much thought. After all, I already had a system.

If you haven’t heard of this time managing technique, here’s the low down:
Batching is when you organise your day, week or month to the completing of one task or the completing of similar tasks. For example, my blog posts are written in real time. I spend a few hours every Thursday writing and revising a blog that is then posted on Friday. Rather than writing one blog every week, I could batch this task by dedicating one whole day to writing and editing enough blogs for a whole month.

This intense focus allows you to stay in the one headspace for an entire day/week/month rather than flittering between multiple tasks that require different levels of skill or concentration.

When it comes to batching, you choose the time frame and the task. You may want to dedicate a whole month to the completing of a major project, or you may dedicate a whole day to writing. Some tasks don’t require a whole day but you still want to stay in a similar headframe. If that’s the case, you could group similar tasks together such as domestic chores: houseworks/errands/bills or marketing: content creation/social media posts/ads/copywriting.

At the top of this post I mentioned how I used to constantly check my emails. While ‘batching’ a task like emails isn’t feasible for me, I have decided to dedicate one hour every day to this task. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of will power to do this. Checking my emailing became something I did whenever I needed a mini-break from whatever task I was working on. Email is disguised procrastination. It seems like you’re being ‘productive’, but usually you’re just wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, mini-breaks are good! Just don’t spend your mini-break in front of a screen checking email or social media. If you’re taking a mini-break, actually have a break. Stand up, move around or stare out the window.

How about you? Do you use the batching method or a different technique to get your tasks done?