It’s not your imagination: It’s much more difficult to focus today than it has been for previous generations. Technology is, of course, part of the discussion: Social media, apps and mobile devices are engineered to keep your attention (and, depending on your perspective, keep you distracted). We also have more information available than ever before, which means every action makes us consider other alternative things we could be doing.
Unplugging your devices and removing external distractions aren’t always options, but there are a few excellent ways to keep your mind focused and sharp during even the most chaotic work moments.
First, choose one priority every day. It doesn’t mean you complete just one thing, but rather decide early on what you want to focus on for the next 24 hours. We actually do this all the time: If there’s a major project deadline tomorrow, then you already know your priority. Why not do the same with less urgent, yet equally important themes or ideas you want to focus on? Having a single, strong priority makes it easier to say “No” to distractions that won’t bring you closer to fulfilling that priority.
Second, write down your tasks for the day. The challenge of the to-do list is tough for solopreneurs and independent workers, but it’s even tougher for group and team environments since we aren’t always in control of our task list. The problem comes when we (or others) add on another task and we don’t actually expand the time or the focus necessary to handle it. Instead, we may have planned to do three tasks this morning, but unexpectedly that list turned into six tasks in the same amount of time. By writing down your task list, you’re forced to not only see the increasing length of things to do, but also to take a more realistic look at what you’re capable of within the time you have.
Third, determine your own big goal for the next day, week, month, quarter and year. This applies even if you have a supervisor or work system doing it for you. It creates a personal compass: a way to you to quickly decide what should be most important in your role and how to triage your duties in the most difficult moments. Work goal-setting tends to focus on broad sweeping or visionary tactics. Your personal goal should focus on how you’re going to execute these goals. In other words, the most efficient people have a personal system that allows them to prioritize and focus on the most efficient way to get their outcome.
Lastly, put buffers in between tasks. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to fully shift from one task to the next task, but you can help the process by purposely transitioning from one goal to another goal. The buffer can be simple: standing up and stretching for one minute, taking a brief walk or getting a cup of coffee. Consciously stopping and then starting again on a different task actually allows you to focus deeper when you return rather than being scattered focusing on multiple things at once.