5 Tips for Remaining Focused and Productive

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You’re hard at work on a proposal for the new freelance job lead you just found, or typing up that report that your boss has demanded by end of day, or any number of other tasks. Oh, wait, you aren’t hard at work. Your mind is drifting to much more attention-grabbing subjects like dinner, your upcoming evening activities, the chat app on your taskbar, or the YouTube video you’re about to click on.

Sometimes, retaining focus is hard. And if you already have problems with attention and short term memory, and do a lot of freelance and consulting work, like yours truly, then you may experience these issues all the more sharply. Let’s take a quick look at five tips to help you to remain focused and productive while working, so that you can spend less time working.

1) Create a Productive Environment

Creating a productive environment can be a challenge for anyone. The key is that your environment needs to be a working environment. Having your workspace in your bedroom is a bad idea, impacting both your productivity and your sleep. Another problem that is common with those who freelance or work remotely from their homes is the interruption of home life. The children, the husband, the wife, partner, parent, dog — any of these can be very disrupting. In a traditional office environment, however, similar interruptions can be had, at all times of the day.

The best solution is to have an office space that is as conducive to your style of work as possible. If you are able to recommend colleagues to email you, or leave papers in a tray, do those things. If you’re working from home and able to establish times that you are available and times that you aren’t, definitely do so. Creating those sort of boundaries will be invaluable to you, as the constant intruding of the people around you and environment you are in can disrupt your productivity as much as the other distractions around you.

2) Eliminate as Many Distractions as Possible

We humans are very easily distracted. The workplace is filled to bursting with distractions. The conversations nearby, the emails whizzing in, and so many more. And working at home can be far worse. What is one to do? Many writing or other productivity applications have “distraction free” modes that maximize their own windows, or lock the screen. For most of us, these sorts of gimmicks are impractical at best. Instead, perhaps it’s better to focus on the root causes of our distraction, and see what we can do to negate or mitigate those.

What Things Distract You?

- Phones and Tablets — This one is a given. If your task at hand does not require your constant interaction with your phone, find a way to make it less of a distraction. If you use the Do Not Disturb (or similar) functionality on iOS or Android, or download an app to schedule and enact particular notification and sound rules, this will go a long way towards helping. My own phone is completely silent during sleeping hours unless receiving (specifically) a phone call from a known contact, or a repeated caller. During my full-time workday, my phone automatically toggles on vibrate mode and completely silences certain apps (and then reverses those options shortly after time to leave the office). I often enable restrictions when working at home on other projects, as well.
- Email — The best thing that you can do with email, if possible, is to process it all at once. Batch processing emails allows you to avoid the switching costs of dealing with one incoming email after another all throughout your day. Instead, designate 1–4 times per day to check emails, if your work permits, and process all email at that time.
- Social Media — Unless your job is social media interaction, you don’t need the constant influx of notifications and interaction that you are receiving. Find a way to rid yourself of it during your productivity periods. Put the phone or tablet away; close the browser tabs that you keep open. You do not need to be constantly plugged in, as every new mention or message is going to rip your attention away from the task at hand, even for just a moment.

Every single one of these distractions is going to derail your productivity, and have a definite “switching cost”.

The Science of “Switching Costs”

Switching costs are a very real thing, according to the American Psychological Association research on multitasking and switching costs.

…even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

To clarify this point, research indicates that shifting between tasks can create a measurable slowdown in our productivity. This means that if you are, say, programming in a web application, and every few moments you answer a new email, or text message, or go check your Twitter feed, you are significantly less productive than if you were working in a distraction free environment, because every time you return to the task at hand, it takes you longer to “get back into the groove”.

From personal experience as a developer and a writer, I often go to what has been labeled by others as “the zone”. I am in the zone, I am writing or programming and when I look up, hours may have passed. However, if I allow myself to be distracted into checking the news, my Twitter feeds, my work or personal emails, or any number of other things, that flow that I had going is disrupted, and returning to “the zone” is a thing that may happen slowly — or may not even happen again during this working period. To me, it’s absolutely pivotal to try to make my environment as distraction free as possible.

3) Employ Techniques That Work for You

Yes, this will require experimentation. The same tricks and methods don’t work for everyone, unfortunately!

Task Batching

Task batching is an easy first step to eliminate some of the things that disrupt your productivity without changing much about the way you work — all you really need to do is reorder things a bit. With task batching, you’re simply going to take all like tasks and do them at once. The easiest example is email. You designate a time(s) during the day when you will process email (if your position allows less than immediate response to it) and you process *all* of your email at this time. You do not even check it at other times during the day. The same task batching is done for other tasks, such as social media, out of house errands, phone calls, appointments, even meetings where possible. A variation on the principle called the Pomodoro Technique involves using a timer with set periods during which you will do one type of task, followed by a short break, followed by another period of productivity with one task or type of tasks.

Scheduling your Productivity

Sometimes we try to schedule productivity. Our calendars, especially if we work in standard office jobs or are required to work a certain set of hours, are filled. We have family activities scheduled at certain times, appointments, meetings, and all sorts of other things. The problem with a rigorous, set schedule is that often they aren’t designed with productivity in mind.

If you feel that you’re a night owl, and get your best work done between the hours of 8pm and 10pm at night? Then adjust your schedule to put your most important projects (personal or professional) occurring during that time. If your best hours, like many of us, are in the morning — adjust your schedule. Get work done on your most important projects during your most productive times. Take regular breaks, and also plan your more monotonous or tedious tasks, and do those when you are feeling tired or slow to think, rather than wasting your best hours of the day on them.

4) Note Taking and Brain Dumps

Another easy way to be productive is to do brain dumps. As with task dumping, the goal is to get things out of your head and recorded for later use. A note taking and organizing app is crucial to this effort, and it helps a lot if it’s one available to you on all the devices you use on a daily basis. I use Evernote for ideas, research, and random notes and I use Todoist and Trello for task and project management, so I typically dump tasks into the inbox of my Todoist account when they’re thought of, and then process the Todoist and Evernote inboxes a couple of times a day. This works fantastically for me, but come up with something that fits you. To work well, a system like this really needs to be a part of your daily life.

5) Use Productivity Tools

…but only those that help you to be more productive. Using task managers, to-do lists, planners, calendars, and other tools just to seem productive, or fool yourself into feeling productive, does not help. Using particular apps to assist you and make you more efficient, though, is an excellent idea.

Task Managers

- Wunderlist — if you need a simple task manager, Wunderlist is a good option to check out. Wunderlist has a web app and clients for multiple platforms, and provides an appealing user interface and an easy to use application. In my experience, it excelled at simple lists — If you needed to just have several lists of to-dos for the various sections of your life, give Wunderlist a try.
- Todoist — Todoist is my currently chosen poison, as mentioned before. It’s what I would call a mid level task management system. You have lists, and tasks within those lists. Tasks can have labels (like contexts, such as @work or @home or @phone) which can be used as a sort of tag for various purposes. Tasks also have due dates, priority levels, and notes. Todoist is cross platform, with native apps for Mac, Windows, Linux, and the major phone mobile platforms, as well as a stellar web app.
- A more complicated tool, if you use OS X and/or iOS, is Omnifocus. OmniFocus is a task manager designed from the ground up as a GTD (Getting Things Done) system, and it reflects it in its deep layers of projects, subprojects, contexts, views, filters, reviews, and more. I loved my time with OmniFocus, but my drifting out of the Apple ecosystem has caused it to be a poor option for me.

Timers

Pomodoro timers are an extremely useful way to implement task batching and the Pomodoro Technique. Usually they’re very simple timers, with set periods and then break times between. Some let you customize the period length, break time, alarms and notifications, and other features, but in the end you’re really just looking for a repetitive two-phase timer, to allow you to just tap to start your break, tap to start your next productive period, etc.
- Time tracking is also important, and instead of using a paper and pen or a spreadsheet, have a look at some time tracking apps. Toggl is one of my favorites. It’s simple to use, has just the right amount of options for me, and has some nifty little reporting features that you may want to try out.

Get Things Done

So, at the end of the day, the question is whether or not you’re able to get the things done that you intended. If you can’t, you need to adjust your productivity techniques and practices, or you need to move your goalposts. I hope that some of these ideas will be useful in helping you to reach your productivity goals, or else will at least spark some ideas of your own on how to remain focused and productive.