At the end of last year, I became increasingly aware that each Friday afternoon I felt unsatisfied with what I had achieved that week. The reason, I realised, was that e-mail and task overload, social media, and too many day-to-day choices were causing havoc on my ability to concentrate on tasks.
So throughout this year, I invested a lot of time researching ‘focus’ and ‘productivity’.
From the many books, podcasts and other sources I researched this year, these are the key changes that I tried, have actually helped and I will continue to practise.
Build & Track Habits
I now use the Habitify app to get me into the rhythm of performing certain activities every week. Some are daily, e.g. reading, going to bed at a reasonable time, reviewing my work to-do list. Some are weekly, like going to the gym 3 times, doing 2 hours of learning, or picking up the phone to 3 clients.
At first it seemed crazy to write these day-to-day tasks down in an app (as you might do with work tasks), but the process of physically ticking them off, and tracking progress, has genuinely helped to get me into a routine of doing what I realised are small but key tasks in my day-to-day life.
Now, regardless of whatever went on (or didn’t go on!) during a particular week, if I tick off even 80% of the habits in this app I’m content that I’ve had a productive and healthy week.
15-minute Mind Exercises
Headspace is a mindfulness and meditation app which has become really popular, so you’ll probably have heard of it. I started a subscription earlier this year and got into a routine of doing a 15-minute exercise every two days.
They have some excellent material on the app, but my highlight is the 30 session series on ‘Finding Focus’. Perfect for my problem!
The Finding Focus series helped me get to the root of my problem — it made me realise how my mind jumps from one thing to the next so frequently it’s scary. The series trained me to notice when my mind was moving away from what I should be concentrating on, and getting back to it.
It’s weird at first but has been almost life-changing for me.
One of the best books I read during my research is Deep Work by Cal Newport. There’s lots of great, actual research in the book around how modern working is making focus a massive issue. Social media, open plan offices, etc.
If you’re struggling with focus at work, I really recommend you read the book. It has a great theory on how humans can work ‘productively’ and the key point I took away is to spend part of your day doing deep work.
For me, this means spending 90 minutes each day in a space on my own, with all notifications turned off, just working on a single task. This could be anything from reviewing some code to prepping for an upcoming presentation, but the idea is that without any distractions I will get the task done quicker and to a higher quality. In my work calendar, I literally have a time-slot blanked out as unavailable and I’ll not be at my desk.
So even if I spend 6 hours on a Monday firefighting e-mails, attending meetings etc, I feel comfortable that I’ve had those 90 minutes of seriously focused (and therefore usually productive) time.
How much time you should spend on deep work will depend on your job. The book has examples of top academics who might spend 95% of their day doing deep work, while on the other hand, a CEO may not do any deep work as they’re constantly in meetings and firefighting! I was somewhere in the middle.
E-mail & Other Comms Discipline
E-mail was a tricky one: It zaps focus but is crucial for my job (communicating with project team members, clients, etc). These are the changes I made this year:
- Turned off email notifications on my work laptop, so I’m in control of when I look at e-mails
- I have a 30-minute slot each morning to reply to e-mails from the previous day. This avoids constantly flicking between drafting e-mails and other tasks
- E-mails from important people (usually requiring a speed reply) are highlighted. These are generally the only e-mails I’ll reply to on the day.
Social media I have completely ditched during the day — I realised that even a brief look at Twitter could knock my concentration way off.
Find What Works for You
From my research, it was clear that ‘focus’ is an increasing problem in modern life, but that there is a lot of good thinking being done and many good ideas for how people are changing their routine to be happier.
The changes listed above have been challenging to implement but they’ve had a seriously positive impact on my day-to-day life, happiness, and career.
Finally, I would recommend checking out Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris. It’s a book full of interviews of CEOs, sports stars, etc, regarding their daily routines. You’re not going to find an exact routine to suit you, but you might find some amazing ideas to slot into your own life. For example, I found the Habitify app and great ideas for e-mail discipline in this book.