The biggest challenge of most high-performers is to focus on their work 100% without getting interrupted in their state of flow all the time by their surrounding or their own thoughts. Overcoming distractions is key to do work we can be proud of, as it will help us get it done in less time and with less frustration. The following productivity hacks are meant to guide you to achieve just that.
Multitasking is the enemy of great work
As employees are drowning in information overload, multitasking became a buzzword and for long it was believed to be a virtue of the best performing members of a team. However, studies have shown that the human brain can only pay attention to one mental task at a time and when we think we do more we are actually just switching our attention rapidly from one task to another.
Everything that interrupts you lessens the strength of your attention and you waste valuable time picking up the threads from where you had left off. Multitasking is the biggest lie of the 21st century and you should eliminate it from your dictionary right away.
Pavlov’s dog and your smartphone
Every time your phone beeps as a new email appears in your inbox your body gets a hit of dopamine and you will feel an irresistible temptation to check what it is. Most of the time you won’t even realize that you interrupted your work because you are so used to reaching for our phone as soon as you receive some news. After you get back to your work-flow it might take minutes to find your focus again and you risk forgetting a valuable idea which was just about to unfold in your mind before you got that message.
In order to prevent this you should put your phone into silence mode and close the tab of your inbox until the task you are working on is complete. We usually don’t even reply to these emails and messages after we read them but they urge us to worry about something unrelated to what we are focusing on. So stop the beeping – nobody gets hurt if you don’t respond to these messages for an hour.
Optimize your level of stimulation
Depending on whether you are an introvert or an extrovert and how alert you are to your surrounding in general, you should rethink the way your working environment is built up. The number of people around you and their temperament, the pace and volume of music that plays, the outside noise and passing lights –these are just some of the things your brain perceives passively around you.
Some people prefer to work in sheer silence while others need some background noise that motivates them to focus on their task even more. Maintaining your attention is a skill you can improve but while you practice you can simply optimize your environment in order to get the best results.
The art of simplicity
Minimalism is not just a style of interior design. It is a new trend in shared and individual working spaces alike where people prefer to eliminate everything from around them that is not strongly related to the very thing they are working on. Family photographs, awards, pile of books and notes all go to the drawer and all that stays on the desk is the device used for working and a notebook with a pen at the very most.
It is incredible how your nearest environment can influence how your mind works. Believe it or not, it will feel extremely liberating to remove all those unnecessary things from your desk and discover the power of simplicity.
Being in the present
No matter how much we change our environment and adjust to the people around us, our thoughts might still wander while we attempt to focus on a mental task. When these moments occur, you can use this simple technique to bring your attention back to the present moment. Find something right next to you that you can examine with your eyes. It may be the pattern of the wooden table or the wrinkles on your own hand. Just observe it until you get back to your awareness of the present moment and then get back to your work.
It might seem odd at first but it will help you focus on the now through your senses instead of time-travelling in your head to past memories and daydreams.
The tools most people use in order to keep themselves productive day by day are a calendar that schedules appointments and events and a (never-ending) to-do list that reminds them to do all the necessary things they have to finish in the rest of their time available.
The problem with this system is that it makes other people’s needs a priority while lets our most important deliverables unstructured. The set points of our time we manage during the week are the ones that we spend with others on meetings and discussions. We know exactly when to show up, how much time we would spend with these people and what points we would discuss with them.
Opposed to that, when we work independently we just sit down for hours with a list trying to force ourselves to get more done and feeling frustrated at the end of the day because our to-dos didn’t get any shorter. We have no idea how much time we spent on a particular task or when we got distracted and why. We might try to multitask (which undermines your focus) or leave projects in half and finish none of them by the end of the day.
What if we could block time for „meetings” with ourselves just like we do with others? Why should we not organize our agenda as well as a tight conference day and gain a better clarity about what takes up the most time in our days?
You can also optimize your calendar by following this simple 5 step formula.
Step 1: Break down each item on your to-do list
The first mistake we often make is that we stuff our to-do lists with task-groups instead of single tasks. Just like you cannot eat a cluster of grape at once but only pick the berries one by one, you can only do a single task at a time.
Let’s say your to-do list says Write a business article for X magazine. It sounds so overwhelming in the first place that you rather invent ways to procrastinate than getting it done immediately. However, if your list says:
Write a business article for X magazine:
- Define the focus of the article and divide it into 5 sections
- Research about the topic and make notes
- Write the raw article
- Proof-read and edit
- Send it/Publish it
This sounds much more doable, right? It takes a different brain activity to read, proofread or write something so this way you won’t get confused and you can get things done faster without any tension. It gives you a better clarity about how much work does it actually take up and you can focus on a single activity at once.
Step 2: Predict a timeframe for each item on the list
Even if you don’t have a routine of this particular deliverable, it will now be easier to assign a timeframe for each of these points. Write it down one by one, no matter if it is 60 minutes or 5 minutes.
Step 3: Add breaks
A very important thing we often forget is that we cannot focus and be productive for hours in a row. Ideally we need to take a short break every hour and stop working, even if it’s just 10 minutes while we stretch and take a few deep breaths.
When you are in a task block, focus only on your work: no checking mails and messages, no Youtube videos, no walks to the canteen. Then during your break block, you can do anything you’d like! Make sure you include a longer time-off every few hours.
Step 4: Add them to your calendar
This might look a bit too complex at first if you use a desktop calendar. In order not to spend too much time on this, you can add bigger time blocks into your e-calendar and detail it out on paper or combine the two in any other way that makes you feel comfortable.
You can still move things around easily if a client meeting comes up during the day, because you will know exactly how much time you need to finish your priorities. Yet, this way you will feel as devoted to your daily tasks as to your appointments with others.
Step 5: Measure and optimize
You might find after Day One of following this method that your time-blocks were not exactly sufficient to finish what you planned or you had to take some items off the list. That’s completely okay as long as you pay attention to what made you run out of time.
Maybe you have to break your tasks down even more to the very basics. Maybe you have to structure your breaks differently in order to keep yourself focused. Perhaps, you just need more time to finish certain tasks and you are faster with other ones or you have to change the order of your time-blocks in order to add variety into your day. All of these will give you precise information about your personal time management and will help you perform better in the future.
I hope this simple technique will help you become more efficient and more motivated in your work so that you can finish each day feeling accomplished and ready for the next one!
Procrastination is something that all of us struggle with. We are often being hard on ourselves for not having the willpower to get to the end of our agenda, even though it often just takes a little more focus on our biology and aligning your daily responsibilities to it. The next time you find that you have been pushing an important task aside for days or feel like you are always running out of time, just stop for a moment and reflect on the following points!
It’s not hard to realize that procrastination has nothing to do with the amount of time we have in a day, if we do the math we know that we could easily find a gap in our timetable for that particular task if we wanted to. It has more to do with our avoidance and the underlying anxiety that causes it. Managing our stress level can be the first thing we can do to enhance our productivity, especially in today’s high-pressure environment.
Our brains generate different kinds of brain waves throughout the day and the frequency of these waves define what type of activity we are capable of doing in that given period of time. The two most common frequencies dominating in our waking hours are Alpha waves at 8Hz-12Hz and Beta waves at 12Hz-40Hz.
When we are in the alpha state we feel relaxed and often get into the state of flow. Our creativity thrives and it becomes easier to come up with ideas or visualize concepts. When Beta waves are in majority we feel more active and energized and ready to take on logically challenging tasks. However, Beta waves also have different levels and if you get closer to the higher end of the scale you are more likely to feel stress and anxiety and it becomes hard to sit still and focus your energies on your work.
If you want to reach peak performance you need to pay attention to your natural cycles first that change throughout the day. Some of us wake quickly in the morning and are able to be very productive in the first few hours of the day, but lack energy in the evening. Others cannot handle an early alarm clock and reach their peak by afternoon and evening. The amount of coffee and other caffeinated blends influence our brain waves as well and help us raise our frequency, but too much of them can make us feel nervous and lose our focus.
If you are working on something creative you need to have a still mind you can use techniques that make you more calm and less alert. Close your eyes and listen to your breath for a couple of minutes. Try to breathe deeply and fill your lungs from the bottom up to the top and then exhale from bottom to top again. While doing this exercise, your shoulders should stay in place and your belly button should move outwards and inwards with every long breath. You will immediately feel more relaxed even after just a few deep breaths with this simple technique. You can also play a slow paced ambient music or white noise which can surround you with the right vibe in order to slow you down a little.
When you feel that you lack energy you can increase your caffeine intake with coffee or a strong tea. About 75-150mg coffee should get you into your zone, but keep it in mind that we are all different and the right amount highly varies between each one of us. If you take caffeine every day your body might get used to it and become slightly resistant to it. It is good to take a break every now and then for a week, even if it feels hard to operate without coffee in the first 2-3 days so that your body can return to its natural state and balance out your hormone levels. Turning on more light in the room or changing your playlist to a more stimulating one can also enhance your energy level, as well as doing a few warm-up exercises.
See it as an experiment! Monitor your performance and your energy level every day for a week and note done what type of tasks you could perform best in each state and how much stimulants you took in different hours of the day. Schedule different tasks accordingly and see if it improves the way you feel about your work and your daily productivity!