Modern-day living is FULL of distractions. And everything in the media tells us that no matter how much we have, we should want more.

Those of us drawn to the idea of success struggle with this constantly. Because we are so invested in our need for bigger/better/further/higher, that we put our energy in too many places at once.

How focusing on one thing leads to better work
Focus on one thing can help you become more productive

The problem is that when we do this, nothing gets our full attention. Our focus is divided into tiny fragments and dispersed with no power behind it.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown discusses the importance of defining the thing that truly matters and then saying no to everything else. “You can do anything but not everything,” he says. When we strip away the nonessential pieces of our lives and our day-to-day, what’s left are the rich, meaningful things that have purpose and allow us to make true progress.

The Myth of Multitasking

We have fooled ourselves with the idea of multitasking — believing we are being extraordinarily productive by answering emails while taking calls while filling out paperwork while jogging on a treadmill. Gary Keller said in his book The One Thing: “Multitasking is a lie … It’s an effective way to get less done.” Gary, my friends, is all too correct.

According to this article from the University of Southern California, when you focus on a task, your prefrontal cortex fires up. It communicates with the rest of your brain to help you complete said task. The brain is working as a team would. When you add a second task to the mix, it forces the brain to split in half and work independently of each other. Meaning you don’t get the benefits of full-brain focus. This causes you to make a lot more mistakes and forget details in both tasks.

Functioning in this way means that you end up spending more time going back to correct mistakes and redoing poorly done work. Yikes.

Quality over Quantity

Human beings mistakenly equate more material things with more happiness, more busy-ness with more getting done, and more pursuits with more chances of success. We have all been guilty of these beliefs at one time or another. I know I have. But buying into these beliefs tends to leave us unsatisfied.

The truth is: Less is more.

We do not have limitless energy nor limitless time. So we instead have to choose where we put our focus. You can achieve a lot of different goals, but you cannot do them all at the same time.

It can be incredibly challenging. But if you can narrow down your list of pursuits, you will see skyrocketing productivity and a level of quality you have never seen before. You will feel less stress and overwhelm. You will be happier with yourself, and I bet others will notice a positive transformation in you, too.

Changing Your Habits

It all sounds nice, but how do we change the habits that are so ingrained in our daily routines?

First off, you answer these questions:

  • Do I want to see faster and better progress on my projects?
  • Do I want to be happier and less stressed?
  • Do I want better ideas and smoother workdays?

If you answered yes to any or all of those, then you’re ready to make some changes. You can start small. But you have to commit to making the effort and know that the payoff is worth it.

Here’s where to start:

1. Lighten your load.

In order to give more focus to work that matters, you have to let go of what doesn’t. Yes, you might have to make hard choices. But do a full assessment of where you spend your time and decide what can be cut. If it can’t be cut, can it be delegated or outsourced to someone else? Are you spending a lot of time on tasks that give you very little return? And on the contrary, is there a task which, if you did well, would give you a huge return?

Think about focusing your energies on the tasks that fall into the latter category. If you can’t cut it and you can’t delegate it, can you at least minimize the time spent on it? Once you complete this step, you’ll be surprised at how much relief it brings.

2. Set aside designated focus time.

You don’t have to go all-in from the beginning. If you can’t devote an entire day to razor-focus, then don’t. Choose an hour time-slot where you’ll be most likely to succeed. For most of us, this would be in the morning, but there is no set rule here. Commit to focusing on a single task (one that you’ve chosen as top priority). Schedule this time into your calendar, and make it a daily thing. When you’re ready, expand that time slot as needed.

3. Set yourself up for success.

Remove the temptations. If you can’t help but reach for your cell phone every five minutes, then put it on the other side of the room. Turn off notifications and put it in silent mode. Do this at least for your designated focus time. Do the same thing for your computer and your browser windows.

Close out social media and email browser tabs, and if you have no willpower, try an app that blocks it out for you. Don’t make it hard on yourself by keeping all these distractions open and within arms’ reach. We are creatures of habit, and they say that old habits die hard. It takes a while to make changes, but always come back to what the benefits are and why you are making the changes in the first place.

4. Group like tasks.

This will help you streamline your workflow so that it’s easier to create that focus. Organize your work week, to the best of your ability, so that you do similar tasks on the same day or in the same time period. For instance, schedule all your phone calls for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Schedule all office meetings on Monday. Do idea generation or brainstorming on Wednesdays. Only check email at designated times of the day — perhaps at 9am and 3pm.

You can do what works for you, but ask yourself: “Is it really necessary that I look at my inbox every 10 minutes? Is that slowing down and getting in the way of other work or is it actually vitally important that I respond to every email within minutes of when it arrives?” (So often we do these tasks on autopilot without stopping to think why.) When you chunk together similar tasks, you save yourself the energy of switching back and forth from different types of brain focus.

5. Put out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.

This may not be feasible for everyone, but if it applies, definitely take advantage. If you have your own office and there are others around, it might be tempting to leave the door open.

You might think it makes you look approachable and friendly. But having people pop in for any little thing can really wreak havoc on your productivity. Set certain times of the day as off-limits for interruptions (unless it’s an emergency). Close your door. Don’t take calls. And then, if needed, just make sure to have “open door” hours at a set time of day, too. As a “work-from-home” type, I’ve even enacted this policy for my family members. There are certain times of day when I have to clearly ask for no disruptions. Setting the firm boundary results in more happiness for all (and definitely more productivity for me!)

6. Get organized.

If you are going to strip away the nonessential, streamline your routine, and give your true focus to a few select tasks, you have to be organized. And you have to set clear goals and align them with your daily priorities and tasks.

The good news is that once you set the big goals and commit to seeing them through, making all the other choices is much easier. So take the time to figure out what’s most important to you.

In the big picture. If you work in an organization, what are the goals of your team? Write down these goals and keep track of them. Then break your goals down into the action steps it will take to achieve them. Use these action steps to plan out your daily to-do lists. You should be taking a few moments at the end of every day to plan out your next day. Being organized and sticking to it leads to less confusion about where you should spend your time, energy, and focus.

Take charge, my friend!

Want to hear the best news ever? You are the ruler of your own life. Whether or not you work for yourself or for an organization, you get to choose how you show up. Put these ideas into practice, and it won’t be long before you begin to see the high-quality results you’ve been longing for.

<- Go back to The Productivity Guide