People everywhere seem to be experiencing some form of getting overwhelmed at work, at home- or both, more often than not. I call this The Epidemic of Getting Overwhelmed, and it seems to be much more common in today’s modern life than ever before. There are two main reasons for that: first, the amount of information we now process is something that the human brain may not be used to. Second, we have all these new technologies which are very good at distracting us, which our human habits have not caught up to. The combination of a tremendous amount of new information to process (new rules, regulations, technologies, information) and a huge amount of distractions such as social media, emails right into our phones and just overall crazy multitasking on an ongoing basis, is really not a good one for focus and performance.
What we need to realize is that our attention is a limited resource and our most valuable one. There is so much new information to process and so many distractions, that our brain just gets very cluttered and tired as the day goes by, and will tend to lean more toward distractions and less toward focused efforts. Studies show that each task you do tends to make you less effective at the next task, and this is especially true for high-energy tasks that require a high level of self-control or decision making.
Here are three things that you can do that will help you in staying focused throughout your day and getting things done the way you need and want to:
1. Create a Daily Focus Pocus Sheet
Before you start each day, write down your 3-5 most important tasks for that day. Things that absolutely must happen for that day, no matter what. These may be an email you need to send, a call you need to make, an assignment you need to complete, or anything similar. Keep your Focus Pocus sheet in front of you at all times, and check off completed assignments as you go.
Believe me, by the time you hit noon, you’ll be happy to have it in front of you. This is because half the things on it would have slipped your mind by now if you didn’t have it in front of you. Focus Pocus sheets are best done the evening prior. If it is work-related, do it before you leave work. If you work from home or the list is home and family-related, create it before you close the day, go to sleep or start watching tv.
Make sure you have all the resources you need to complete the tasks on your list. Don’t put anything on it that you don’t have the time or the resources to do. These should be ready to complete, ready to check off as ‘Done’ tasks.
2. Set Deadlines. Seriously. For EVERYTHING.
Any task without a deadline, If you have ever had an important task that didn’t have a deadline, chances are, you put it off… and then put it off some more. Until it became urgent or had a definite due date, you weren’t motivated to complete it. The reason for that is that urgency breeds motivation, and deadlines create a sense of urgency.
Deadlines help you prioritize what you’ll work on (and for how long). There is nothing like a strict deadline to help you prioritize your workflow. Even while writing this article, I’ve set a deadline to finish this before getting out of my seat. This helps me avoid checking email or doing anything else on the web before finishing this article. My self-imposed deadline is forcing me to stay on task so I will move on to other tasks later.
The trouble with setting deadlines is that we often don’t know how long something will take. Psychologists refer to this problem as the planning fallacy – wherein we often underestimate how long it will take to achieve something. We often set goals that are too ambitious – and don’t think about all the challenges along the way. Keep your deadlines realistic, keep them at a safe distance from any last-minute catastrophe (it is a great idea to have projects ready 24 hours before they are actually due if you can), and keep them in front of you at a visible place, to keep yourself accountable and focused on what you need to do, and by when.
3. Take Breaks. Here is Why.
Taking a break when you feel overworked, unfocused and worn out it critical to your ability to refocus. Do not feel guilty about it and do not keep pushing if you feel that it is needed. Breaks can prevent Decision Fatigue. The need to make frequent decisions throughout your day can wear down your willpower and reasoning ability. Decision fatigue can lead to fallacies in our decision-making process and to procrastination. Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. These much desirable Aha moments come more often to those who take breaks, according to research. Research also suggests also that taking regular breaks raises people’s level of engagement and productivity.
So how often should we take breaks? And for how long? There is different research on this, but no consensus. It is somewhere in the 50-90 minute range. Frequency is the name of the game with break taking. Rather than obsessing about precision-timing, listen to your brain and when you feel that you have had it, stop and take a break from what you do.
How long should your break be? 15 to 20 minutes is the ideal length, but you can take longer at lunch. Do not let the break becomes a stop. 15-20 min should allow you to grab a cup of coffee or tea, take a short walk or do something that is non-work related. When you come back from a break, refocus yourself and get things done. You will find that you are more focused, more creative and more productive.