Organize your calendar by color-coding it. Assign different types of tasks different colors. This allows you to easily understand your schedule at a glance. You can have just one calendar but still see your schedule divided into categories like personal tasks, professional tasks, and so on.
Use just one calendar for everything. Include on it work-related plans and tasks as well as personal ones. Juggling separate calendars isn’t time-efficient and you run the risk of forgetting tasks.
Create “boxes” of time for different tasks. A time box is a set period of time, such as an hour or half-hour. You can create boxes of any length (although an hour max is recommended for optimal focus). You can vary the length of your boxes, making tasks that require a great deal of focus shorter and tasks that are relatively mindless longer.
Time-boxing also helps you get things done over the course of several days. If you have a large task or project that you need to break up, you can decide how many hours to spend on it, and then divide the time into daily chunks. Set a timer for your time boxes so that you don’t have to watch the clock.
The Pomodoro Technique is a type of time-boxing that involves breaking up your work into 25-minute boxes and after each one, taking a break of 3-5 minutes. You can continue to work on one task all day if you need to without ever losing focus by breaking it into small boxes.
When estimating how long a task or project will take, add some extra time in case there are distractions or problems. If it’s a project that will take four days, allow it five days. If you’re scheduling daily tasks in time boxes, make those boxes a bit bigger than you think they need to be. If you don’t have distractions or problems, you’ll finish early with time to spare.
Set deadlines for every task, even those that are not time sensitive. This will keep you from putting off non-urgent tasks. It will ensure that you get everything done. It also helps you prioritize and decide which tasks need to be worked on when.
Make a list of things to do based on deadlines and work on high priority items first. Do this not only daily but also weekly, monthly and so on. For example, if you have a time-sensitive task to do this week, get it done Monday or Tuesday.
We all have different daily cycles. These are times of day when we’re best at certain tasks. For example, your focus might be sharpest in the morning, or you may find it easiest to deal with communication tasks in the afternoon after lunch. Figure out when your optimal focus times are for various tasks and schedule accordingly.
Avoid multi-tasking whenever possible. People often mistakenly think that multi-tasking is good for productivity. If you’re doing two tasks at once, you must be getting more done. However, it’s more often not the case. Instead, you’re dividing your focus, and not giving any of the multiple tasks the attention they deserve. Do one task at a time and save the others until later.
Set aside time for your distractions, communications and mindless entertainment. It makes it much easier to ignore distractions when you know you’ll deal with them later. If you schedule some time for relaxation and amusement alongside your serious work time, it also helps to break up the day.
Create a definite time when work is finished for the day. Once you finish work, don’t keep checking email or doing work-related things. This is important for maintaining a proper work-life balance. You can adjust your work time in any way you like, but make sure there is a definite stopping time.
If you really want to improve your time management, you can do a time audit. A time audit is when you monitor and log how you spend your time each day. At the end of a week or a couple of weeks, you can see exactly where your time is going. With this data in-hand, you can decide which things you’re spending enough time on, which things you’re spending too much time on, and which things could use more of your time.
There are apps and software programs that make tracking time easy. You simply plug in each activity to each time slot. You can also log time with nothing more than a notebook and pen, or a Word or text file. You can find websites that will chart your data for you by making a pie chart or other graphs.
Don’t forget that you can log personal as well as professional time. Doing a time audit with your work day helps you to tighten up and increase productivity. If you do a time audit with your free time, you can easily see areas where you’re wasting time or where you could get more enjoyment out of your free time.
In addition to getting organized and learning new habits, there are exercises that you can perform daily to help you improve focus and concentration. The exercises you’ll learn in this chapter are all easy to practice. You don’t need to spend a great deal of time on these exercises. Something like 5-10 minutes per day is enough to produce results (although more doesn’t hurt).
Any type of meditation can improve your focus but the best is mindful meditation. Mindful meditation aims to sharpen your focus by heightening your awareness of your internal thoughts and your external environment moment by moment.
It’s very simple. You just sit somewhere in a comfortable but alert position and remain quiet with your eyes closed. Breathe deeply and focus on your breathing. Focus on the sensations you’re experiencing right now. If your attention begins to wander, gently bring it back to your breathing, your body and the sounds around you.
As thoughts arise, acknowledge them and let them pass. Simply pay attention without being moved by anything around you or your thoughts. Don’t let a thought take you out of your environment and your focus on sitting and breathing.
Mindful meditation is very hard to do for long periods at first. You can start with five minutes and gradually expand until you reach twenty or thirty.
Visualization is a meditation exercise that we more commonly call “daydreaming.” Although daydreaming gets kids in school in trouble, it’s also a powerful meditation practice that can sharpen focus and offer other benefits as well.
Unlike the other types of meditation we’ve discussed, visualization requires some type of object to focus your attention on. You have many options here. You can choose:
Visualization is often used by people as a sort of magical solution to bring them what they want in life. Just like any sort of magic, there’s no evidence that it works. However, for our purposes, the goal of visualization is simply to envision something in as much detail as possible and keep our attention on this object.
When you visualize, try to use all five of your senses. Imagine in as much detail as possible how something looks, feels, sounds, smells and (if appropriate) tastes. Try to keep your attention fixed solely on the object of your visualization for as long as possible.
A very easy type of meditation is deep breathing. It’s a kind of “meditation lite” where you simply take deep but natural breaths from deep in your stomach and focus only on the breaths you’re taking. Take a slow, long breath through your nose and then let your stomach naturally push it back out.
Deep breathing is a simple way to meditate and sharpen focus, but it has other benefits as well. When you breathe deeply, you bring more oxygen into your brain, which can also benefit your focus and concentration. It also offers stress relief benefits. Since you can do it anywhere and anytime, it’s a great idea for a quick break at work.
Another meditation technique involves listening to ambient sound. Sit somewhere and focus your attention on the sounds around you. Close your eyes and just listen.
Try to separate each sound from its cause or the meanings you associate with it. Imagine that you’re listening to a symphony and each sound is a separate instrument. Listen to how the sounds interact with each other and how they appear and disappear.
There is certain music that can be used to increase your focus. The music you like is probably not well suited for concentration. The reason you like it is that it engages you, makes you feel good, stirs your emotions, and so on. For music to sharpen concentration, you need music that’s instrumental (words tend to distract) and ambient.
You can find music on your own – a good place to start is YouTube. Just search for background music or ambient music. Try to find something without beats or other distractions.
A good mental exercise for focus and concentration is to memorize something. Take a list of things and remember it in order. It can be a list of anything. You could take books on your bookshelf, the discography of a musical artist you like, the cast of a TV show, items of food you ate or bought, etc.
You can use mnemonic devices to make your list easier to remember and you can keep adding to your list to make it longer. This seemingly meaningless task requires you to focus in order to recall your list. It also offers the benefit of helping you improve your memory.
Sit somewhere comfortable and see how long you can go without moving. This may sound relaxing enough, but you should try not to move a single muscle. Stay in the seat perfectly still. It’s much harder than you might imagine and it takes a great deal of concentration.
Start by committing to five minutes. When you start to feel tension in any part of your body, try to focus your attention on that tension. After you’ve tried sitting perfectly still a few times, start extending the time and gradually work your way toward ten minutes.
Counting backwards is a great brain exercise that helps with focus and attention. Start with one hundred and count your way back. If this is too easy, try counting by multiples. For example, count backwards by multiples of four: 100, 96, 92, 88, 84… If you need more of a challenge start at higher numbers and count backward by higher multiples (for example, count backward from 1,000 by multiples of 31).
Another good brain exercise is to say the alphabet backwards. Unfortunately, this is only a good challenge for a while. Gradually you’ll get used to it and eventually you’ll be able to rattle off your ABCs backward as quickly as forward.
A good focus exercise is to fix your gaze on something and keep it there for as long as possible. There are two methods that are especially challenging and good for concentration. The first is to outstretch your hand and gaze at your fingers. As time goes by, it gets harder and harder to keep your hand outstretched and eyes focused.
The other method is to hold something in your hand like a cup and make that the object of your gaze. Like the other exercises, set a goal of five minutes at first and gradually extend it as you’re able to focus for longer periods.
A good challenge for your concentration is to use your less dominant hand for regular tasks. For example, if you’re right-handed, use your left hand to brush your teeth or comb your hair. This challenges your brain to break out of its rut and turns a usual daily activity into something totally new.
Whether you like jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, or Sudoku, work on a puzzle. We usually do puzzles like these to kill time, but they offer a great way to challenge your brain and sharpen your concentrations.
In Zen monasteries, monks perform monotonous routine work as a type of mindful meditation. A monk might paint a fence or sweep the monastery floors, but all the while, he or she is concentrating on the task at hand, being as present as possible. You can do this too with any fairly routine task around the house or office. Take something that normally takes little concentration to perform and instead of letting your mind wander, pay the utmost attention to every motion you make.
Finally, although it may sound like a herculean task, try learning a language. If you’ve always dreamed of studying Italian or you want to get back into the French you took in high school, this is a great way to boost focus, improve your memory and give your brain a good challenge.
The point here, though, isn’t to master speaking proficiency in the language. The point is simply to get into a daily routine of recalling vocabulary and practicing listening and speaking in another language. You don’t have to be serious about your language study. What’s important is to create this time to focus each day.
The above exercises should be done regularly. Set aside time for them during your day. In fact, they all make great ways to break up your workday or day at home. Use them as breaks to refresh and recharge your focus.
Now, it’s time to put everything together and create an action plan that you can use to begin improving your concentration and focus.
Start by reviewing the tips in the chapter on “Tips and Techniques to Improve Focus at Work.” Now, answer the following questions.
Based on your responses to the above questions, create a daily schedule that maps out:
Make several copies of your answers and put them in places where they can be used as reminders, such as by the bed, on your fridge, your desk at work, and so on. The goal is to create new habits that become second-nature over time. At that time, you can get rid of the reminders, but for now, keep them around so you remember and don’t cheat.
Take your newly created calendar and add a daily mindfulness activity. Start by scheduling 5-10 minutes 2-3 times per week. Eventually, move it to five days a week.
Achieving and sustaining focus is harder in today’s complex and technologically driven world than ever before. The technologies that distract us and divert our attention aren’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s a situation that will likely deepen as our lives become more entwined with technology.
It’s hard to maintain focus, but it’s really just a matter of learning techniques, habits and exercises to help you concentrate, as well as gaining the self-awareness to understand when and how you are distracted.
Margery Hinman, Ph.D., is founder of Million Dollar Marketer, a membership program combining a collection of online tutorial, resources, and strategies for the rising online entrepreneur. This membership program includes 20 different digital marketing courses that can help you achieve your online goals for 2017 and help you on your way to a great income in your own online business.
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