Five ways to focus better

technology-iconDon't stop reading this article to read an e-mail - that's jut the kind of multi-tasking behaviour that is destroying your productivity, argues Don Foster, who offers his five best tips to reclaim focus.

Ask any outside sales rep in my company if they have ever steered with their knees during their morning commute and the answer would be a resounding yes. That’s because we are holding the breakfast we missed in one hand and jotting down notes from a client’s phone inquiry with the other. But in our quest to get more done, how often are we starting more projects only to finish less?

In a 2007 discussion with the New York Times, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst with the research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity. And according to a study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”

Then why do we continue to work stoned? Much of the blame falls on our corporate environment for having enrolled us in this mythical doctrine known as multitasking—that by doing a gazillion things at once and spreading ourselves as thin as possible, we will one day work as efficiently as computers. But our brain cannot, in fact, juggle two things at once unless it is a relatively automatic activity, such as walking and chewing gum. Instead of tackling multiple tasks simultaneously, our brain is actually switching rapidly between assignments. And every time we switch tasks, our brain is forced to reallocate resources, causing losses in concentration, memory and performance.

A few months ago, I realized just how much I was contributing to this do more, get less done epidemic. Feeling stressed and in a constant rush, my memory lapses were costing me sales. Mornings foggily began with the question, “Who was I supposed to call back yesterday?” And ten minutes later my phone would ring, the angry client on the other end reminding me. After doing countless research on the pitfalls of multitasking, I knew what I had to do; I just had to commit to the effort. The result? I have just recorded back-to-back record sales months, and much of the credit is due to the following five steps that allowed me to reclaim my time and focus:

  1. Do less. Our maniacal urge to multitask usually sets in after we have realized there’s no possible way we will get everything scratched off our to-do list. Doing less doesn’t mean working less; it means you are bringing added focus to the projects that matter most by prioritizing your time.
  2. Plan your day in blocks of thirty minutes or an hour, allowing time between tasks to accomplish the miscellaneous assignments that arise during the day.
  3. Focus on one task at a time. If you find other things pop up while you are working on an activity, put them in the inbox or take a note on them in your planner.
  4. Work on your most important task first thing in the morning. Don’t begin anything else until this is done. When finished, give yourself a short break before starting your next important task. Knock out a few of the biggies in the morning and the rest of the day will operate much smoother.
  5. When working on a task, shut off all other distractions. That means email, internet, and cell phone if you will not be using those tools to complete the activity. (Put your phone on vibrate if the thought of turning it off makes you break out in hives.) You can handle any inflow you received during the breaks scheduled between activities.
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