In a recent newsletter, Atomic Habits author James Clear shared an interesting thought about staying focused. “People who jump from project to project are always dividing their effort, and producing high-quality work becomes difficult without intense effort,” he writes. Instead of tackling every item on your to-do list in one go, “do one thing well and watch it compound,” he says. Research shows this strategy is the key to staying productive: start with one task and give it your undivided attention.
We asked our Thrive community to share with us the tips that help them focus on their tasks. Which of these tips will you try?
Identify your two top priorities for the day
“I identify the top two tasks for the day that either will make the most impact or have the greatest urgency. Then, all the other tasks I complete after that are just a bonus for my day!”
—Holly Fowler, health coach, Los Angeles, CA
Set a timer
“When I need to give one task my undivided attention, I set a timer on my phone or use the one on my microwave, and I tell myself not to take a break until it goes off. The time usually passes so quickly and I make progress on my task, so it is a win-win.”
—Kristin Meekhof, author and life coach, Royal Oak, MI
Leave your phone in another room
“I have really struggled with maintaining focus in my work, which definitely puts a damper on how much I try to achieve. I’ve learned my trigger is my phone and instant messages constantly grabbing my attention. Just seeing my phone nearby often leads me to pick it up unnecessarily. To fix this, I often leave it in my bedroom while I work in my home office. If someone needs to contact me urgently they can call, and more often than not, it’s not important.”
—Bronwyn Menne, masters student, Johannesburg, South Africa
Start with a brain dump
“Whenever I sit down to do focused work, I start by spending a few minutes doing a brain dump onto a piece of paper. I write down anything on my mind in bullet point form; including any ideas, thoughts, to-dos, or worries I might have. I keep this piece of paper next to me while I work so I can quickly jot down any thoughts that might distract me. Knowing that I have them written down so I can revisit them later means I can quickly get back into doing my focused work. At the end of the day, I go through my brain dump, sorting and storing anything of value and discarding the rest.”
—Musa Francis, mental health coach, Oxfordshire, U.K.
Try the Pomodoro method
“I use the Pomodoro method. I basically look at my to-do list for the day and break each task into 25-minute intervals. I get to reward my focus periods with short breaks in between. It helps me keep on track and focused, and I get to challenge myself to get things done more efficiently. As a bonus, I remember to break for a stretch, a snack, and just pause for a breather. At the end of the day, I get to track how many cycles I’ve achieved in a workday, which gives me a massive sense of achievement.”
—Liz Mckenzie, PR consultant, Sydney, Australia
Give yourself time to procrastinate
“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve learned that procrastination is part of my focusing process. I have to mull things over long enough to let the good work rise to the top, and then apply self-imposed deadlines and a distraction-free environment to find my flow.”
—Stacy Cassio, CEO, Charlotte, N.C.
Create columns for planned work and last-minute tasks
“The nature of PR is fast-paced, so immediate action items constantly bombard me and wreak havoc on my schedule. The best solution is old-fashioned: paper and pencil. I use a spiral-bound notebook. On the right side are the tasks I’ve planned for the day. The left side is blank and I quickly jot down the incoming urgencies. The other key is to only look at email at the top and bottom of the hour. Everything, no matter how important, can wait at least 30 minutes.”
—Jennifer Harrison, CEO of Pando Public Relations, Folsom, CA
Try the “TTT” strategy
“A client once taught me a strategy called TTT: Time to Think. He would block three-hour chunks once a week to give himself the headspace to think strategically and creatively. This protected calendar block helped him get out of the day-to-day checklist mindset we called the gerbil-wheel. I was so inspired by his success that I adopted it myself.”
—Donna Peters, executive coach and MBA faculty, Atlanta, GA
Identify your peak focus time
“I’ve discovered that between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., my brain is sharp, clear, and easy to focus. So I use this time for my most creative and productive projects and I move things like responding to email and other mindless tasks to later in the day. This allows me to not give away my best brainpower to social media or mentally draining people. I do not book interviews or calls during this precious time. Knowing my energy cycles through the day and week is key for me to keep focused.”
—Dr. Andrea Pennington, integrative physician and author
Tap into how you want to feel afterwards
“I’ve found that focus is born from emotion. When I need to give a task my undivided attention, I identify the feeling I want to achieve and then feed off of that feeling. Whether it is joy, pride, or competitiveness, there is no focus without emotion.”
—Joe Kwon, coach, Oakland, N.J.
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