6 Tips to Firewall Your Attention and Boost Productivity

Photo: VILevi

Our workplaces are becoming more and more saturated with things to steal our attention. It can be a sobering experience to look back on our day and see how little time we actually spent working on things that mattered. When we're working to our full potential, we can sometimes achieve a state of "flow," or a mental state when we're so focused in our work that everything else fades away. (You might call it the "The Zone" or a "groove.") Unfortunately, it's becoming harder to get into these mental states when we're constantly bombarded by distractions. Here are some of the best ways to firewall our attention and ensure that we don't finish the day completing a fraction of what we set out to do.

1. Figure out where your time is being spent

Oftentimes, the first place to start is learning where your time is actually going. Try keeping a log of all your meetings, breaks, time online, everything. You'll be amazed at what's actually eating away at your time. If your occupation requires you to spend most of your day online, than it's helpful to drill down even further and figure out what sites you spend the most time on. RescueTime is a fantastic tool for tracking where your time is spent on the computer. If you're like me, you'll probably be amazed at how much time you spend on sites like Facebook or Gmail. You can also use this data and find trends about when, where, and why you're losing time throughout your day. Are you more productive during the morning or afternoon? You can adjust your workday to accommodate your natural working preferences.

2. Keep email closed

Limiting our time in email could be one of the hardest things to do, but is one of the best ways to optimize our time. Try utilizing "batching," or checking and responding to email in spurts. Tim Ferriss has an excellent article on how to utilize email batching to avoid the email time sink. AwayFind is another helpful tool that allows you to re-route your most important emails to other devices or an assistant, allowing you to stay out of the inbox as much as possible.

3. Make heavy use of email filters

Most of our email consists of newsletters, email from friends, co-workers, and other categories. This means that we can filter our email into separate folders so that only email that we deem important actually lands in the inbox. Most email programs like Gmail or Outlook allows you set up rules or filters that parse the emails by sender, subject, or a number of other criteria. Lifehacker has a fantastic article on essential email filters to help keep the cruft out of your inbox.

4. Define your "Big Rocks"

Big Rocks are the most important things that you want to tackle throughout the week. Typically, we make a to-do list without any real ranking to the items (other than they have to get done). Defining your weekly Big Rocks means that you'll make sure the important things for that week are getting done, without letting the smaller, ticky-tack tasks fill your time. Big Rocks allow you to place your attention on a few important things each week, giving room for the smaller tasks (pebbles?) to trickle through and fill up the remaining space.

5. Don't check email in the morning

It's useful to start the day off right, and checking email first thing means that you'll be playing "catch up" all day long. Opening email in the morning is like opening Pandora's box. Once the inbox has been seen, then emails will have to be sorted and replied to. Oftentimes, these emails also contain things that need to be done, keeping you from doing the things that are really important (like Big Rocks) and improve your business. How important is checking your email first thing? For some people it might be a job requirement, but if possible keep out of the inbox for a little while in the morning. If you're worried about putting out fires, tools like AwayFind can help you decide what email is important and send a text message.

(In case you haven't noticed, email can be a major time sink for small businesses. Three of the six techniques are for email alone!)

6. "Do Not Disturb" time

It's important to have time throughout the day where you can close your door and really dig in and focus on your work. The state of flow can't be achieved with physical or digital distractions. If your office has a door, close it. Set the phone to silent. Close the laptop or disconnect from the Internet. You could even go to the length of putting up a "Do Not Disturb" sign for your coworkers. There's nothing like a real, physical wall to shut out the rest of the world, allowing you to create. Having "you only" time isn't going to be possible with every job or organization. You might work in an open area with your co-workers sitting next to you. (The best investment you could ever make is a pair of noise-canceling headphones.) The idea is to block as many physical distractions (yes, even coworkers) from your work space. Can it be tough? Yes. Is it worth it? You bet.

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6 Tips to Firewall Your Attention and Boost Productivity

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