How to Focus at Work or School

Woman pouring coffee into a cup, with a focused look on her face
Woman pouring coffee into a cup, with a focused look on her face
My secret weapon for focusing? Coffee
8/13/18

Whether you’re headed back to school or getting ready for a busy season at work (buh-bye summer happy hours!), learning how to focus will enable you to kick some serious ass or seriously get your ass kicked this Fall. Master the art of focusing, and you’ll go into the upcoming season with the skills you need to achieve your goals. All it takes is a little concentration, like right now. Can you stick with me here?

Stop multitasking

Stop bragging that you can send an email while returning a call and watching The Bachelor in the background. That email will have typos and you might miss who gets the final rose. Cutting your effort into tiny pieces does not equal your full force. Multitasking is actually inefficient; if each task only gets your partial concentration, it will not get done as efficiently or optimally than if you had just waited for the damn commercial break. Next time you feel like you’re doing “a million things at once,” you’re probably wasting your time. Keep it simple, focus on one thing, and watch the quality of your work improve.

How I do this

Every morning at work I write a list of all that I have to do, then I highlight everything that must be done that day. After that, I use pencil to write ‘1, 2, 3’ next to the 3 most important or timely items from the ones I highlighted. I don’t go further than 3 until I have done those things, then I erase the numbers (yay, pencil!), cross the items off the list, and mark my next 3 most important tasks. Once I started doing this, I almost never have anything left on my list by the end of the day, and my email inbox rarely reaches above 20. I did not make more hours appear in my day, I did not clone myself, I just started focusing.

Strike while the iron’s hot

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you get a burst of energy at 3pm (like my sister’s dog) or is that your nap time (like me)? Save your most important tasks for the time of day when your energy is at its highest and your motivation is peaking. It takes less self-discipline to focus your mind when your body is equally motivated to crush it.

How I do this

As someone who, until college, wouldn’t wake up if Armageddon was happening outside her window, I can’t believe morning has become my favorite time of day. My Spotify analytics will tell you that I peak around 6am, as Taylor Swift and I get ready for the day. Add coffee to the mix, and I’m freaking unstoppable. Until, that is, 11am rolls around and my energy starts to wane. I have a short window of time to buckle down on my to-do list, so I try to make the most of it by focusing on one thing at a time, for as long as I can manage. Figure out the time of day that works best for you, then dive into one task with the full force of your perkiest self.

Eliminate distractions

It takes a lot of energy to get into focus mode, and not all that much to get out of it. A buzz from our phones or a new message in our email inbox can throw off an entire train of thought. A coworker stopping in to say hi can lead to a 20 minute dramatic reading of their weekend. Try and cut yourself off from these types of distractions as much as possible.

How I do this

I used to tackle emails first thing in the morning, until I realized sending or replying to emails just leads to…more emails. Now, I focus on my to-do list before sending any emails, and I only respond to timely or urgent messages. Not only does this benefit my workflow, but it’s better for the focus of my coworkers and clients, too. If neither of us bombard each other with messages before I’ve even finished my coffee, we can both get more work done.

Love the process

I hate to break it to you, but sometimes completing the task isn’t actually the most important part of getting it done. Finishing your homework isn’t about writing a number down for all of those math problems. It’s about learning calculus or getting smarter. Cooking isn’t about getting something edible on the table, it’s about tasting, seasoning, and ultimately creating something delicious. Completing tasks isn’t really about checking off a to-do list, it’s about making a positive, productive impact in your personal, professional, or academic life.

How I do this

Finishing a blog post feels great, but the only way for me to consistently complete that task is to fall in love with the process of writing. If I want that blog post to be well-written, I must commit to this process every day so that I can actually get better. I won’t do it every day unless I love it, so I’ve learned to cherish my morning writing time as a quiet, productive hour that’s just for me. Sounds nice, right? Fall in love with the process, not just the outcome, and certain tasks will become easier as you improve over time.

Whether you implement one or all of these strategies, just remember that this is supposed to simplify your work day. When you commit to focusing on one thing, well, you’re only doing one thing. If you start on this thing while your energy is at its highest and your phone is turned off, you can easily get into a distraction-free flow. Find joy in this flow, and it will become easier every day. Most importantly, just get started. So let’s go.

 

 

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