18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work

Work Table

Work Table

Over the years I have worked at many client sites and a variety of office layouts. On one project in particular, we had as many as 80 people in a project team, seated via an open plan arrangement. It was pretty difficult trying to stay focused in an environment like this. These days, the projects I’m on are typically smaller, but there are still a number of distractions which frequently interrupt my working groove. So what are some of the things we can do to minimise such interruptions and distractions?

Here’s my list of 18 ways to stay focused at work:

  1. Write out a daily task list and plan your day. There’s nothing like a task list sitting next to you to keep you focused. When you have a list of the things you need to accomplish in a day, having that close to you constantly reminding you of what needs to be done is a great way of keeping on track.
  2. Allocate time slots colleagues can interrupt you. In a busy work place, people are moving and talking all the time. If you play a role in a team where others need to interact with you, try allocating a time slot they can interrupt you. Instead of having people stop by your desk every 10 mins and asking you questions, let them know of a time in the day, say between 2-4pm you can be interrupted. At all other times, you can really get some work done.
  3. Apply time boxing. In a previous article, I wrote about the benefits of time boxing. Instead of working at something till it is done, try working on it for a limited period, say 30 mins. By that time, the task is either completed or you allocate another time slot, perhaps in another day, to pick it up again. This way, you keep your work fresh and engaging throughout the entire working day.
  4. Setup filters in your email. If you spend a lot of your time communicating and planning in front of your computer, chances are you deal with emails on a frequent basis. Setting up filters in your email client can be a great way of sorting out what’s important and urgent from personal stuff which can wait. Instead of dealing with a single Inbox with hundreds of unread email, you only need to deal with smaller folders categorised by project, priority and context.
  5. Do not check personal email in the morning. Checking personal emails can be very distracting even with filters setup. This is especially true when your friends send you links to interesting articles, jokes or videos on YouTube. If you’re not careful, you can get side tracked for hours. Instead of checking your personal email as soon as you get in, try starting work straight away. This will build up some momentum as you ease into your work day. You should check your personal email only after you have a few tasks completed or underway. Also, if you don’t want to perpetuate a particular distracting email thread, just don’t reply to it until after work.
  6. Set your IM status. If you use Instant Messenger, when you don’t want to be disturbed, make use of the status and set yourself as being away or busy. Your friends and colleagues will honour that. They can either send you an email or look you up later when you aren’t as busy.
  7. Listen to the right types of music. Music is a great way of settling into the working routine. In addition, having music can drown out office noises like printers and background chattering. Be careful though, depending on personal preference, some types of music are not particularly conducive to productive work. For me, I can’t work when listening to songs with lots of lyrics because the words interrupt my thinking process.
  8. Use the headphones but leave the music off. Some people prefer to have absolute silence when working. I think that also depends on what kind of work you are doing. If you’re doing some serious planning or something computational, having music blasting in your ears may not be the best thing for keeping focused. Try using headphones or ear plugs to block out the background noise but leave the music off.
  9. Fill up a water bottle. Keeping yourself hydrated is pretty important for all sorts of health reasons. Instead of going to the water cooler with your glass every hour, try filling up a water bottle at the start of the day. This does a couple of things – firstly, it limits the starts/stops associated every time you get up for water and secondly, it avoids being sucked into lengthy discussions around the water cooler.
  10. Find the best time to do repetitive and boring tasks. No matter how much you try to avoid it, you’re going to have to face doing things which are either repetitive or boring. For these tasks, I find it is best to choose a time in the day to work on them. For example, I’m more alert at the start of the day, so it’s better to work on things which require brain power early. Working on boring tasks that can be done via auto-pilot are better left towards the end of the day when I’m usually tired.
  11. Bring your lunch and have it at your desk. I’m not suggesting you do this every day, but if you really have to focus and are trying to meet a deadline, having your lunch at your desk really helps. The normal one hour lunch break can really interrupt any momentum you might have built up during the morning. I find when I’m eating lunch at my desk, my lunch breaks are shorter and I can get through a few emails while I’m eating. After I’m done, I’m straight back working on the next task.
  12. Don’t make long personal calls. Most of us have a good separation between our working and personal lives (or a least try to). I think we can all agree we should avoid having work intrude on our personal time as much as possible. The reverse of this also applies. Try limiting the time you spend doing personal things during work as they can be distracting and draining on your motivation. For example, you do not really want to be thinking about your weekend away with your spouse when you really need to get things done.
  13. Clean up your desk. Some of you may have desks which can only be described as ordered chaos. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you can find what you need without too much digging around. However, if you can’t, I suggest cleaning up your desk. That doesn’t mean having an empty desk, it just means having neat stacks of paper, all filed in the correct location. It also helps tremendously having all the things you need easily within arms reach. For example, if you need a place to write, having your pen and notepad close by and easily accessible is incredibly useful.
  14. Get a good chair. If you sit for long hours at your desk and I’m sure some of you do, you might find it helpful to get a good chair. I find it’s pretty hard to stay focused when my neck and back are sore because I have a bad setup at my desk. A good chair can eliminate this, allowing you to work for long stretches without breaks and physical distractions.
  15. Use shortcuts on your computer. If you find you do the same thing with your computer more than once throughout the day, you might find it helpful to look for ways in which you can do them without too much manual repetition. For example, if there’s a project folder you access all the time, try adding a shortcut to your Explorer or Finder so you can get access to it with a single click, instead of expanding folder after folder in the tree panel.
  16. Close programs you’re not using. As a software engineer, I use a lot of programs important to my work. However, in most cases, I only need a few applications open at the same time. Instead of Alt-Tabbing constantly and fighting the computer to locate the program you need, try only having the applications you need open. Close everything else. For example, if you have already located a file and no longer need a particular Explorer or Finder instance open, close it. There’s no reason to leave it around at all.
  17. Limit time on Digg, Delicious, news sites and blogs. I don’t think I need to say too much about this. There are so many sites on the Internet worth looking at, including this site ;) . Digg, Delicious, news and blogs are great from an interest perspective, but they can really take you away from the work you should be working on. Try to limit going to these sites during the working day. If you really have to, try doing it during your lunch time. No, you don’t need to have your finger on the pulse every single minute of the day…
  18. Change your mindset and make work fun. For me, I find it difficult to stay focused on doing things I’m not by nature interested in doing. In most cases, there’s probably nothing I can do about it. However, be mindful of the fact that your perception of work is something you can control. For my last tip here, I suggest you try changing your mindset or turning work into a game. An unfocused mind, is an unchallenged mind. So make things fun!

I hope these tips will take you closer to more focused and productive work days. If you are still in need for more tips about staying focused, you can take a look at a previous blockbuster smash hit article I wrote entitled 11 ways of staying focused. In that article, I approached the issue from a top down, rather than bottom up perspective.

Ok, good luck! If you like this article, tell your friends, Digg it or add it to your Delicious bookmarks.

Hey, what are you still doing here? Get back to work!

Author:  Dave Cheong

4 Comments

  1. cevarief said,

    May 25, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Thank for the post. I should do #3, time boxing to keep me chellenged in finishing work step by step.

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