Thousands of messages and posts scream for our attention each day. We scroll till we drop, and with the same ease, we swipe aside our own targets. In a world like that, how do you keep your focus on the things that help you forward? Do you get a knot of guilt in your stomach from saying: “not now, sorry.” Then this blog is for you.
In my former office jobs, I thought my most important task was to cram my calendar full with other people’s to-dos. Made me quite proud as well. So ‘productive’, right? The whole day topped up with tasks. In blocks! With lovely colours to boot! Wow, so orderly!
Approving nods from colleagues at the sight of my colouring book. I was “so in control”. Yeah, of their calendars. Not mine. Urgent emails had to be answered straight away, or else a voice in the back of my head made me feel guilty. I wouldn’t be ‘a helpful colleague’ if I didn’t. After all, wasn’t I supposed to be flexible?
Nowadays, I look closely at whose rush I will make mine.
Here are 6 “tricks” through which I bring order to the chaos-that-is-my-head.
Do let me know which ones you’re going to use – and if you know more tips that help you?
#1: Write down the 3 most important tasks of the day
As an online-focused entrepreneur, I start my working day…. offline. The old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
I ❤ online tools. My inner geek hoots and cheers when I discover platforms that cleverly automate mundane tasks (see Tip #3 for instance). Still, I recognise the power of screenless time.
So as my morning ritual, I grab — besides a cup of coffee — a week planner. The 3 main goals of the week written at the top. From there, I run past a maximum of 3 most important day tasks that help me achieve those three weekly goals.
Of course, I tackle more than just those 3 tasks on a day. But by writing down the most important things, I direct my brain to favour the tasks that really help me forward.
This focus prevents you – like me, earlier – to end up entangled in a web of endless, overwhelming to-dos.
#2: Open your calendar BEFORE your inbox
I’ve been using this super simple and effective trick ever since I followed a New Time Management course, way back in 2017.
By default, your Microsoft Outlook is set to open with your e-mail inbox. Within a few clicks you can make it open in your calendar from now on. Even if you don’t have Outlook: make sure you open your calendar first, and then your inbox.
It’s a simple trick. BUT IT’S LIFE-CHANGING, as American gurus would write.
Well, I don’t find my emails that exciting. But I did notice that it prevents my head from overflowing with other people’s priorities. I will first set my goals and tasks straight, and filter my inbox accordingly.
Go ahead, give it a try!
#3: Plan e-mails, texts and calls ahead
A few years back, I’d live out of my email inbox. With every pop-up, my inbox and my head grew fuller. That needed to change!
Today, I have two set times a day to check my emails. I also try to schedule WhatsApp messages. Exception: when I expect a reply urgently. I wrote ‘try’, because I find this difficult. The instant nature of chatting is addictive. You’re afraid to miss out on a lot if you don’t check it often enough. This ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) isn’t new. It’s a leftover from our prehistoric hunter instinct. Only nowadays our attention is the prey.
Do add up all messages you receive in a day. Short messages can demand a lot of mental energy as well. You know them, these “hey-Gerieke-short-question-and-before-you-know-it-an-hour-has-passed” kind of messages.
So, for me it’s better to check for messages on fixed times.
For calls, I love Calendly, a scheduling tool. For instance, for a 15-minute Zoom call. Works like a charm! And it saves you those emails or missed calls to and fro to get a date down, which takes up more time than the actual call itself. Those instant replies like “I’m in a meeting right now!” or “Now is not a good time” are completely unnecessary in 2020.
A customer will instantly match my agenda with their own, chooses a time slot, and Calendly will put the appointment in both our agendas. Without the need for myself or any virtual assistant. Fully automagic!
#4: Switch off push notifications on your phone
But, but… don’t these keep you updated at all times?
Yes they do, and that’s the point. The time you spend on Facebook and Instagram means ad revenue for them. So, these social giants are full of psychological tricks to keep you opening those apps. Although the ‘match with your life goals’ is never a feature.
So, on my phone, I’ve switched those push notifications off. I will get to them once I make a conscious choice to open the apps.
The importance of notifications is relative, anyway. Great for your ego you got a thumbs-up for your LinkedIn post. But nowhere near as essential as a pager call for nurses. Think carefully about which notifications are essential to you – and which you want to fill your life.
#5: Get it out of your head, and into your calendar
Mental storage capacity is like Google Drive’s free plan – limited
My entrepreneurial head is always brimming with ideas. “Oh, I should try this! And that would be cool! I must try EVERYTHING!”
So how do I prevent my ideas from ending up in an endless mental well? Get them out of my head, into my calendar. Or in a Trello board, when it’s a long-term project.
The ideas are stowed somewhere else, leaving room in my head. It’ll pop up in my calendar once I really have the time to handle it.
#6: Give yourself a break
“Breaks are a waste of time,” I used to think. I’d eat my lunch sandwiches behind my desk. I had to be productive, keep going. While breaks increase your productivity. You don’t have to take it from me. It’s what Psychology Today says.
A bit of theory there: think about your brain’s ‘thinking part’ – the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – as your personal goalkeeper. It guards your goal. This same PFC is responsible for, among other things, logical thinking and willpower, as well as controlling your impulses. Busy bee, right? As Psychology Today so nicely put it: “No wonder it needs a break!”
Of course, when a story comes rattling out of my keyboard nicely, I won’t stop my inspirational flow because it happens to be lunchtime. But in general, I get up after every major task. Preferably every hour. Stretching, moving about, getting something to drink… Do you forget to drink enough water as well? You don’t need a massive fitgirl workout. Moving about for just 5 minutes will work miracles for your physical and mental wellbeing, says Psychology Today.
When I notice I get stuck – for instance when I must look up something complicated – I start walking. It puts me and my thinking power in motion, and will help me on after the break.
🗒 Maybe you read this blog during a break. Thanks for that :).
Now back at it!
What helps you focus?
Please let me know in the comments below.