This article is part of the “Starting Up Smarter” series, and through it I want to share some lessons that I have learned in the trenches. I hope that they can be helpful to you, and keep you more focused. If you’re interested in similar subjects, follow me on Twitter.
I’m going to show you a familiar scenario
It more or less happens like this:
- You start working in front of your computer. Your objective is to be 100% focussed on your project.
- There are no problems for the first 10 minutes, it takes a little bit to get going, but you get the task started.
- Very quickly, you realize that you have something interesting to put on Twitter. Or better, you receive a notification for a new email, or from Whatsapp, or you wonder what’s up with a friend on Facebook, or you want to check if there are any new entries on your favorite blog…
- And you’re lost! Almost without knowing it, you have turned into the dreaded “Surfing Zombie”. You could lose five, ten or 30 minutes, maybe even more. It doesn’t matter how long it is, you’re undertaking a task that has nothing to do with the job you started out with.
- Not only this, once you realize what’s happened and return to what you were doing, it takes more effort trying to re-focus.
So why is it so easy to fall into being a Surfing Zombie? Because it’s such a gratifying feeling. Receiving small pieces of information feeds your dopaminergic system, giving a sense of satisfaction despite the fact you’re not actually doing anything useful. And this is why it’s addictive!
So how do I fix this?
I’m no expert in productivity. But throughout the years I have developed a method of working that functions reasonably well for me. We are all different, and so the things I’ll go on to describe are no magical cure. It is up to you to find what really works for you, although it doesn’t hurt to have a starting point here.
I am a multifunctional person in the kinds of projects that I work with, and so my advice is more orientated towards profiles like this. And so if, for example, you work solely in design, you might not find this as useful. But you won’t lose anything either by taking a quick look.
What’s more, none of the tips that you’re going to read here are anything revolutionary; it’s more like simple, logical advice. So here they come!
1) Before starting work, give yourself a simple, clear objective
The task you want to undertake needs to be set in concrete. Something that is already separated, not a task that you can go on to divide into sub-tasks. A good task managing programme such as Trello can be really helpful.
Here are some effective task examples:
- Reply to maintenance emails.
- Design the front page of a website.
- Send 40 emails to companies who might be interested in my work.
- Program a certain button with a specific function.
Don’t jump into the next task until you’ve finished the first one. No excuses!
2) Get rid of everything that is unrelated to the immediate task
And when I say everything, this includes: Whatsapp, email, phone, Facebook, Skype, Google Talk… Everything!
A big step would be, if you don’t need it for the immediate task, to turn off your mobile, or put it in ‘silent’ mode without vibration. It might seem hardcore, especially if you’re self-employed, but I assure you you will notice a massive increase in your productivity.
If you work with Photoshop, you should only have Photoshop open. Not Photoshop and your Gmail account.
This includes even tasks that are related to your work but are not the current task. For example: answering emails or phone calls. Get rid of the fear! If a client calls you and you don’t pick up because you’re working in a different task, it doesn’t matter. They will always get a response later, you’re not going to lose clients because of this.
Here are a few extreme considerations:
- Does your task require the internet? Disconnect it.
- Do you require the use of your computer? Turn it off.
3) Try to keep focussed for at least 25 minutes. Here’s Tomato Alert to the rescue!
Surely you’ve heard of the Pomodoro Technique. In reality, these 25 minutes are like a chimera. In my opinion, the optimal duration that a person can stay focused for and the number of breaks taken varies between individuals, as well as the kind of task being undertaken, how you feel emotionally… many different factors!
But try to stay focused for at least 25 minutes. And to take short breathers for no longer than 5 minutes and long breaks for no more than 15 minutes.
Important: the Pomodoro Technique can’t just work on its own. You need a tool that can alert you if you stop working on certain applications or websites. Try Tomato Alert, it’s a simple tool that delivers exactly what it promises. In fact, I developed it for my own personal use and now I use it daily.
4) Set yourself logical time slots and follow them to the letter
I refer to the facts that if you have to work on different things throughout the day, then group them together. Imagine that you work in your own online community: you take care of all the maintenance, keep track of Twitter and Facebook, email contacts and even then, have to develop a new section. The following would be a good way to organize yourself:
- One hour: maintain the content that was created yesterday.
- Two hours: reply to email contacts and return telephone calls.
- One hour: refresh Facebook and Twitter accounts.
- Three hours: develop the new section.
And what happens if you receive a call or an email whilst you’re programming, for example?
For starters, you shouldn’t know who has sent either email or call. Both should be turned off :). Consequently, this email or missed call can be answered when you are in the “responding to emails” time slot, even if it’s the next day. It doesn’t matter if a client has to wait 24 hours. What’s more, it will give them the impression that you are responsible person with certain contact hours.
5) Discipline those around you. Including your clients!
Especially if you work in an office environment at home, “discipline” the people around you.
Here are a few options:
- The simplest: stress that you should never be interrupted at specific times.
- Be like a hotel: use colour coded signs on your desk. Green means that you are in a talking-and-answering-questions time slot. Red means that you are focussed on the task in hand without interruptions.
In relation to your clients, if you comply with point four, you can make them understand the specific hours when they can contact you and also when they can expect a response. This is more than sufficient for keeping them “disciplined”.
6) Don’t work long-distance
If you can avoid it, don’t work long-distance. It’s one of the mistakes I made in my startup. And chatting online is the first productivity black hole. There is nothing, nothing, that compares to working in a team under the same roof.
7) Reward yourself for good performance
It may sound silly, but it works for me. For example, if I’m working and I really want a chocolate doughnut, I say to myself: “Okay, I’ll finish this task, and then during the longer break I’ll go out and buy one. But none of that until I finish this.”
And if you’re on a diet don’t worry :), other kinds of things can also be “rewards”:
- A walk in the park.
- A break for some surf.
- A quick peek on Reddit.
- Chat with a coworker.
- A look at the silly comments that your friends have put in a Whatsapp group.
- A trip to Dribbble to clown around by posting phrases like “Awesome work”, “Great job, man!” or “I want your panties!” and share some likes.
8) Take care of your breaks and sleep well
During a break, your subconscious will keep working on the problems you’ve been focusing on where you were working. Haven’t you ever had a mental “Eureka!” moment whilst completing a task that’s totally unrelated to the original problem?
Breaks are crucial to your inspiration and productivity. Having various breaks throughout the day, alternating with the Pomodoro intervals, will heighten mental agility.
And be sure to sleep well, at least 8 hours a day; it’s just as, or more important. In fact, your long-term memories settle whilst you sleep, and many of your more complex problems will be solved. Haven’t you also ever woken up one morning with the solution to a problem you’ve been focused on the previous day? I assure you, if you hadn’t have slept well, your subconscious wouldn’t have been able to work.
9) Separate your tools and workspace from leisure
This is especially directed at those who occasionally work from home.
Regarding the tools
The truth is, this is something that I haven’t yet managed to do but that I’d like to keep attempting. I mean to imply, that maybe it’s just too counterproductive to use the same computer that you work on to play games or watch TV series.
Perhaps the best idea would be to use one specific computer and set of peripherals for working only. Psychologically, this will also accustom you to working only when utilizing them; it won’t be time to look on Twitter or read your favorite blogs. It will be time to work!
A tablet computer may be the ideal replacement for reading blogs, chatting online, looking at Facebook and Twitter, etc. A games console or a different computer could be used for playing games, watching movies, etc.
In my case this would be quite complicated, as I move countries quite a lot and so I always carry my laptop with me. And of course, I use it for just about everything. It’s easier if you work in the office 🙂
If you yourself can handle the separation I’ve discussed and think it works quite well, leave me a comment and tell me, I’d be interested to know.
Regarding the workplace
One thing that I am sure of is that it’s no good to use the same space to work in as you do for leisure activities. There were times when I lived in minuscule studio flats, where I used to sleep, work, eat, etc. all,in the same room. And it was so difficult to follow a decent work routine. If you work from home, nothing compares to having a separate office space.
Maintaining focus is the key, but following a solid method and utilizing tools like Tomato Alert can be incredibly beneficial.
Credit for the sheep image: xkcd.
And how about you? What works best for you? Do you disagree with any of the points I’ve mentioned? Leave a comment and let me know.
About step 9:
I’ve read once a tip on reddit, instead of having seperate machines, you could make two different user accounts. On your work account, you would only have the shortcuts for applications you use for work.
Also change the backgrounds to something fitting.
This the first article on productivity that I´ve read from start to finish and that I´ve actually enjoyed.
Unfortunately Tomato Alert is not available for Mac, so I´m trying TeamViz instead!