How to focus on what counts: tips for ditching the distractions

May 2, 2011

When working from home, distractions can get the better of even the most regimental worker. To make sure you can keep on task and learn to handle a potential deluge of client requests, it’s key to have a system for managing your time in place (so that you don’t end up like this guy).

1. Create a to-do list the night before

Task lists can make it easier to concentrate on what needs to be done. Peter “The Time Man” Turla, a time management expert based in Dallas, Texas, recommends having two to-do lists at hand: a general list of future (backburner) projects and a daily to-do list of things written out the night before. To get in the habit of building a daily list, Turla suggested disciplining yourself for failing to do so (although not too harshly; Turla suggests buying your significant other lunch whenever you forget). Career writer Penelope Trunk advises that writing out your list by hand (and rewriting it throughout the day) will give you a method to gain focus and train you to adapt more easily when priorities shift. Find her no-nonsense rules of things to avoid in list writing here.

2. Ask the obvious: Will this help me reach my goals?

A crucial element to keeping your business on track, says Turla, is asking yourself one simple question before you start any new task: “Is this key to achieving my goals?” If the answer is “no,” then rethink your plan. If it’s contributing to your success (another word you’ll have to define for yourself), then get crackin’.

3. Multi-tasking hurts

Business productivity expert Julie Morgenstern cautions against multi-tasking. Although there’s the perception that it increases productivity, Morgenstern says the truth is quite the opposite. In fact, focus drives productivity. Switching back and forth between several different tasks (and when you work from home, you might be tempted to throw in some laundry or other household chores) actually increases the time it takes to do anything by four times! Her book Never Check E-mail in the Morning tackles efficiency head on with smart tips about staying focused on your most important work.

4. Create work/life boundaries

There are two dangers in being self-employed: working too much and not working enough. Freelancers are anything but slackers, and too often they’re workaholics. Morgenstern recommends setting boundaries for the beginning and end of the workday, keeping evenings and weekends dedicated to your personal life.

Lists are key

5. Don’t let email dominate your life

Email has turned us into Pavlov’s dog, said Turla. Every time a new email comes in, you can feel compelled to check it immediately, disrupting whatever task you were currently working on. Voila! Productivity decreased (see note on multi-tasking above). How often does an email need an immediate response? Once you’re in work mode, don’t let email drag you out of it.

6. Clean up your clutter

Clutter creates distractions, which again reduces productivity and makes it really easy to get off task (ooh, shiny!). According to Turla, it’s important for freelancers to keep their work spaces clear and clutter-free. At the end of the day, everything should also be put away to keep clutter from piling up.

7. Be patient with yourself

Everyone has bad habits, and some of them negatively impact productivity. Getting into a daily routine and learning some basic time management skills will help keep you on track on those (hopefully) few days when your mind wanders and you start procrastinating. Behavioral changes don’t happen overnight, though. As Turla points out, it takes three weeks of focus and concentration to adopt a new behavior: “Part of the struggle is we’re creatures of habit. In order to improve our time management, we need to develop a new set of habits, a new working style.”

What’s the key to your success? Leave us a comment about what techniques or rules work for you!

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