The great enemy of creative work is interruptions, and it comes in many guises. Somedays, it feels like we’re losing a war for our attention thanks to the news and social media. And what happens when a friend or family member wants our attention? Should we say no, yes or not right now?
Focusing for extended periods on key creative or business projects doesn’t require a Herculean feat of will, a massive attention span or living the life of a selfish hermit. Instead, you can teach yourself to focus attention on a goal or project at will and then enjoy the normal course of everyday life.
It’s kind of like strength training. Practice these techniques consistently, and you’ll accomplish with each passing day and still find time for what life offers.
1. Put First Things First
To borrow a metaphor from Stephen Covey, consider your working day like a large glass jar. You can fill it up with rocks, pebbles, grains and sand and water. However, pour in water or grains of sand first, and you’ll quickly run out of space for rocks and pebbles.
Each night, ask yourself what’s your big creative priority for the following day. Examples include recording a podcast, writing a thousand words, or preparing a content strategy. These types of tasks represent your big rocks.
Other priorities and tasks, like phone calls and meetings, are like pebbles and grains of sand. Focus on them after creative work. Finally, consuming information, like the news or social media, represents water.
At the beginning of the day, work on your big rocks. After focusing on these for several hours or moving them forward in a meaningful way, pick lower-value tasks.
Often a little momentum is enough to stop feeling guilty about procrastinating and move towards completing a big project.
2. Set a Clear Goal for Today’s Work
A good goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
What do you want to achieve, and how much is possible in 30, 60 or 90 minutes? Whatever your answer, track progress on this mini-goal so you compare today's session against yesterday's. You could monitor creative output in terms of:
- Time spent in deep work or flow state
- Other KPIs
If in doubt about what to track, set an intention to spend at least 90-minutes every day engaged in deep, focused work, at a specific time and place. Structure your entire working week as much as possible around these blocks of focused work. Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable, told me:
“If you plan ahead, if you decide what it is you want to do and what time you want to do it, you become much, much more likely to actually follow through. Have a template for what your ideal week looks like… based on turning your values into time.”
3. Prepare Your Work Environment
If possible, lay out creative work the night work so you can start work immediately when you sit (or stand) at your desk. In other words, avoid wasting half an hour in the morning looking for passwords, research, papers and notes.
A little meal prep saves five or ten minutes of stress in the morning too. That's a boon if you've kids to drop off at childcare, a train to catch or a commute.
That said, sometimes it’s helpful to work in a different environment, particularly if you want to unlock creative thinking. Perhaps you could try dictating an article or outlining an idea while in the local park? Or maybe you could work in the coffee shop for the morning and save phone calls for the afternoon.
If finding focus remains elusive, consider a workcation. It involves going away for a few days to work in a single project like in a hotel room or at a retreat.
4. Get Enough Sleep
It’s all but impossible to focus if you’re exhausted and out of physical or mental energy. Getting enough sleep the night before working on a big creative project enables focusing for longer.
Take his one step further by using wearables including the Whoop Fitness tracker or Oura Smart Ring. Both devices track sleep quality and heart rate variability. They also indicate a recovery rate each morning. Use this information to decide when to push forward with a challenging project versus taking a break.
After using the Whoop Fitness tracker for several months, I identified several habits that improved the quality of my sleep and manage my energy levels more effective.
These include: reading before bed and avoid sugary foods in the evening time. Unsurprisingly, alcohol and working late negatively impacts on my sleep and my ability to focus the following morning.
5. Stop Multitasking
If it’s enjoyable, it’s immersive. If you're engaged in a long conversation with a good friend, you're unlikely to check the time or what's trending on Twitter.
But what if you're working by yourself? Many creative projects, like writing or podcast editing, involve solitary work. Well, shuffling the chair, looking out the window or getting up to brew more coffee are the hallmarks of distraction rather than immersion. Similarly, taking a quick break to reply to an email is a surefire method for distraction.
Remember, multitasking is the enemy of focus. Pick a time later in the day when you’ll work on email, social media and other people’s priorities. Ideally, it falls after a block of focused, creative work.
6. Eliminate Distractions
Technology notifications, phones calls, messages and even other people are all an anathema to focus. According to research by associate Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California, it takes up to 23-minutes to find focus after an interruption.
When it’s time to focus on an important business or creative project, set yourself up so you can work for a predetermined period with interruptions. You may need to:
- Close distracting programs, audible and visual triggers on your computer or work device
- Turn off or disconnect from your WiFi
- Deleting distracting social media apps like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter from your smartphone
- Block book time focused work in your calendar
- Turning on “Do Not Disturb” mode in Slack and other instant messaging tools
If something distracts you once, okay, not your fault. For me it would happen day after day, week after week, I would keep getting distracted by the same stupid thing. Well, now that's my fault. That's my responsibility. I have to do something about it.
7. Set Office Hours
Often the biggest challenge with finding focus is other people’s priorities, and these often manifest in the form of unplanned meetings, conflicting priorities and casual conversations.
Let others know you’re working on a critical creative project and can’t be interrupted for the next 30-90 minutes. Set office hours when you’re free for phone calls, meetings and less valuable work. If you’re working at home in a quiet space, consider putting a do not disturb sign over the door or outside your office space.
“We constantly feel we have a barrage of email and if it's not email, it's Slack messages or phone calls or whatever it might be that's pinging into us,” says Eyal.
“So, setting a time in your day when you are not to be interrupted when you will not be responsive is a terrific first step and maybe that's only 30 minutes, 45 minutes an hour, to give you time to actually think.”
8. Turn Off Your Devices
A 2017 University of Texas study found a phone's presence is a distraction and reduces a person's ability to concentrate. So when you’re focusing on a work project, leave it in your bag or another room. If you really must use it, consider an app like Forest or set a timer on your phone for 30-minutes and work until it sounds.
Unless it’s critical to your immediate work, leave your phone in a different room, put it out of sight and turn on airplane mode. It’s also worthwhile disabling as many notifications as possible on your computer, tablet or whatever device you’re working on.
If you must keep a phone nearby, apps like Forest help you focus and reward you for not picking up to check something apparently urgent.
9. Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time-management method invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo. It’s part of the Pomodoro core process whereby you track blocks of focused time. It's useful for anyone engaged in creative work. When I interviewed Cirillo, he told me:
“Procrastination is one of the real problems we have with time. Time is limited. When our mind has to deal with this limit, we tend towards dysfunction. The real reason why we have this technique is because we want to train ourselves to deal with this human limit.”
This time management technique is easy to learn and apply.
- Pick one part of a creative project to focus on like writing, editing or strategic planning.
- Set a timer for 25-30 minutes, and start focus on that task.
- When the buzzer sounds, take a two-to-five-minute break.
- Repeat, always remembering to take short break breaks.
- After four sessions, take a longer break to recharge. A short walk or a nap helps.
- Count the number of Pomodoro sessions at the end of the day
- Use this information to optimize blocks of focus time each day.
The Pomodoro Technique works well if you plan in advance when you intend to apply it.
10. Use Noise-Cancelling Headphones
While engaged in deep work, use noise-cancelling headphones. You can listen to white noise, ambient music or even silence. Ideally, a good set reduces distractions from the outside world. This strategy works particularly well if you’re sharing a workspace in an apartment or an office.
I listen to an album of thunderous rainfall on repeat while writing or editing. Brain.FM also provide a playlist of music designed to help people find focus.
11. Engage in Mindfullness Meditation
Meditation is a good practice for anyone who constantly finds themselves getting distracted. This practice trains you to sit in one place and observe the nature of your mind.
When I first started meditating, I was surprised by how often my mind wandered and I got frustrated with my lack of ability to focus on my breath. Later on, I discovered the point of meditation is to learn to sit with a distracted mind… and that often carries over to distracting and challenging work situations.
Keeping a notepad near my desk also helps for capturing distracting thoughts as they arise. When I think of something distracting-“I must search Google for X,Y,Z”-I write it down on the pad and return to the work at hand. Later on, I review this distraction pad.
12. Reward Yourself
Focusing for an extended period is tough. If you ticked off your big creative rocks for the day, reward yourself. You could get in a good workout at lunch, go for a nap or allow for some guilt-free time on social media.
These little incentives serve two benefits. Firstly, they act like mini-breaks for recharging. Secondly, they help you stay the course the following day until finding your focus becomes a good work habit.
13. Reframe Procrastination
Consider the weight lifter or endurance athlete who builds days off into their training schedule. They know taking a break from training enables their body to repair. They can hit the track or gym with renewed vigor the next day.
A lot of modern work is tedious. Many people have a painful amount of paperwork to process, emails to answer or reports to file. If you're worried about your team procrastinating, acknowledge that people's work styles vary. What's more, they might even sprint toward the finish line when a deadline draws nearer.
We're not robots built to work on every item on our to-do list without pause, reflection or a break. Sometimes procrastination might help you unlock new thinking or recharge. Instead of stigmatizing procrastination, accept its role in the rhythm of work life.
Although some people like starting a difficult project immediately, work styles vary. Professor Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University in Chicago argues 20% of people "make procrastination their way of life."
In other words, some people will file their tax returns or ship a project only at the last minute. That doesn't necessarily mean these people are lazy or unmotivated. Instead, they approach deadlines differently from the doer who acts immediately.
14. Pick a Theme for Your Day
Once a week, review your calendar and what you accomplished. Is your current routine conducive to focused work? If not, consider what you can move around. That may mean getting up earlier to work on what matters. Alternatively, perhaps you can accomplish more by focusing on important creative projects later at night. Assigning a theme to each day can also help. For example, you could dedicate an entire day to:
- Phone calls
- Research and writing
- Content marketing
Test until you find a working routine that helps you focus.
15. Finish Already!
One of the most creative and productive inventors and artists of all time was a chronic procrastinator. Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years painting the Mona Lisa and 13 years painting The Virgin of the Rocks. He spent more time on creative works than his peers and once said:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
When he died in 1519, da Vinci left behind dozens of sketches and plans for unfinished projects. Most of us don't complain about how late da Vinci was with his creative works; instead we admire his achievements. Perfectionism will always lie out of reach, so when it’s time to stop focusing move on.
Focus on What You’re Great At
Dikaiosune is a Greek virtue that describes someone who brings leadership, direction and focus on their mission. With the right work habits, you can cultivate this virtue and accomplish more than you ever thought possible.
Like this article? Check out my book This Is Working: Focus on What Matters and Get the Results You Deserve