4 Strategies to keep you focused and get stuff done

I’ve been struggling to stay focused lately, or more to the point, struggling to not want to be distracted when I have stuff to do.

Squirrel.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about listening better. And, yeah, I’m working on it.

But focusing on being a better listener has made me realize my very self-sabatoging tendency to allow distractions to shift my focus.

I allow myself to be distracted by things, people, stuff, and, here’s the biggee, I tend to actually look for things to distract myself — stuff that sucks me in and keeps me from work/tasks/commitments that matter to me. 

Distractions abound. And when I’m bored, tired, out of my groove, or wanting to do anything other than what I’m doing, I look for a distraction. 

Squirrel.

Especially when the task is difficult, tedious, boring, or otherwise unappealing. That’s when I most want to look at/think about/read about something else, which keeps me from doing what’s most important to me.

Must stay focused, but….squirrel!

Recently, I’d been working on a blogpost when, for no good reason, I logged on to Facebook. I had no business there, no real purpose for going there other than to distract myself. All I wanted was a little diversion, just a quick glance at something else.

Well don’t you know, I got sucked into the Facebook vortex.

20 minutes later!…I finally pulled myself away and logged off.

And it isn’t just FB. I might pick up my phone to check the weather, but I end up reading news headlines and checking Instagram and maybe looking to see what’s showing at the movies. Or maybe I’ll just have some Valentines’ Day chocolate.

So, with a conservative estimate on a regular day, I can easily spend about an hour on stuff not in line with my priorities. 

7 hours a week. 30 hours a month. 360 hours a year. That’s 15 days. Of my life!

Time well-spent? 

Almost certainly not.

Someone once said: Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource. 

(I looked it up and according to Goodreads.com, it was Albert-Laszlo Barabasi in his book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do)

You are so right, Albert!

The clock is ticking, man.

And if time is my most valuable non-renewable resource then what am I doing wasting so much of it? 

I had to ask myself, how can I shift my mindset to help me stay focused on what I’m doing?

Here’s what I know: I get way more long-lasting satisfaction from completing something on my “To Do” list than from scanning news headlines, checking email, or mindless snacking. 

When I complete a task from my “To Do” list I know I’ve done what I set out to do and spent my nonrenewable resource on something that’s important to me.

And that sense of accomplishment has a snowball effect. It gives me momentum.

I’ve proven to myself that I can focus and accomplish what I set out to accomplish. (Honestly, even if it’s something as “boring” as doing the laundry. Not my favorite thing to do, but necessary, and now…done. Check.)

Here are a few strategies I’m using to combat my tendency to seek distractions to avoid important but difficult/boring/challenging/mundane tasks.

Have a plan

I work well with a “To Do” list and a calendar. On the calendar I mark my deadlines, some self-imposed and arbitrary, others imposed by others and firm, like April 15 tax filing deadline. 

By Sunday night, or at the latest Monday morning, I have a plan for my week. I list what I will work on every day. That’s my “To do” list. If for some reason I don’t get to something on my “To Do” list for that day, I push it back to the following day or earliest possible day. 

What works best for me is scheduling slightly more than I think I can do. And then I prioritize my list, taking into account any factors that may affect the schedule. 

I’ve been using this strategy for a while and I’m surprised how lost I am without a plan.

The other day I had nothing on my schedule except to spend the day with a relative. She got sick and had to cancel. I was left with my blank schedule board and I had to think for a few minutes about how to best regroup.

If you want to stay more focused, try writing a daily plan.

Be flexible

Things are going to come up, which is all the more reason to seize the day when you have the chance.

When you do what’s important instead of squandering your life away on stupid stuff that doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, you’re better prepared for the unexpected.

It’s like money in the bank for a rainy day.

Set a timer

Depending on your work environment and level of potential distractions, I’ve found it very helpful to give myself a set amount of time to work on something on my list. 

Let’s say, for example, I have an idea for a blogpost. I know what I want to say and I’m ready to write. I set my timer for 30 minutes. 

Begin.

Everything’s great, I’m rolling along, but then I hit a snag. I get into the weeds and start questioning myself, doubting the validity of my message, and dozens of other things that sidetrack me. 

That’s when I’m most likely to start looking for something else to do or think about. 

But if I’ve set my timer, I’ve committed to write until my timer goes off. I know I can stay focused and write for 30 minutes, so I keep going.

Often, pushing through that yuck phase gets me back on track so when my timer goes off, I find I can go another 30 minutes. 

If 30 minutes seems too long, start with 10 or 20 minutes until you build your stamina, your “stay focused” muscle.

Set your priorities and purpose

When I worked as an elementary school librarian, I had so much stuff to do every day. Inventory, shelving books, ordering books, researching books to order, teaching classes, etc, in addition to the incidental interruptions like fire drills, staff meetings in the library, etc. There was no way I could do everything I had to do. 

So I had to prioritize. I gave myself deadlines, did what I could, made daily lists, and tried to remember that, above all things, I was there for the students.

I tried very hard to keep my purpose in mind: Connect kids with books and foster a love of reading.

Every day was a challenge and I probably lost my cool a few times. (A few dozen times if you count lunch duty.) But I tried very hard to stay focused on what was most important.

Those strategies again

So when you want to stay focused and get stuff done

  • Have a plan
  • Be flexible
  • Set your timer
  • Set your priorities and purpose 

We can do more than we think we can, but only if we stay focused on the tasks at hand, set our priorities, and treat time as our most valuable nonrenewable resource.

Can you relate? Do you put off tasks you’ll know you’ll eventually have to do? Do you leave work that really matters to you for stuff that doesn’t matter to you much at all? What strategies do you use to get past it?