6 Ways to Get Your Focus Back

I’ve always been borderline OCD. By being an organized person, I exude I’ve got it under control. But for those who read my last blog post, you most likely sensed that I was feeling a bit… frantic. I’ve been staying mindful of that manic mental state, trying to conquer it and put it at ease. Here are a few key strategies I’ve implemented to try to still the crazy and maintain focus.

1. Distinguish REAL Emergencies from Bad Tendencies

That email that just came in is probably important. It’s probably got loads of crucial information that the sender desperately needs you to have. It might be from your client, a potential client, your spouse, your friend, the Publisher’s Clearing House, saying you’ve won $1000 a week for life—it could be ANYONE. And because we’re curious beings, we can’t wait to see who it’s from, what it could be, what it could mean for the next 15 minutes or 15 days of our lives.

It’s stupid, and if you’re like me, when you hear that cheerful little purr coming from your speakers, your curiosity is also buttered with a tweaking, cringing feeling. Because what if it’s bad news…?

Finally, you give in—you jump over to your inbox. Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter who or what it is because unless it’s an emergency, you should leave it. LEAVE IT FOR NOW. Return to what you were doing, and then respond to all the emails that have come in once you’ve reached a logical stopping point.

Teach yourself not to salivate like a Pavlovian dog whenever your inbox comes to life.

2. Turn Off Your Cell Phone Alerts

I’ve tried everything to separate work from home life, but when you only have a cell phone, it gets tricky. I use Google Voice for my business line, so those calls only forward to my cell phone during my regular business hours. Then I created a custom setting called “Evenings & Weekends,” where my phone would only alert me if someone texted or called me personally.

It didn’t work; I was still idly picking up the phone and checking messages, or when I went to view a text message, I would see the work-related messages. Who could help but read them? Yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment.

Here’s how I trained myself: I turned off my email alerts on my phone all together. The only exception is if I’m going to be away from my office. But honestly, if that’s the case, I’m in a meeting, on the road, or doing something in my personal life. Do I really need to respond to the email right then?

OK, yes, sometimes I do. Because there might be that one client who, if you didn’t confirm that you received their email within 2 hours, they’re leaving you a voicemail to ask if you got the email, and then emailing you again to tell you they called and to remind you that they emailed you earlier.

Again, detaching from the inbox… probably the most effective thing I’ve done.

3. Temper Multi-Tasking by Parceling

I’m an all-star multi-tasker, but once I got really busy, multi-tasking became a major hindrance to my focus. Structure your day so that you are solely focused on one client at a time, for a set period of time until you’ve reached a pre-determined goal.

Personally, I always fall back on the handy-dandy list. At the end of the day, I write down all the things I want to get done the next day, and then I portion out approximately how much time each should take. And it feels damn good to cross each thing off as I go.

Of course, there will be interruptions—unexpected phone calls or (actual) emergencies—and that might move things around a bit. Don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. In fact, something may suffer if you try. Be forgiving of your time and your abilities.

4. Schedule Whenever Possible

When I first started 816, if my phone rang, I got so excited that I never even thought about scheduling. As the business has grown, I’ve become more reliant on scheduling to help keep me focused.

My time is about evenly split between creative work and more tech-based jobs, and I do an obscene amount of conceptualizing, testing, and troubleshooting. Each of those tasks commands my full attention (especially if the client wants it done well). Because I’m super-intent on what I’m doing, unexpected phone calls can throw off my concentration long after the call is over. Often, I don’t even realize the cause until I get frustrated and wonder, “Why can’t I concentrate?”

There are lots of online scheduling programs—many free—but I’ve found that clients prefer to set something up over email. Even a couple hours’ notice from your clients can do you a world of good toward keeping you focused throughout the day.

5. Technology Is Your Friend—Until It Isn’t

A few months ago, I advised a friend to have a technology-free weekend, in order to gain some perspective on some dizzying problems she was having. I told her to stay off Facebook, step away from the phone and email, just detach for a while. A week or so ago, she was telling me to do the same.

It can be terribly difficult to break away. Even when I’m not working, I have the sick habit of still allowing it to creep around the outskirts of my mind, leaving its guilt residue on my brain:

  • Must get back to him….
  • Mustn’t forget to do that…
  • They requested follow-up tomorrow…
  • I should put that in my Blackberry right now…

Evil messes, cluttering up my mind and creating restlessness. For a responsible person, all that needs doing can become overwhelming in an instant if you allow it. I very often turn off (or intentionally neglect to log in to) my IM, Tweetdeck, Facebook, all of it. If I have work coming out of my ears, the last thing I need to read is that someone else is on their way to the beach at 2 PM on a Tuesday.

6. Explore Something New

And no, I don’t mean learning HTML5 or reading the latest business success book. Explore your world; do something for yourself. If you get frustrated easily, maybe take up an activity that allows you to get your aggression out once or twice a week. If you lack energy, involve yourself in something that excites your mind. If you’re feeling a lack of creativity, immerse yourself in something you haven’t ever done before. Remember people? Be with some.

When you’re in a services-based business, you’re constantly giving of your time, expertise, and attention, and that leaves you with very little recharging energy when the day is over. Surround yourself with people who genuinely understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and foster those relationships.

Sometimes I forget to live, and isn’t that why we’re doing all this crazy work? So we can live a life outside the 9-5? It’s a hard-won lesson and a constant struggle for me, as I’m sure it is for many reading this.

So, what strategies do you use to stay focused?

22-year veteran of strategy: brand, business, organizational, communications. Certified in project management and regulatory compliance. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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