distracted focus

One of the most important things to be succesful is focus. This is especially true for those people who have self-directed work schedules, as opposed to people who are directed by outside request such as support staff or people who work in the ER of a hospital.  My workdays are mostly unscheduled, since apart for some meetings with clients, colleageues or my supervisor, I can decide when and where to work, and what to work on, as long as I do my job. I would say that 80 to 90 % of my time is unscheduled.

This has good and bad sides of course. The good thing is the flexibility of it. If I expect a parcel to arrive, or I need to let someone into our house to repair something, I can easily work from home. I can start earlier or later if I want, and try to avoid traffic in that way. And I can schedule my most demanding work, like writing, programming or devising algorithms or proofs, to the morning hours when I work best. But for me all of this comes at a price.

If you can set your own schedule, this means that you should do it in a good way. You choose what to work on without someone looking over your shoulder to see what you are doing. But choosing the right thing to work on is not that hard. The hard part for me is then to stick to that, and not get distracted by other things that are easier, or more fun, or seem more urgent. This is where focus comes in.

For me, focus consists of two important elements. The first one is not to have too many things to do at a given time. By this I mean I should not be working for five different clients, write three different papers and work on two product developments at the same time. Not that I would work on all of those in any given day or even week, but just having them there on a list or in my mind makes me thinking about them and this takes away time and energy I could ave used to really do something. I prefer to work on onne or two client projects at a time, together with one or two research projects. There should be a balance between too few and too many. If you have too many projects, your attention has to be divided over too many things to work effectively. But in the case of too few projects, you get stuck when you have to wait for someone else to so something or give you some data or anything.

Over the last two or three years I have learned to strike a good balance here. The other part of focus is much more difficult. This concerns the day-to-day aspect of focus. Of sticking to the schedule or task list that I set myself, without getting distracted by the internet, phone or anything else. Especially the internet. In my previous post, I said I was overdoing the planning. That is true, and it is better now. But what has become more clear, is that I was mostly “underdoing” the actual doing part of my work. I have since found two resources that really help me, and I am going to share them here.

One is a program called freedom. As I said, the internet is a big distraction for me. I know that it is my fault, I cannot blame the internet for being there, or people for writing interesting blog posts on their blog. I like to surf around, but I should be doing that in my free time, such as my lunch break or in the evenings. I find myself reading blogs or forums too often during work, and I am ashamed to say that it sometimes eats hours out of my workday. This has to stop. The freedom program shuts of the internet connection of your computer for a set amount of time that you can choose somewhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours. I really helps me to stop browsing, and since this is mostly my only form of procrastination I can now work much better. Only think to look up anything on the internet before you start freedom, or you will have to wait for the time to end. The program is really safe, and not expensive at all. The trial version gives you 5 runs for free, so go try it out.

The second, and maybe even better, resource is the book about focus I mentioned before. After reading the free version, I decided to buy the full version. The full version has a few more chapters, and comes with audio interviews and videos. Of the audio interviews I did not find the one with David Allen ( the inventor of the GTD productivity method) very interesting, but the other two were quite inspiring even though I had not heard about those people before. I have not seen the videos yet, but the extra chapters and the two interesting interviews were worth the price to me. The book talks about the importance of focussing and not being distracted for doing good work and also for being happy. There is a lot of overlap with the concepts of mindfulness here I think. There are many tips for finding focus and beating the addiction to distractions. (I think this is what I suffer from, addiction to web surfing.)  The most important thing I have learned so far from the book is to implement a focus ritual. This can be anything, but mine consists of getting some coffee or tea when I get to my office, to my desk at the university or my home desk, and open my planner. Then, before I start my laptop, I open my planner and write out a list of tasks or make a schedule for my day. Then I turn of my phone, start the computer and the freedom program, and get to work. I keep the schedule close by, to keep me on track. I try to plan breaks for coffee or email or surfing or phone calls, and work the rest of the time.  There are many more ideas in  the book, both for rituals and other things. For someone seeking a more calm and productive way of working I definitely recommend this book. Read the free version fist, and I you like what you read there the full version will be worth it.

I would be interested to know how other people manage self-directed work schedules, and how you find focus. Especially how you get yourself to do hard tasks without starting to surf the web.

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5 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I also have a self directed work schedule but I really enjoy it as I love to be in complete charge of structuring my days and relish the fact that I have the flexibility to do so. I dont have a problem with internet surfing or web surfing. If I am working from home I limit it to when I am taking short breaks as I never take a full lunch hour. If I am in the office I never browse blogs or other internet sites. If I want to look at something during a break I will check on my iPhone which is much less comfortable and I cant comment using it.
    As you have also asked about my to do lists etc I plan on starting a 3 or 4 post series on planning soon on my blog.
    The focus book is excellent (I got the free version based on your earlier post and recommendation). Thanks! And good luck with keeping focussed 🙂

  2. i definitely haven’t figured it out yet, but i think the ‘freedom’ app sounds really good, and i may look into it. i don’t really surf the net at work but i am still way too attached to my email and check it wayyyy too much, breaking up the flow i should be getting into at work.

  3. Jotje

    I also have a self-directed work schedule. That is MOST of the times, because occasionally I get very tight translation deadlines, and then there’s no choice but getting the job done. I recognize the attraction of internet during the work day. Although the Freedom-app sounds valuable, I couldn’t use it, because during translation work, I use online dictionaries. So without the internet I cannot do my job. How sad is that?
    However, another big disctraction factor is my Outlook. Which is why I only open it at fixed times. If people try to reach me with really urgent matters and don’t get an answer they will phone me anyway. I usually check my email in the morning, at noon and at 4 pm. In between those times, I turn off the Outlook.
    Only disadvantage: sometimes I need to look up what somebody mailed me, or I need to download a file I have been sent. Which means I have to turn Outlook on again, prompting me with new emails etc etc etc

    So how do I get anything done in a given day? By maintaining a schedule. I schedule all my Todo’s (no more than 10 in a day) in my appointment schedule. Knowing I will get to the order confirmations in the afternoon, means I can focus on the task I am doing right now. It is not necessary to do the confirmations right now, because they are safely scheduled and will not be forgotten or overlooked. Eases your mind, and enables you to be more focussed. This system is based on Julie Morgensterns book “Time Management from the Inside Out”, which I highly recommend. I’ve written about it in detail in my guestpost on Philofaxy. http://philofaxy.blogspot.com/2010/12/guest-post-task-and-time-management.html

    I am intrigued by the Focus book and I’m off to download the free version and see what it has to offer!

  4. Thank you for all the good ideas. I am still working on it, but i have some other priorities right now that are taking up my energy. You should all get the focus book, it is great. The ideas are not earth-shattering but seeing them so clearly laid out is really helpful. I have no problem with email, I only check that a few times each day. My problem is blog surfing mosly.

    And Jotje, I have that book by Julie Morgenstern. This book is the reason I had thought to put in the daily pages into my filofax, because they have time slots. I also tried the space24 planner with time slots in a weekly view. I liked this better, but missed the flexibility of my filo. I think I would like to have a weekly view with time slots for my filo.

  5. Jotje

    Those are available: I use the WO2P with vertical columns. Not very large, but they come with timeslots (available at Bijenkorf btw ;-)). The pink version (called Professional) is sold in Germany by filofax.de.

    Meanwhile I downloaded the free Focus pdf and I loved it! Thanks for your link!

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