How to stay focused

Do you have the attention span of a gnat, flitting from one thing to another as you fret about your never-ending to-do list? Here's how to develop a laser-sharp focus.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Work out what you want to achieve

Be realistic about what you'd like to get done and by when. Beware the to-do list that carries on and on; it's best to pick three things to be completed in a day and decide specific next steps. Want to pitch an idea to the boss? Get a time in the diary. Write down the things you don't need to worry about today and when you will tackle them. Roy Baumeister, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength, says when you try to ignore unfinished tasks, your unconscious frets about them until they're done. By making a specific plan, your inner nag will be switched off.

Set your weekly schedule in advance

'I'm a believer in forward planning for the efficient use of time,' says Suzie de Rohan Willner, chief executive of FitFlop. It's important to set your weekly schedule a week in advance, 'so you can ensure a balance between meetings, focused work time, thinking time and fun time'. Request a purpose and intended results from anyone who wants to meet you, she adds. 'This makes people think harder about what they want to get out of the meeting and helps to focus me more swiftly on the topic.' You have a finite amount of energy, so plan your day to match high levels with important challenges and low levels with easier stuff.

Approach tasks properly

How often have you sent an email in a rush and instantly regretted it? Being slapdash in your approach not only reflects badly on you but can create extra work, so it pays to give each task the time and thought it deserves. Everyone underestimates how long a task takes, so be generous with your estimates. Conversely, be brutal with your time when it comes to things that don't deserve your attention. If something lands in your inbox or on your desk and can be dealt with in two minutes, do it immediately.

Handle interruptions wisely

It's all well and good to have an open-door policy but if you don't manage interruptions to your time well, you'll never have the peace to get on with things. Are you the sort of person who says yes to demands automatically? If so, change your default setting. Are you too controlling? Allowing colleagues to solve their own problems will foster an invaluable sense of trust as well as cut down on interruptions. If you can't get rid of a stubborn interrupter, be firm and explain your position. It's easy to be lured off your trajectory.

Don't procrastinate

'I can resist everything except temptation,' said Oscar Wilde. The seduction of a quick puff on the opium pipe might not be a 21st-century distraction, but online shopping, Facebook and Twitter certainly are. 'It takes tremendous discipline to concentrate and shut out diversions,' admits Martin Sorrell, who is known for the constant and even surreptitious use of his BlackBerry.

Resisting procrastination comes down to willpower, and one way to tackle temptation, says Baumeister, is through a postponement strategy: tell yourself you'll update Facebook only when you've completed your task. Another ploy is to commit to spending a certain amount of time on a task and to spend the time either doing that task or nothing at all. The boredom of doing nothing soon concentrates the mind. 'In general, procrastinators do poorer-quality work than people who do things early or on time,' he adds, 'though they convince themselves they are doing great.' Don't be one of them.

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