Monday Mornings with Madison


Recession. War. Earthquake. Divorce. Illness. Terrorist threats. There is a never-ending supply of internal and external disturbances that strive to steal our concentration and reduce our productivity at work.  With so many distressing headlines, personal problems and benign daily distractions, it can often be difficult for you or your staff to stay focused and fruitful.  American businesses are often sabotaged – not by those headline-grabbing threats – but by the impact of events big and small on employees’ ability to stay focused.  Indeed, simply staying on task is often the biggest challenge. 

In the parable of the turtle and the hare, it was the slow but steady turtle who won the race.  His advantage was his steadfastness.  There are a number of ways to achieve a steady, consistent pace at work and minimize the things that intrude on your working groove.  Here are a baker’s dozen tips to try.

1.  Set short term daily goals that lead to long term goals
Often, your work day can feel like a rudderless ship that has been set adrift. You know what you have to do, but you have no plan to guide or direct you. Without a plan, any distraction can derail your day.  By setting reachable and realistic short term goals every day that lead to a long term goal, you suddenly have focus where you didn’t before.  And when life’s distractions strike, it is easier to stay focused or refocus if you can refer back to your short term goals.

2.  Turn off distractions
We talked last week about the harmful effects of multi-tasking.  Our workdays are filled with distractions, from the cell phones to chatty coworkers and beyond. Have the self control to turn off the distractions you can control when you need to focus, even if only for a limited or set amount of time each day.  If you have a project to tackle, set your phone aside and let your inbox go unattended for an hour or two.  For those distractions you can’t control, physically separate yourself if you can.  If the limitations of your work space means you can’t physically separate yourself from the distractions, talk to your boss about the benefits of working from home occasionally (if your job allows).

3.  Stay emotionally balanced
Even with the best focus, some days are going to be more productive than others. The goal is to stay on as even a keel as possible if you want to maintain a healthy level of productivity over the long term. Don’t get too high when you do well and don’t get too down on yourself if things get tough.

4.  Moderate your caffeine intake
Coffee can be an absolute blessing when it comes to getting through afternoon lulls, but too much caffeine can lead to a crash that takes your productivity along with it. At this point in your life, you probably know how much is too much caffeine.  Don’t go overboard thinking your actions won’t have repercussions.

5.  Eat healthy foods
No one can be productive long term without a balanced diet. If you are living on fast food, try packing lunches, or at least order something other than greasy fries and burgers. Fresh fruits and salads are packed with vitamins, minerals, nutrients, natural sugars and antioxidants that will help keep your body working at optimum effectiveness.  Also, don’t go the whole day without eating.  Not only will you not feel well, you also won’t get much done.

6.  Drink water
Even more than food, water is a source of energy for your body and mind.  Up to 60 percent of the human body is made up of water.  The brain is composed of 70 percent water and the lungs are nearly 90 percent water. About 83 percent of our blood is water, which helps digest our food, transport waste, and control body temperature. The cells in our bodies are full of water. The excellent ability of water to dissolve so many substances allows our cells to use valuable nutrients, minerals, and chemicals in biological processes. The carbohydrates and proteins that our bodies use as food are metabolized and transported by water in the bloodstream.  Each day humans must replace eight to 10 cups of water.  Mild to moderate dehydration can cause headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, impatience, irritability and drowsiness.  If you aren’t drinking enough water, you cannot maintain even-keel productivity.  (Of course, too much water may send you to the restroom every hour.)

7.  Get organized
Organization can be one of the trickiest things for many cubicle dwellers to manage since space is often at a premium. But it is hard to be focused if you are surrounded by chaos and clutter.  If you can’t come up with a sound organizational pattern, talk to those in your office that are neater than you for help (or refer back to our MMWM essay on Taming the Paper Tiger at Work, Jan. 25, 2010).

8.  Set up “Interruption Sessions”
In a busy work place, people are moving and talking all the time. If you play a role in a team where others need to interact with you, try allocating time slots during which they can interrupt.  Instead of having people stop by your desk every 10 minutes to ask questions, assign one or two times in the day during which you can be interrupted. i.e. 10-11am and 3-4 pm.  That leaves the rest of the day to focus and really get some work done.

9.  Try “Time Boxing”
Developed by David Cheong, software engineer and blogger, Time Boxing is a technique for breaking up a project into segments.  Instead of working at something till it is done, Cheong suggests working on it for a limited period, say 30 minutes. By that time, the task is either completed or you allocate another time slot, perhaps on another day, to pick it up again. That way, your work remains fresh and engaging throughout the entire work day.

10.  Set your IM status
If you use Instant Messaging, make use of the status when you don’t want to be disturbed.  Set it to show you are away or busy. Friends and colleagues should honor that. They can either send you an email or look you up later when you aren’t as busy.

11.  Listen to the right types of music
Music is a great way of settling into the working routine. In addition, music can drown out office noise like printers and background chatter. Beware, though.  Some types of music are not particularly conducive to productive work.  For some, listening to songs with lyrics is distracting because the words interrupt the thinking process.

12.  Use headphones but leave the music off
Some people prefer to have absolute silence when working. That may depend on the kind of work you are doing. Those doing serious planning or computational work may not find blasting music conducive for staying focused. In those instances, try using headphones or ear plugs to block out background noise but leave the music off.

13.  Get a good chair
For those who sit for long hours at their desk, a good chair is an important investment. It is pretty difficult to stay focused if your neck and back are sore.   A good chair allows you to work for long stretches without breaks and physical distractions.

Implement these strategies to minimize disruptions and keep you and your staff working at a steady pace… and then watch as you race to the finish!


“Slow but steady wins the race!” Aesop

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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