January 29, 2010
How to stay focused at work despite life's big distractions
So you're getting married, buying a house, adopting a baby, starting night school for your MBA, launching your dream business on the side, shopping your novel around to hotshot agents, or getting ready to jet off to Fiji for three weeks. Congratulations! Now get back to work.
For some of us (yours truly included), that's easier said than done. After all, the tedium of the office doesn't hold a candle to the excitement, anticipation, and preparation for life's big milestones. Why would anyone in their right mind want to spend a morning updating spreadsheets or preparing RFPs when they could be shopping online for wedding dresses, Ballard duplexes, baby clothes, textbooks, business supplies, or a new swimsuit? Why create that PowerPoint for next week's staff meeting when you could be e-mailing all your burning legal, financial, or relationship questions to a trusted friend or professional?
Welcome to the world of the easily distracted.
On a recent deadline-intensive workday, I paid a visit to Distractionland, firing off e-mails about some new developments in my personal life when I should have been interviewing sources and banging out copy. (No, I'm not becoming a mom or shopping around a novel. Cohabitation and a change of real estate may be in my future, however.)
After an hour of this frittering, I decided to see what some of my favorite productivity blogs suggested you do when you're feeling unfocused. (In retrospect, going for a brisk, mind-clearing walk would have been a better use of the time. For the distraction-prone, the Web is like quicksand.)
Most of the "Get focused now!" posts I found offered tips on overcoming technological overload at work. You know, turn off your cell phone, close your inbox and Web browser, and just say no to multitasking. And this Zen Habits post had some helpful productivity reminders, like breaking tasks into smaller chunks, imposing time limits on each item on your to-do list, and taking more breaks, especially during those sluggish parts of the day when you're prone to goofing off anyway.
But this wasn't exactly the advice I was looking for. I needed a way to quiet my mind, which was currently consumed with matters that had zero bearing on the workload at hand. And I needed to do it fast.
In a panic, I e-mailed a few freelance friends for suggestions.
"Take 10 to stretch and drink some tea," said one pal.
"It's nice out. Treat your dog to a quick game of fetch," said another.
"Write down a worry list of everything that's eating at you," said another.
Since my preoccupation had more to do with wrangling the details of a big life change than managing the excitement, I chose door number three. It took all of 60 seconds to fill a Post-it with my (embarrassingly trivial) concerns, What if I can't work from home with another person in the next room? and What if we fight about money or dirty dishes all the time? chief among them. But the worry list worked. I was back at my desk in five minutes flat with a clear head and a truckload of motivation.
How about you? What tricks do you use to stay focused when life's big demands and excitements are far more compelling that the workload on your desk?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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