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9 tips to stay focused at your office job

Last updated on maart 25, 2020

Time to read 7 minutes

If you’re a desk worker like me, you probably have the feeling you can get more done at your workplace. Excuses I have used are ‘loud colleagues’, the open office environment, the office phone that one cannot mute and the amount of emails I’m getting. All not true. I wasn’t doing enough to get myself to stay focused, now and then. I’ve come to read and to try lots of measures that I would call ‘focus tips’, which in turn make you productive and… a happier person to boot.

Why try these tips

Being productive – getting more done – should not be the main reason for you to do this, I feel. Getting EVERYTHING done should never be a goal. You might lose your job if you make yourself dispensable. 🙂 But, without jest: there’s simply not enough time to do all your work in. I was like you before, wanted to cross a lot of tasks off of my to-do-list on a work day. The satisfaction was always short-lived, because my to-do list was back to its original length the next day.

Therefore, you should try these tips because you want to go home satisfied with the work you’ve done on a day. It makes you a fun person when not at work. 🙂

0. Prime your colleages

Before anything else: make sure your colleagues (and your boss!) know about your plans to focus. They deserve to know what you’re about to do, otherwise they might not co-operate. You don’t want to be a nuisance to your fellow employees by suddenly dissappearing and never answering your phone. Explain to them what you want to do; you might need to compromise. The bonus of that is that your colleagues will respect your plans.

One thing you should implement straight away is the use of headphones with noise cancellingThis helps you stay focused tremendously, but will not help you if you don’t enlighten your colleagues about it, like me.

1. Have a decent inbox routine in place

For most office workers, email is THE source of getting work tasks. Use a system, or rather a routine, which helps you keep your tasks in check and your inbox tidy. A lot of books have been written about the matter. In my email software, I use a set of activities, shortcuts and rules to keep me sane and my inbox mostly empty after digging into it. A lot of them stem from the Getting Things Done method, although I picked up quite a few handy extra’s from the similar CORD method, introduced by Graham Allcott in his book How to be Productivity Ninja. A ruleset could be something like this:

  • Use the OHIO-principle: Only Handle It Once
  • Set limited times per day to view your inbox (twice, f.i.)
  • If you can do it in 5 minutes or less, do it straight away
  • When doable in under 30 minutes, create a task
  • Anything that takes longer than 30 minutes, schedule an appointment with yourself in your calendar (and don’t forget to schedule a block in your calendar for your under 30-minute tasks!).

I’ll tell you about how I use my inbox (Outlook) in many other blog posts to come. Having such a systematic way of going about your emails, allows you to focus on the really important stuff: doing the work.

Also, do not forget about having an actual inbox. Yes, most of office life is digital, but for some things paper is still the way to go. Let your team know that the inbox is the place where anything that they have for you should go. This way things don’t get left or misplaced on a shared desk in an open plan office!

2. Set a goal for the day and work on it first thing

Okay, this sounded lame when I first came across it. All these people talking about goals all the time made the word almost dead to me. However, it does have its purposes. When getting into focus, set a goal – or rather a task – for the day. The trick here is, that if you finish that particular (set of) task(s), you feel satisfied when you go home. Regardless of what happens during the workday, you’ve managed to ice that task. And oh yes, start on it straight away, don’t postpone!

3. Set a theme to your workday(s)

Theming your work days allows you to focus straight away, because the theme itself has you bundle a set of activities even before you begin doing them. For instance, a themed work week for an application manager like me could look like this:

  • ‘Wax on, wax off day’ – a day in which I do tasks related to getting people their accounts or removing them.
  • ‘Social day’ – a day on which I plan most of my meetings.
  • ‘Get this party started’ – a day which features tasks on implementations and project planning.
  • ‘Testing 1,2’ – a day for testing new features.
  • ‘Jeopardy!’ – a day for fixing bugs and helping people out with my applications.

See what I’m getting at here?

4. Work from home regularly

If you have the ability to do it, I highly recommend it. These days many of us are working in open plan office environments, which are great for collaborating with colleagues, but can be a drag if you’re trying to do something that only you can do. Many studies show support of that notion: it doesn’t always contribute to (personal) productivity.

So, if you can, plan a regular day you can work from home to focus on that project plan you need to write. Make sure you have the right office environment at home though.

5. Choose multitasking over switchtasking

Multitasking can be a great source of focus. Multitasking is when you perform two activities, but just one which takes up almost all your attention, and one that doesn’t. So please do doodle when you listen to someone at a meeting – for doodling, your brain doesn’t need the mindfulness you need for listening. In fact, it helps your brain focus. And do put on music while making homework, but let it be music you know well. Otherwise you might turn your focus to that new song. Or clean your house when listening to a new book. Get the idea?

So, do not answer emails during a meeting, or take extensive notes. You brain sucks up all the attention for that, which makes listening hard. It needs to switch between these tasks. Don’t fiddle with your phone when in conversation, because you’re not listening. When you realize you’re doing two such things at once, you’re switchtasking. Singletasking (also a nice plea by Devora Zack) of course is the opposite of switchtasking, but take it from me: most of the time you’ll do a little multitasking anyway, even when singletasking.

6. Reduce the amount of ‘open loops’

Open loops are your worst enemy. An open loop is that thought that gets into your brain when you don’t want it to. It makes you worry in the middle of the night or lets you bump into stuff because you’re thinking too hard 🙂 . Our minds are great at that. You can’t have open loops when you want to stay focused on any activity, be it writing, listening or going through a checklist. Ways to reduce these are:

  • Carry a notepad with you all the time. When in conversation, ask your company politely if you can write something down and then continue.
  • Have a notepad near your bed. Write down anything that crosses your mind when you wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Before you go to bed, write (not type!) down any to-do’s that are in your head – writing literally gets it out of your head. This technique is called a mind sweep.
  • Worry extremely? Get in the habit of writing down your worries for say, 15 minutes or so. You write them down, but that is not all: you also write down how you can change the worry. Either that or you choose to accept whatever worries you. After you’re done, be sure to do something that gets you out of your worrying mood. Great tip by Dutch neuro-psychologist Mark Tigchelaar.

7. ‘De-focus’: have breaks, the good kind

The idea of a ‘good break’ is to not take in new info – hard to do with our mobiles giving us the world in our hand. Our brains need time to reload. If we don’t allow ourselves to de-focus at times, our brains will stop processing. Something that is on the tip of young tongue usually unveils itself when you’re not doing anything special. Sound familiar? It happens to all of us. These breaks tend to have your brain relax.

Stare out of the window

Ha. Yes. Indeed stare out of the window for 5 minutes for say, every hour or so, or after completing a task.

Take a walk – alone

Taking a walk by yourself does the same thing as staring out of the window. You give your brain a little time to reload and let your thoughts run free.

Take a walk Alone

Play a game in between tasks

Allow yourself some fun between (large) tasks and play games for a short time, i.e. ten minutes. A physical game I would say is best, because it gets your brain to focus on known activities: ping pong, air hockey, darts… you name it. Added bonuses are you get to spend time with colleagues and your workday is a little less boring. Don’t fret, even when your job is great, you’ll get bored at times.

No more Youtube, reading news articles or heavy reading when having a break, alright?

8. Introduce a closed door, open calendar policy

‘I got a quick question’ – Uh-oh. Now you’re in trouble. Your colleague is at your desk, you were in the middle of something, but he or she thinks you’ll be done in 2 minutes. We all know that never happens. This ‘open door’ policy is what most people expect you to have. But what about you schedule 15 minutes with that person on a moment that both fits in your calendars?Quick questions seldom are urgent, but will help your colleague on his or her way. My inclination is to help them. And there goes my focus… Even worse, I do it to my colleagues too! Barging in and just dropping a question on them. 🙁

I am therefore keen to try Dave Crenshaw’s tip of having a closed door, open calendar policy. He says:

I recommend you implement a closed door, open calendar policy. Meaning people can schedule themselves into your calendar. One way you might do this is to have a shared digital calendar where people have blocks they can schedule themselves into. Or you can even print out a piece of paper on your door with blocks of time when you’re available to meet.

Also possible: schedule ‘FAQ sessions’ with your close colleagues often. Say, you set a time from 11am to 12am they can ask anything they want, so long as they leave you to stay focused before that. Crenshaw has great tips. He really should drop the waistcoats though.

What do you do to stay focused?

The 8+1 tips you’ve read before are only a few of the ways you can help yourself be more focused. What do you do to stay focused? Hopefully you’ll share some of your best practices with me in a comment!

Published inFocus and Habits

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