Just Focus: Four Tools to Get in Your Zone

Just one more thing,” I say to myself before I start my must-do project. Then I say it again. And again. Time goes by without working on what needs to get done. A panic sets in, and now I really can’t focus.

Urgent, but not necessarily important, tasks plague my productivity. I am addicted to that One-More-Thing that feels so important. The trouble is, even though I'm checking off my to-do list, I’m not accomplishing the important projects that take time and focus. For knowledge workers, focused attention is our most precious resource.

Over the years, I've explored many approaches to time management and productivity. Below are four tools that make a difference: calendar, email, music, and a timer.

time management

1. Block Time on the Calendar. Successful people use their calendars more than to-do lists. Since we don't figure out what to do next, using the calendar reduces decision fatigue. This tool really works for me. Ideally, at the end of each day, I review my priorities and the next day’s schedule. Then, I block out times on my calendar for the must-do projects. When I start work in the morning, my calendar tells me what to do. I find myself reaching for the calendar more than the to-do list to really get things done.

2. Stop the Interruptions. It’s hard to shut down down those apps and devices that keep calling to us. Email plagues me.

email optimization

Research shows that email occupies 23 percent of the average employee's workday, and that we check email around 77 times a day, sometimes as often 36 times an hour! While we feel productive when immediately responding to emails and texts, we likely have not accomplished anything of real value. The truth is that email blocks us from what really needs to get done.

It takes courage in our “always on” culture to disengage, Shutting down those apps and devices, even for a few minutes, is needed to get in our flow. When I close my email, my mind quiets down and I’m quickly in my flow. Tim Ferris recommends checking email just twice a day. That feels like a stretch for me, but I find I work best when I attack my email in just a few focused sessions a day.

3. Listen to Music. While research is mixed on the benefits of listening to just any music to improve productivity, I found a solution that works for me. Focus@Will is a music subscription service that provides music that is scientifically developed to improve focus, reduce distractions, maintain productivity, and retain information while working, studying, writing, and reading.

Since I subscribed a couple of years ago, I find myself reaching for Focus@Will when I need to focus. I ease into my day with the slow classical station. By lunchtime, I stay energized with the ambient station. By the late afternoon I need techno-music to keep me in my zone, and I switch to Napster, a music subscription service.

See what works for you. Consider working in a cafe to provide just enough background noise to tune out your thoughts. White noise tools are also helpful. Focus@Will provides several types of music, sounds, and energy levels, too.


4. Set a Timer. Despite the many disruptions around us, the reality is we most often interrupt ourselves. Once I have a focused environment using the above tools, the Pomodoro Technique keeps me from interrupting myself. The basis of the Pomodoro Technique is to set a timer and focus completely on your important task for the allotted time. The Pomodoro Technique helps you stay focused and get things done in short bursts while taking frequent breaks to keep you fresh and motivated. It’s the ultimate agile sprint for getting work done.

Here is how the Pomodoro Technique is described on Wikipedia:

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique suggests using a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally twenty-five minutes in length separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

Learn the six steps of the Pomodoro Technique here. You can track pomodoros on paper or one of the many desktop and mobile apps recommended here.

I use Tomato One on my Mac. I set the timer, usually for 20 minutes. Sometimes I set it for 15, or even 10 minutes. The main thing is to start the timer and get working. I start out feeling like there's no way on earth I can focus on this one thing for 20 minutes. Then, suddenly, I’ve made headway and it’s break time. I take a lap around the office, then I work another 20 minutes. I might grab a cup of tea or do a set of jumping jacks on my next break. It’s fun to see how many "pomodoros" I complete in a day.

While it's important to set the timer to keep focused, it also ensures we take breaks. Breaks, ideally away from the computer, are important to keep us refreshed and energized throughout the day. They might just improve our eyesight and posture as well.

So, take a chance. Plan your day and schedule your top projects. Shut down distracting apps and devices, and listen to focusing music or sounds. Finally, set a timer for an uninterrupted block of work. See what happens. You just might get some real work done.

Which tools keep you focused?