While being "always on" was once considered glamorous, our brains have switched to autopilot as we've acclimated to a state of perpetual overwork, often sacrificing our personal lives to get more stuff done.
But are we really getting more done? For example, on a typical day, I'll find myself prepping for my next client meeting one minute, only to be interrupted by an urgent email the next that now demands my immediate attention. Before I can hit send, a team member pings me on Slack with the urgency that a fire needs to be put out. I have seven open tabs on my laptop from the previous day to get to, and my kid's school has just texted me to let me know that someone on campus was exposed to Covid-19.
If you're finding it hard to focus and stay productive in your virtual environment, you're in good company.
A study found that unnecessary workplace interruptions are costly, with "high-skill knowledge workers spending 28 percent of their workweek managing email."
Another study found that workers are interrupted roughly every three minutes and, once interrupted, it can take 23 minutes for that person to return to the original task.
With vaccine shots rolling in, what we all need right now is a daily shot of mental focus to keep us productive and on-task. I recommend six useful hacks to get your mind in gear.
1. Kill the multitasking.
Research says multitasking is a myth and can, in fact, be damaging to our brains. You end up splitting your focus over many tasks, lowering the quality of your work, and taking longer to hit your goals. Mentally focused people are smart enough to work on several smaller chunks to complete a big goal. But they do it by knocking down one thing at a time, and then moving on to the next task.
2. Take short breaks.
Everyone with sharp focus and in a flow state will eventually become exhausted if they don't pause and have a diversion. So make it a habit, after 30 minutes or so, to take a short break before your mind starts to fatigue. It could be as short as a five-minute walk outside to breathe in the fresh air and get some sunshine. By doing so, you will reset yourself with a new focus.
3. Avoid checking email in the morning.
The ritual of constantly checking your email as soon as you start your day is one of the quickest ways to damage your productivity. One idea to try out is to avoid checking email until lunchtime. If you allow your morning instead to be intently focused on working on your biggest and most important task, and leave all the problems and distractions you'll encounter over email, you'll have worked much more productively. The reason to start out your day with the biggest and most important task is a no-brainer: Your energy level is highest in the morning and will crash not long after you come back from lunch. So take on that dreaded annual budgeting plan first thing in the morning.
4. Switch between high- and low-focus tasks.
When you switch between high- and low-focus tasks, it gives your brain a rest after a period of heavy mental focus. Let's take that big important task you just spent two or three hours working on this morning. Recharge by taking on a low-focus task, like reorganizing your home office for 30 minutes before going back to your high-focus task.
5. Don't be stuck in a good mood.
While positive emotions are certainly needed for stirring up creativity and innovation, researchers found that negative moods are better for helping people focus. "A negative mood results in tunnel vision, making you focus on just the things you are anxious about -- everything else falls out of this focus and doesn't matter," said Adam Anderson, senior author of the study. In other words, if the task at hand requires detailed focus without distraction, being cranky may be the best approach.
6. Set a goal to improve yourself.
We are wired to automatically work off the daily tasks on our to-do list, many of which don't serve us well. Your goals should include at least one that will improve you as a boss, entrepreneur, or expert in your field. The most successful people start the day by putting their mental focus on something that will make them better. Think about what will grow you, give you more energy, advance your career or business, make you happier, and set the stage for an epic, productive day.