These days you may find yourself short on motivation or struggling to stay on task. Distractions can easily creep into your life or maybe you’re just not feeling it these days. The problem is your boss may not be understanding, and this can have dire consequences for your career. Fortunately, there are some simple ways you can trick yourself into staying on task. Before we get to that though, you should ask yourself a question.
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Why are You Procrastinating?
The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself – Rita Emmett
Odds are, you are having a problem with procrastination. Perhaps you are overwhelmed at your job and the thought of tackling your mountain of work is more than you can bear. So you sit there quietly and contemplate where to begin. The minutes and hours pass by while you drag yourself down further with stress and anxiety. Before you know it, lunch time arrives and you haven’t even made a dent in your workload!
Getting past this mental hurdle can be difficult and a bit daunting. In fact, your brain is working against you in ways that are not readily apparent. The reason is because your brain doesn’t like doing things that make you uncomfortable. As a result, you spend a lot of time and energy on dreading your tasks, rather than doing them.
To make this situation worse, you may be drawn to your favorite social media sites or cell phone as a way of coping. I mean, it doesn’t hurt if you only spend a few minutes checking out some websites, right? The problem is your brain gets a dopamine fix from this behavior, which makes it even harder to stay on task!
So, considering that your brain is working against you, how do you get some real work done?
Get Your Excuses in Check
If you’re reading this, you already know you’re having some issues with staying on task. So, ask yourself some hard questions:
- Do I have issues in my personal life?
- Why am I not thrilled about my job?
- Is my workload overwhelming?
- Am I experiencing some form of job burnout?
Asking these questions helps to develop an understanding of why you’re not feeling up to the task at hand. Remember, whatever your answer is, you don’t need to beat yourself up over it. Everyone experiences lows and loss of motivation at some point, and you are no different.
Once you have had your moment of self-reflection, allow yourself to accept that you just aren’t feeling it right now. But you need to remember that you have a job to do, and not getting it is a big problem. So take note of things that are bothering you, and tell yourself that you will deal with those problems later.
If you are experiencing some deeper mental health issues, you should seek out the services of a mental health professional.
Focus on the Process
At this point, you should be looking at how you can get to work. Start by pushing out thoughts of the end result, and narrow your attention to the first step.
We’ve all heard the old sayings about putting one foot in front of the other, taking baby steps, and how the longest journeys begin with one step. The reason these old sayings persist through time are because they are absolutely true. The hardest of all tasks has a first step, so focus on the first step of your task and, for now, put the end result out of your mind.
Now, this is generally easier said than done, but fortunately there are some techniques and tools you can try. And once you’ve made it through the first part of the process, you can use the same approach on the rest of the steps necessary to complete the task.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo and is very easy to implement, because a timer is all you need to get started. It includes the following 6 steps:
- Identify the task
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on the task without interruption or distraction
- End work when the timer completes
- Take a 5-minute break
- After doing this 4 times, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
The general idea is that it should be relatively easy to commit yourself to 25 minutes of undistracted and productive work. This means putting your phone on silent (or airplane mode if using the phone as a timer) and out of reach, closing your email, and solely focusing on the task at hand.
Once you have started the task, the dread and anxiety you have experienced over starting it should disappear. Also, during the short breaks you can reward yourself with something like a piece of chocolate, some phone time, or perhaps a short chat with a coworker. This will help your brain make a positive connection with these periods of productive work.
After using this technique for a while, you may find that you do not need to use it constantly as you will be better able stay on task. However, it is always a good fall back option if you feel you are slipping.
Phone Apps and Browser Extensions
There are a number of apps and browser extensions that have been created for the purpose of helping you stay on task. Some days, your will power is not enough, and using these tools can provide you with a great deal of support.
One app I am particularly fond of is Rescue Time. Rescue Time automatically tracks the time you spend on apps, web browsing, and documents. It will send you a report of this information so you can see exactly how much time you are spending on these distractions. There is also an option that allows you to block access to apps and websites for a set period of time. This works well when you are using the Pomodoro Technique.
As far as browser extensions are concerned, StayFocusd is one that I would recommend. This extension will allow you to block websites and set timers to control your browsing. When you’re mind is on auto-pilot, you may find yourself opening up your web browser and heading to one of your favorite social media websites without thinking as a matter of habit. A browser extension, like StayFocusd, can help disrupt this process and remind you to stay on task!
There are a lot of other options out there depending on what browser you use, and you should do some research to find one that appeals to you.
Create a To-Do List
Creating a to-do list on a daily basis is an easy way to gain some perspective on your day. This can be done either the day before or the morning of, and it should be focused on general tasks without much detail.
I find that a small pocket notebook works perfectly for a daily to-do list. The benefit of this is that it has been shown that the act of writing by hand is more engaging for your brain. However, you may find that a spreadsheet, phone app, or other program suits you better.
Once your to-do list is complete, you can start on the first task and work your way down the list. You can also use the Pomodoro Technique while working through your list (talk about being productive!).
Other benefits to using a to-do list:
- You can assess whether you need additional resources
- You can easily reference the list when talking to your manager about workload
- Over time, you can use it to track your productivity and gage how long it takes to complete tasks
- You will develop a task-oriented habit for getting through your day
A to-do list is a very popular approach to staying on task and gives you a tool to keep your day in check. So give it a try!
After you’ve found an approach that works for you, it is important that you don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Distractions can derail your progress and keep you from staying on task. So it’s important to get these distractions under control and continue to keep an eye out for things that get you off-track.
So, what are some distractions you should be mindful of?
Declutter Your Workspace
Every item on your desk is a potential distraction and represents a potential distraction. A stack of unsorted papers can call your mind to question the contents of the pile, and create anxiety about anything you may have forgotten or overlooked. So papers should be neatly organized and applicable to any current tasks you are working on.
Take a look at your desk and look for anything else that is a potential distraction. Anything that doesn’t help you stay on task should be removed or stuffed it in a drawer!
Reduce Email Time
An email notification is a surefire way to distract you from your current task. Especially if the email is a bit contentious in nature. So turn off your email notifications or popups and either close or minimize your email application. Once you have done this, decide on set points in the day when you will review and respond to emails.
Email communication is a task in of itself. So responding to emails while you’re engaged in another task is a form of multi-tasking. And multi-tasking leads to less productivity, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish, so it should be avoided!
This suggestion tends to freak people out, because you could miss an important email! But generally speaking, if something is really important, you can expect a phone call shortly after the email is sent. And sacrificing your productivity for the sake of staying current on your emails is not worth it.
Get your Phone Under Control
Unless you’re using a productivity app or using your phone as a timer, you shouldn’t have it easily accessible while working. Turning off the notifications on your phone or using airplane mode is also an important step. Not having any blinking lights or audible tones will reduce the urge to check your phone.
Smart Phones are valuable tools, but they are also designed to suck you in and keep you distracted from the things you need to get done. So it is important to recognize this as you take steps to stay on task.
Look at Your Office Setup
If your office furniture is causing you physical discomfort, this can become a distraction that is difficult to ignore. Sedentary work in of itself can create issues, but if your chair is uncomfortable and your desk is not ergonomic, then you may not be able to sit still and focus on your work. So it’s important to take corrective measures if this is the case.
The Mayo Clinic has a great guide on office ergonomics, so you should review it to ensure you’re exhibiting good posture while working. If your office furniture is lackluster, then you should bring this up with your manager.
Keep Trying and Keep Learning
Once you’ve made some changes, don’t forget that the goal is to stay on task so you can be a happy and productive worker. Assess your behavior on a daily basis and make changes as necessary. There are also several books that have been written on productivity that can provide additional inspiration and ideas that will help you.
Don’t get down on yourself if you have missteps or find you have reverted to some old habits. As long as you keep trying, pretty soon you will find that you are gaining control and have a formidable toolkit to help you combat the pitfalls of being unproductive!