How To Stay Focused When You Work Online
I could procrastinate by spending more time outside enjoying the sunshine, but I know I need to sit down in front of my computer and get some work done. But even after I’ve waded through all the offline distractions, there’s still more waiting for me on my screen(s).
I find it challenging to sit in front of my computer for hours at a time. It’s too easy to get lost in the unending number of distractions that pop up and grab my attention. The struggle is real.
But lately, I’ve had a lot going on and no room for excuses. Under the pressure of finishing an extra-long to-do list, I found a few incredibly effective ways to stay focused.
1. Put Some Space Between You and Social Media
Instagram is my biggest distraction. I use it as something to do when I’m bored with a project, have writer’s block, or am in between one project and another. But then, I find my self mindlessly scrolling when I don’t even realize it.
I’ve learned from other entrepreneurs in the Along the Way interviews, that I’m not alone. As an entrepreneur, social media can be a huge help in promoting your business, but it can easily be a huge distraction too.
So, when I really need to focus I don’t just put down my phone, I actually log out of Instagram. This helps because it will automatically turn off notifications and puts one more barrier between me and the endless scroll. I find that the extra step of typing in my password is enough to make me stop and think about if I actually need to log in.
2. Agree to Focus on One Thing at a Time
Multitasking is a great way to get a lot of things started and not a lot done. It can be tempting to have multiple tasks “open” at once, especially when you’re busy, but it is not the way to focus and actually pull projects over the finish line.
If you Google “Multitasking doesn’t work,” the featured snippet confirms that multitasking is not a good strategy.
And (for good measure) if you Google “Multitasking works,” the featured snippet counters that it doesn’t.
I try my best to focus on a task from one client at a time and not move between a variety of things at once. But this should be obvious, if you want to stay focused, you actually have to focus.
3. There’s No Such Thing as “Quickly” Checking Email
In addition to focusing on one project at a time, I also prevent myself from checking email while I focus on substantive work. I used to be really bad about answering emails as soon as they came in. It sounds like a good way to keep clients happy, but ultimately, it’s just another way to lose focus.
You may think that you’re quickly looking at your email (or Instagram) and not losing focus, but that’s not the case because of a phenomenon called attention residue.
Cal Newport, the author of “Deep Work,” talked about attention residue in an interview with the Model Health Show.
“So if I switch my attention over to an email inbox, see a couple emails that I can't answer now, I know I need to get back to them later, and then switch back to my main task. Even if I only glanced at that inbox for thirty seconds, that's going to leave what's called 'attention residue' in my mind, which can reduce my cognitive performance for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes going forward.”
To prevent attention residue from slowing you down, schedule time between projects to answer your emails. As long as you are answering your emails in a timely manner, appropriate for your industry, it’s okay to close your inbox for a few hours.
4. Client Calls Can Be Scheduled
I wrote this rhyming mantra for you:
When you’re in the zone, don’t answer the phone.
I don’t answer unannounced calls unless I am actually available. It’s the same as email and social media: it’s a distraction. If I feel like I’m concentrating at a high level, my concentration takes first priority. It’s easy enough to call someone back in between projects.
Or better yet, schedule calls. That way, both of you have dedicated that time to focus on the matter at hand. It’s one of the most important boundaries you can set for a healthy client relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to answer a call, but don’t feel like you necessarily have to.
5. Find Accountability, I Recommend Focusmate
Sticking to a schedule and meeting deadlines is harder when you set them for yourself. It’s a little easier to focus when a client or customer expects something at a certain time. But otherwise, there’s a lot of flexibility to start something new, put out a fire, or delay something for another day.
I’ve been using Focusmate for a little-added accountability. Focusmate is a virtual coworking platform where you commit to working for 50 minutes with someone via webcam.
It works. I’m obsessed. And this is already the second time I’m mentioning it on my blog and I’m not even paid to do so.
This perfectly sums up why it’s so hard to stay focused. It’s not that you’re lazy, untalented, or shouldn’t be working for yourself, it’s simply a challenge.
But if you’re willing to put in the effort to stay focused, even if it takes a little-manufactured accountability, you can achieve great things.