As I watch our athletes compete on the world stage I’m astounded by the level of dedication they needed to get there, as well as the focus they need to compete against the world’s best.
They require incredible concentration, including the ability to shut out the crowd noise, the competition, the weather and just focus on the task at hand.
It made me realize that small business owners often struggle with similar distractions…albeit with a smaller audience watching our every move.
The difference between success and failure for many small business owners may be our ability to focus on the most important and profitable aspects of our jobs at any given time. Throughout the day we’re bombarded with Skypes, tweets, chat windows, emails, ringing phones and more, all clamoring for our attention.
If you sometimes struggle with distractions, here are some expert tips on how you can improve your focus and get more done in less time.
Start With The Basics
Make a List: I’m a fan of lists. First thing in the morning—or better yet, the last thing before heading out the night before—make a clean list of what you want to accomplish that day.
I usually make two columns: urgent and important.
Urgent are things that I really, really need to get done that day because of an impending deadline. Important are essential to the long-term success of my business, and I need to make progress on, but aren’t due immediately.
Stop Multi-tasking: Study after study shows that we are not good at multi-tasking important or complicated tasks. While you might be good at chewing gum and walking at the same time, it’s only because you’ve been doing them for so long and they don’t require great cognitive skill.
If you are trying to write a proposal while watching your Facebook news feed, you should expect to create a terrible proposal while missing the best updates from your friends.
Make appointments with yourself: If you’ve got work that requires a lot of cognitive focus, put time aside in your calendar or day planner.
If you use a shared calendar, co-workers can see that you’ve booked some “focus” time and can be informed that you’re not to be disturbed during these sessions. Even someone with an open-door policy can close the door occasionally.
You should also make these appointments at the times of day where you are most productive. I find that I get my most challenging work done in the early morning, while by 3pm I’m only good for responding to emails and organizing my office.
Eat the frog first: Have you ever had an important—nay, essential—task that you were dreading, and found that you kept on finding other things to do instead?
Eating the frog first is a reference to a Mark Twain quote where everything that follows after that unpleasant task will seem easy by comparison.
On the other hand, knowing the frog is still out there can distract you and consume your psychic energy.
Improve Your Environment
Auditory: You’ve probably seen athletes wearing headphones right before their match, race, or dive as a way of reducing outside stimuli.
Depending on your work environment, you may be able to wear headphones, play music through your speakers or even enjoy silence.
Knowing what kind of music motivates you vs. distracts you is important, too. LifeHacker has a good article about what kind of music is best for what type of work, and where you can find it.
If you prefer white noise there are plenty of mobile apps out there including Sleep Pillow, which I discovered when sharing a hotel room with a friend who snores.
Visual: While only athletes who participate in Dressage might actually wear blinders, the visual distractions around you may impact your focus…depending on you plan on voting for in November.
That’s right, scientist have shown that conservatives tend to work better with a clean desk, while liberals seem to be less distracted by messiness, and it might even improve their ability to focus on the task at hand.
Kinesthetic: How your workspace “feels” can also impact your focus. Whether you prefer a task chair, a yoga ball or a standing desk, you need to have a space that fits you ergonomically.
I find that depending on the task and time of day I may prefer sitting or standing, which is why I use a computer stand that raises or lowers depending on my needs. Other times I prefer to stretch out, especially if I don’t need a second monitor, which is why I’m writing this post on my comfy chair with my feet up on my coffee table.
Technologic: So many of our distractions these days are the very tools we use to connect with our prospects and customers, so how can we unplug?
During much of the day I keep a second window open that I use primarily for TweetDeck, a tool that allows me to monitor Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms.
However, that constant flow of data can be distracting. When it’s time to write a proposal or get on a conference call you need to close down any unnecessary channels.
Shut down Facebook and Twitter. Close your Skype window. Shut off email, or at least shut off the pinging reminders. Silence your phone. (Mobile, too!)
If there’s one app or program you may want to keep running, it’s a timer. Set it for 45 minutes, or an hour or two and forget it. (Yep, “set it and forget it.”)
This way, you’ll be less likely to be distracted by constantly checking the time. You’ll know that until the timer goes off, you need to focus on getting out that proposal, putting together that webinar, or writing up a work agreement.
We live in an always-connected, always-on world. It’s incredibly exciting, but it can dilute our focus and distract us to the point of ineffectiveness.
By reducing some of the outside stimuli, prioritizing activities through lists and blocking out time in our calendar, we can improve our focus and results.
Photo credit: Craig Maccubbin
I am blogging on behalf of Visa’s Go World Olympic Campaign and receive compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. This post was sponsored by Visa Small Business. From now through August 31st, visit http://www.inc.com/visa-