Here is an excerpt from an article written by William Treseder for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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I used to wake up, stumble over to my phone, and immediately get lost in a stream of pointless notifications. This digital haze continued throughout the day, keeping me from accomplishing important tasks. I was distracted, anxious, and ineffective as a leader. I knew I had to change but could not seem to break free from the behaviors that kept me locked into the same cycle.
This problem is not unusual. Executives across the world stumble through each day in much the same way. Two major challenges are destroying our ability to focus.
First, we increasingly are overwhelmed with distractions flying at us from various connected devices. Smartphone and tablet use is spiking, and we now use digital media for an average of over 12 hours per day. This hyperconnected state does not allow us to process, recharge, and refocus.
Second, we rely excessively on meetings as the default form of interaction with other people at work. Studies indicate that we spend anywhere from 35%–55% of our time, and sometimes much more, in meetings. If we want to stay focused on truly meaningful activity, something has to change.
You and your business will benefit greatly if you can address these issues. You and everyone on your team will enjoy yourselves more and accomplish more. The data echoes what our common sense tells us: We need to carve out more time for ourselves if we want to remain focused and effective at work. These five daily practices will help.
Practice mindfulness. The single biggest mistake most of us make is in how we start the day. Do you immediately roll over and start checking email on your phone? Bad idea, according to Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track. As she said in an email interview, “By constantly engaging our stress response [when we check our phones], we ironically are impairing the very cognitive abilities — like memory and attention — that we so desperately need.”
So what should you do? Start trying a simple mindfulness practice when you wake up, which can be anything from quietly taking a few deep breaths to meditating for 20 or 30 minutes. Dr. Seppälä explains why this is so important: “Meditation is a way to train your nervous system to calm despite the stress of our daily lives. When you are calmer, you are more emotionally intelligent and make better decisions.” Not a bad way to start the day.
Organize tasks. Another common mistake is letting other people fill in your calendar, particularly in the morning. You have to make sure you leave enough time to accomplish complex, creative tasks. As entrepreneur, investor, and Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham described in “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule,” his now famous 2009 post, “a single meeting can blow [an entire day] by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.” Creative tasks require dedicated time when you are fresh, not a few distracted minutes squeezed in between meetings. We all love to think we can multitask effectively, but research shows conclusively that we are terrible at it.
Instead of struggling to accomplish what matters, you can take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms. Focus on complex, creative tasks in the morning; these things will tend to be ones you accomplish individually or with 2–3 other people. Push all other meetings to the afternoon. These simpler, execution-focused meetings with larger groups are easier to handle.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
William Treseder is a founding Partner at BMNT, a problem-solving consultancy in Silicon Valley. He loves to find creative ways to improve the everyday behaviors that define our lives. Trade tips with William on LinkedIn.