Most of us have trouble focusing at one time or another, but the reasons differ. Some people stray when they're bored; others find reasons to avoid a difficult task. But almost all of us occasionally wander from the task at hand. If you're lucky, it's just a momentary lapse and you're soon back on track. But if staying on task is more than an occasional problem, try some of the following tips. They won't all work for everybody, but you'll probably find at least a few tricks that help. They say it takes 21 days to break or adopt a habit, so be patient.
1: Know your poison
Before you do anything, spend a little time in discovery mode. When you find that your mind has wandered, try to recall what you were doing when you lost your way. It's a bit difficult to do, at first. This type of discipline isn't natural. It will take a few days for your mind to catch on, so don't give up. Keep a diary of these events. Once you're aware of the actual distraction(s), you can implement countermeasures. You have to understand what sets you off before you can effectively deal with it.
2: Try Pavlov's cure
If you really feel a bit out of control, you might need remedial help — a little bell that gently reminds you to get back to work. Set an electronic timer or an ordinary kitchen timer to go off every five, 10, or 15 minutes. Pick the interval based on the severity of your problem. A little chime every few minutes will help pull you back to your work. This method sounds counterproductive, but it works. Eventually, you'll find yourself setting the timer for longer intervals.
Please be considerate though. If you're in a cube farm, your timer might be a distraction for your co-workers.
3: Suck it up
Sometimes, we just have to deal with reality and adjust accordingly. You can't eliminate job-related interruptions, but you can adapt. Come in early or stay late and use those quiet hours when no one is around to do the work you can't get to during the chaotic workday. If that's not an option, set aside a couple of hours every day and ask co-workers not to interrupt you. Then, stick to it. Let in-house calls go to voice mail. Shut your door if you have one. Put up a Do Not Disturb sign if you can.
4: Tune them out (a.k.a. Pavlov #2)
If you're interrupted or easily distracted by others, wear a good set of headphones. You can listen to music or not — I'm not suggesting that you drown out surrounding noise with more noise. You're simply conditioning your co-workers to leave you alone. When your headphones are on, ignore everybody. Fight the urge to remove the headphones and say, "Do you need something?" Eventually, your co-workers will learn to leave you alone when they see the headphones.
5: Remove the fun!
Nothing is more distracting than fun, but you can't play FreeCell all day. (That's a lie; I've done it.) If computer games and activities are your problem, you must be ruthless. Remove them. You heard me — uninstall them. No, you can't leave them on the laptop sitting nearby. That goes for your IM pals too. They have to find something else to do while you're working. If you're disciplined enough, you can schedule play breaks during the day, but most people addicted to this stuff just have to go cold turkey. (You won't find FreeCell on any of my work systems!)
6: Schedule email
Unless your job requires it, limit your access to email. For example, you might check email twice a day: when you first arrive and maybe again in the midafternoon. When you're done, close your mail client and don't open it again until the next scheduled session. Constantly checking email interrupts your train of thought. Make email a to-do task that you complete on schedule and then forget about in-between times.
7: Take a break
Most IT professionals don't have mandatory breaks scheduled into their workday. That's unfortunate because a few minutes of stretching and relaxing usually helps you concentrate when you return to work. You don't have to be rigid about the timing. Just do it. It's the simplest method you can employ, and you've heard it before, but it's the advice people ignore the most.
8: Reward yourself (a.k.a. Pavlov #3)
If you're facing a particularly unpleasant or difficult task, promise yourself a treat when it's done. You might keep a favorite tea or coffee blend around or treat yourself to some special chocolate. If you're not the only one involved, it's a great way to keep others on task too —"When we're done, let's meet in the breakroom for a surprise treat." (Well, it works for me!)
9: Leave a hook
A hook is a classic writing tool, but it works in most settings. When you must interrupt your work, don't just walk away. Leave a clue to quickly pull you back into the work. It might be as simple as a Post-it with the words "Start here." A hook helps reduce the amount of time it takes you to re-engage with the current task.
10: Kill the multi-task monster
We're conditioned to believe that multi-tasking is efficient, but successful multi-taskers are rare. Multi-tasking actually dilutes your focus. Every time your mind switches gears, you lose a little time. Most of us can't talk on the phone, read email, and give instructions to our assistant, at the same time — and do so efficiently. If you don't believe me, run a search on "multi-tasking study" with an open mind.
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.