In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about finding focus and concentration.
Hello and welcome to episode 65 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week it’s all about getting your life under control when everything goes crazy and the workload mounts up. A situation that can happen to any of us at any time.
Before I do get into this week’s question though I would like to thank you all for listening and to remind you that if you have a question you would like answering on this show, then all you have to do is to either email me firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter or Facebook.
And for those of you who feel their ‘system’ is not working, then be sure to check out my FREE online course, The Beginners Guide to Building You Own COD system. This course could change your life because the simplicity, and easy maintenance of the COD system, when implemented has the power to dramatically boost your productivity.
Okay on with the show and that means it’s time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Nonica. Nonica asks: Hello Carl, really I'm struggling with lack of focus and concentration. I have many pending writing projects and I have been missing deadlines I feel extremely distracted. I would be very grateful for your advice, suggestions and guidance.
Hi Nonica, thank you very much for your question.
Now I know at times it can be very hard to know what to focus on when you have so many things coming at you at once. This can be particularly so when you have an ever-increasing workload and family and personal commitments to attend to. When things become overwhelming in this way, our brain becomes our worst enemy because it starts screaming at you and reminding you all the time about the work you have to get done and does so at the most inconvenient of times. It will remind you-you have to finish off writing an article just as you are drifting off to sleep at the end of the day. It will remind you of the meeting preparation you have to do as you are trying to enjoy a romantic dinner with your partner and it will remind you-you have to call someone at 3AM in the morning—the worst time to call someone.
Now when you feel completely overwhelmed and you don’t know where to start you need to take some timeout and stop. I know, when you feel you a lot to do, the very thought of stopping doing what you need to do seems a stupid idea, but if all you are doing is running around in a state of indecision and inactivity then stopping that for an hour or so is not going to have any impact on your current productivity or ability to get work done because you aren’t actually getting any work done anyway.
Okay, the first thing you need to do is to calm your brain and the best way to do that is to get everything you have on your mind out of your mind and into an external place. That could be a piece of paper or a digital list. Where you write it doesn’t really matter. What matters is you get everything out of your head. Your mind is a terrible place to hold all your commitments and work because your mind doesn’t really know when you need reminding of things and so it reminds you of everything all at once and that’s why you end up feeling overwhelmed.
Once you have everything written down you need to start organising and prioritising. This is why it is often better to get all this into a digital to-do list. A task list manager such as Todoist (which has a free version) would be a great way to do this because you can drag and move around items in a list. What you do is list out all the things you wrote down into categories and priorities. So for example, if you have six writing projects you would group those together and then prioritise them by when they are due to be completed. If you have a list of errands that need completing you would group those errands together and again prioritise which ones are the most important ones. Keep doing this until you have everything on your list categorised and prioritised.
If you give yourself two hours to do the brain dump and the organising you should be able to get most things into some kind of logical order in that time.
Okay, so great you now have a long, organised, list of things to do, How does that help me get things done? I hear you ask.
Good question. Here’s the answer: open up your calendar. Now hopefully, you have all your events already on your calendar. This should include your professional and personal commitments. If you don’t, do it now. You need to see where you have blocks of time. For most people, you will have a mix of meetings (onsite and offsite) as well as your personal commitments such as spending time with your family and friends, dental and medical appointments etc.
Now the reason you use your calendar is that your calendar is a list of the 24 hours you have each day. It is a visual representation of the time you have available each day and it never lies… Well unless you put stuff on there you never do. And you should not be doing that with your calendar.
Before we go any further you need to implement a golden rule. That is: “what goes on your calendar gets done.” No excuses! The only reason an event on your calendar does not get done is either because the appointment was cancelled or for an absolute emergency. Your calendar, from now on, is your one productivity tool that will never ever lie. This has to be the one commitment you make to yourself that you stick to whatever happens.
Okay, so you have your calendar open and your professional and personal commitments are on there. What do you do next?
Right, now look at tomorrow. Where are the blank time slots? You may have a time slot between 8am and 10am where you have nothing on. Block that off right now. Choose one of the categories you have on your list of things to do and write that in that block. So in your case, Nonica, you could write in that block “Writing Time”. So now you have made a commitment to yourself to spend two hours writing tomorrow between 8AM and 10AM. And it is a commitment. Now it is on your calendar and remember, “what’s on your calendar gets done” so you are committed.
Now, it’s a good idea to bring in the principles of the Golden 10 here—That is spending ten minutes at the end of the day to plan the next day—What you do here is look at your calendar and see you have a writing commitment between 8AM and 10AM tomorrow morning. Make a decision the night before in your ten-minute planning session on what you will write in that two hours. You do not want to be deciding that at 8AM tomorrow morning. You need to make that decision well before you sit down to write so you do not start wasting time procrastinating.
Now let’s say you have a regularly recurring event that you know you must do or you feel obligated to do. This could be something like having to take care of elderly parents or grandparents. This again is a commitment and something you should get on your calendar. To me, family is far more important than work and so comes in at number 1 on my priorities list. As I fill out my calendar with time slots for the work I have to do, my family commitments would be put on there first. If a family member is in a hospital for example, then I would be scheduling visiting times every day. If the hospital visiting times are in the early evenings, then block that time off. Doing this means you get to see the available times you have for getting your work done.
Now, if you do have an unusually high amount of work to do, you may want to schedule more time in the evenings for additional work time. This often happens to me when I am developing a course or editing a book. I would schedule additional work time between 9pm and 11pm for doing that work. This is only temporary and so I do not worry too much about my work-life balance in those times. The work has to be done, and once it has been done I can relax.
Now over the next two to three weeks, you schedule your time slots to take care of all the work that is on your list. How you and what your schedule, of course, will be up to you and the deadlines you have coming up. You have to decide what gets done first.
Okay, so that takes care of the list you created when you did your mind dump. But there is another issue here. Life does not stop just because you have emptied your head of all the things you have to do. Life has a bad habit of creating more work for us every day so you are going to be picking up more work after you have completed your list. In this case, depending on how much work you have to do right now, you may need to put a temporary stop to new work coming in. In these situations, you need to talk to your work generators (as I like to call them) and ask then to freeze new work for a couple weeks so you can catch up. In my experience, people are very reasonable and will accommodate your request. It’s only a temporary freeze and it will allow you to catch up and get everything in perspective.
If your work generators are not willing to freeze new work, you are going to have to allow sufficient time on your calendar for the new work coming in. This means keeping an hour or so each day free for such situations. The good news here is if you do not need that time for new work you can allocate other work to that time.
The final piece to this is to make sure you are not writing out your tasks so they feel overwhelming. If you write your task out as “write end of year report” and you know the end of year report is a 10,000 word report, you are not going to be motivated to do anything and you will feel overwhelmed. Instead, write “write 500 or 1,000 words of the end of year report” or you could write, as I do, “continue writing end of year report” That is a much more manageable chunk and you are much more likely to be motivated to get it done. By using the words “continue writing” I write as much as I can and I don’t get that mental panic of thinking I have to write the full 10,000 words.
Other things you should be doing during your blocked out time is to switch off your distractions. That means your phone, your email and the people around you. Use headphones if you can and listen to great music. The Anjunabeats Worldwide and Above And Beyond’s Group Therapy podcasts are great to work to, and if you prefer something a little slower try the Anjunadeep podcast. I will put links to these fantastic podcasts in the show notes.
And that’s really all you can do, Nonica. You need to first get everything on your mind off your mind and into an external place—paper or digital—then you need to categorise what those things are. Once you have that done use your calendar to block the time off you need to get them done. The only way the work will get done is if you do the work and to do the work you need to make time to do it. You calendar can be your best friend there.
I hope that has helped and and thank you so much for your question, Nonica.
Thank you to you also for listening. I do this for you guys and I want to help as many of you as I can to become better organised and more productive. So if you know anyone that could benefit from subscribing to this podcast please share it with them.
It just just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.