I used to be one of those people who could lose themselves in a book or task for hours. I could concentrate and focus on whatever I was doing until it was done. I took it for granted that this was just an ability I had. And then I started to lose it. Gradually I noticed that I was more distracted. I’d flit from task to task, never getting anything completely done. The slightest noise or distraction would send me off task and I’d have a hard time finding my way back.
At first I didn’t notice that much. But when you’re self-employed and your productivity starts to dip, you notice. My impaired concentration was starting to affect my work. I wasn’t getting as much work done and routine chores like billing and seeking new clients were going undone. Even my personal finances were suffering since I’d get distracted when balancing the checkbook, transferring money, researching investments, or paying bills and never get back to those tasks.
At first I wondered what was going on (was I just losing my mind or getting old), but when I took a hard look at my lifestyle, I realized that I had gradually wrecked my concentration myself. The biggest culprit was the Internet. It’s a great tool, enabling me to do all kinds of things in a very short period of time. But it’s also a distraction for me. I can start out by looking up one fact for an article and the next thing I know I’m following links here and there, remembering to do ten other things, and getting so distracted that I forget what I was supposed to be researching anyway. I end up with eight browser windows open and can’t remember what I was supposed to be looking for on half of them.
I found other things that were ruining my concentration and have learned ways to address them. Here are a few ideas.
Do one thing at a time: I am apparently not built to multi-task and no amount of trying is going to make it work. I was deluding myself thinking that I was getting more done by doing two or three tasks at a time or surfing six websites simultaneously. In reality, I was destroying my ability to concentrate on any one thing. While I tried to tell myself that I was getting more done, the financial numbers don’t lie. I could see that my productivity was suffering the more I tried to do. Now I slow down and do one thing at a time. I work at it until it’s either done or I’ve run out of ideas and need to move on to something else.
Plan: Before I begin my day I think through what I need to accomplish then I write it all down. As I finish tasks I cross them off my list. It keeps me moving forward and ensures that I stay on task and get things done. I do the most important things first and then work on less important things. Now, at least if something is left at the end of the day it wasn’t something really important.
Keep a list of things to deal with later: I keep a piece of paper next to my computer and when I’m working and run across something I need to look up, I write it down on the paper instead of running off to Google right away. This preserves my train of thought without the danger that I’ll forget what it was I needed to look up. At the end of the day I’ll go back and look up everything I wrote down.
I also use this piece of paper to jot down other to-do’s that come to mind as I’m working. If I suddenly remember that I need to pick up the dry cleaning, look for something on Amazon.com, or get lettuce from the grocery store, I write it down rather than running off to do it right then. At the end of the day I’ll either go take care of it if it’s urgent or add it to my daily plan for another day.
Record and reward progress: Besides scratching completed items off my daily plan I also keep detailed records of my progress in my calendar. As a writer, I record page and word counts, completed pieces, time spent generating ideas, and other things that I need to do to make money. In your job you probably have similar tangibles you can record so that you know you’re making progress. I set goals and give myself a little reward when I reach them. Knowing I have something fun waiting for me when I finish a project keeps me focused.
Turn off the Internet/TV: When I work I don’t just disable the Wi-Fi on my computer, I actually flip the power off on the router. Because it takes a while to boot up and connect, I’m not as tempted to jump online and look at “one quick thing” or check email that turns into a lost hour. At the end of the day I turn it back on and do what I need to do. I’d also gotten into the habit of reading with the TV on. Now I turn it off unless there’s something I really want to watch and then I focus only on the program. This enables me to get more reading done and to get more from each book.
Take breaks: When I finish a task, I take a break. I get up, walk around, get a drink, stretch a little, and maybe walk the dog for a few minutes. Getting moving re-energizes my brain for the next task and gets the kinks out of my body.
General health and wellness: Exercise, proper sleep, and good nutrition are all vital to concentration. I’ve always been good about exercising, but sometimes my sleep and eating patterns go to pot. I’m more mindful now of the effects on my concentration and make more of an effort to eat and sleep right.
Reduce distractions: I used to feel bad if I let the phone ring without answering it, but then I asked myself what voice mail was for. Now I turn the phone off and check messages only during a break. I haven’t missed anything major and I’ve been able to get more work done. I also stopped answering the door unless I was expecting someone. (To help this, I invested in a pair of noise canceling headphones and I listen to classical music while I work. The music calms me and the headphones eliminate the outside distractions. If you can’t work with music this might not work for you, and there are earmuffs you can use in that case, but I’ve never had problems with music being a distraction.)
Since I’ve been practicing these steps I’ve almost returned to my old self. I’m able to concentrate better and my revenues are increasing again. I’m also finding that I feel much less harried and stressed because I know I’m not leaving things undone. My personal finances are in great shape because everything is accounted for and recorded properly. I now know that I can’t take concentration for granted. It’s almost like a muscle that I have to keep working out to keep it in tip top shape.
(Image courtesy of @boetter)