I used to be proud of my ability to focus. When I was a software executive, I could identify my top priorities for the day and focus on
getting them done. That sometimes meant that I turned off my phone and ignored my e-mail. I had an assistant who could run interference for me. Sometimes, I hid in an office where my colleagues wouldn’t expect to find me. I could focus for several hours at a time — maybe even an entire day — and just get stuff done.
Now that I’m a consultant with multiple clients, I’m constantly shifting from one topic or task to another. I can’t hide from my boss to get stuff down. I am the boss. I can’t very well hide from my clients. If they can’t find me, they don’t pay me. I feel like I randomly shift from one topic to another, from one client to another, from one task to another. Like an old car, I’m worried that the constant shifting will strip my gears.
What to do? Here’s what I’ve figured out. I’d love to hear your suggestions as well.
- Multi-tasking doesn’t really work — I can’t do multiple things at the same time. I need to tuck myself away and focus on getting one thing done.
- It doesn’t much matter what you do first — when I need to do multiple tasks, I used to agonize about which one to do first. Which one would make the best use of my time? I could waste a good half hour trying to decide what to do next. Now, I just roll a dice, pick the task and get to work. Just pick one.
- Just finish one — I try very hard not to let Task B interfere with Task A before I’ve finished Task A. Shutting down a task and re-starting it both take a lot of time. It’s more efficient to just finish something.
- Don’t check messages mid-task — I like to check my e-mail. I always expect to find something exciting. Rather than checking it randomly, I’ve trained myself to check only after I’ve finished a logical task. It’s my reward.
- Have a plan, even if you can’t stick to it — I always start the day with a plan of what I want to get done. I may not be able to stick to it, but I always have a mental image of where I am compared to plan.
- Give myself little rewards — when I complete a task, I give myself a reward. That could be as simple as getting another cup of coffee or taking the dog for a walk (she always makes me happy). Knowing that a reward is coming up give me an extra incentive for finishing something.
- Say no — I do turn down clients from time to time just because I know I’ll have too much work to do. The first time I turned down a new client, it was very hard on me. Surprisingly, it gets easier.