If you’re like me, you have all these action items to complete on your to-do list. But part way through, you start feeling a mild “burn out”. You want to keep moving forward, but you’re mentally drained. You may even start feeling guilty – if only you had more focus or willpower, you could crank through work like you’ve seen other people do.
This situation is preventable. I’ve developed a 7-step process to channel my focus to minimize the amount of energy I burn on tasks. But first, let’s look under the hood at WHY this feeling comes up.
THE TWO CATEGORIES OF WORK
All work we do falls into two categories: Creating Content & Consuming Content.
Creating Content is when we MAKE, CHANGE, or DO something. Many decisions are often made here and we’ll use varying amounts of your creativity, wisdom, and intelligence to complete these tasks. Examples include writing, recording video, designing, building systems, planning, etc.
Consuming Content is when we READ, ABSORB, or OBSERVE something. Typically, we don’t do any true decision-making when we Consume content. It’s just “read/watch this until I get to the end or I get bored”. This is why Consuming Content often feels easier to do than Creating Content. Examples include researching, watching educational videos, emailing, texting, etc.
I’m borrowing this Create/Consume concept from Leo Babauta and his book Focus. A must read for anyone who’s working to hone their focus.
HOW THIS CONCEPT WILL HELP HONE YOUR FOCUS
In order to do good work, we need to do BOTH Creating and Consuming. Consuming a book on how to write enables us to write better. Creating guides us to find what the best thing to Consume next is. Overall, you’ll never meet a good writer who tells you, “Have I read a book? Nope. Never read a book in my life. BUT I’VE WROTE SIX!!!”
The challenge is that we must keep these two processes SEPARATE. Each process requires different thought processes from you. Whenever you switch mental focuses, your mind burns energy to “unload” the context of the first focus and “load” the context of the second focus. After all, you can’t work on a complex project without reminding yourself what’s going on in that project and why.
Ever felt burnt out after a long day at work but when you look back you realized you didn’t really get that much done? This often happens when we do this switching many times in a day.
Josh Kaufman gives this a name: the Cognitive Switching Penalty.
The best thing you can do for your energy is reduce the number of times you “switch” between tasks. ESPECIALLY the type of tasks: in this case Creation and Consumption.
THE PROMISED LAND
Imagine a work day where you’re systematically knocking out to-dos using minimal energy to do so. You’re feeling calm and happy as the day goes by because you feel like you’re doing less “juggling” and completing more of the things you want to get done.
You spend time working on tasks, not worrying about all the things you have to learn or read. And then you spend some time learning and keeping up with friends, not worrying about all the things on your to-do list. Both while not having any temptation to switch to the other.
Here’s how you can get this in your work life… using digital willpower.
PUMPING UP YOUR EFFECTIVENESS NOW – THE 7 STEPS TO DIGITAL FOCUS
To start automatically increasing your effectiveness at work, try this:
First, download the following programs to your computer. I have no affiliation towards them. They’re just my favorite tools:
DIGITAL WILLPOWER TOOLS
- Freedom – Internet blocker (free for 5 uses, then $10 – you’ll only need to try it a few times before realizing it’s worth the cost of two lunches out.)
One of the most effective tools against distraction is blocking it. We’ll be gathering all the materials we need for our work all at once, then blocking the Internet’s infinite distractions.
SIMPLE TIMER TOOL
- CoolTimer (free)
It aids your concentration if you work in short bursts of time.
You could use a kitchen timer instead like some productivity books suggest, but I feel this is more geared toward freelancers. How many times do you think your coworker’s going to be cool with hearing that loud clacking bell alarm go off before hurling their stapler at you from across the room? I give it twice. Three times tops.
CONSUMPTION COLLECTION TOOL
These are the tools we’ll be using for the collection portion of our system. But more on this shortly.
The next time you sit down to focus on creating content, here’s what I want you to do:
1) First, schedule one hour of Consumption time a few hours from now before you get started with your work.
This will be your Guilt-Free break time where you can just Consume content. You can tie it into your work if you want (i.e. blogs associated to your work, organizing meeting notes, reading documents your co-workers sent you), but you’re absolutely allowed to use it for completely lazy Consumption (i.e. watching Youtube videos, Facebook surfing, checking out Reddit and Lifehacker, watching Netflix shows, texting friends).
Why are we doing this first? Think about this: How fast would you run if I told you to run as fast as you can and keep running until I tell you to stop?
You’d probably pace yourself, not going at 100% capacity – who knows when I’ll end the race?
Now what if I told you, “I want you to run 3 city blocks, then you can take a 10 minute break”? You’d be more likely to run your fastest knowing that you have a finish line and that it’s in sight!
That’s what we’re doing here. Giving you a mid-day finish line.
2) Write down the Creation task you want to complete NOW on a Post-It note.
Ideally, the task should take 20 minutes MAXIMUM to do. Also make sure the task starts with an action verb (i.e. write, jot, draft, etc.)
3) Set the CoolTimer for 20 minutes and spend that time CONSUMING and gathering content related to the task or project at hand.
- If you need to do online research, save any articles or pictures you need to Evernote.
- If there’s a PDF you have on your computer that you’ll reference, add it to Evernote.
- If you have meeting notes you need to use, scan them (or take a picture with your phone) and add them all to Evernote.
The point is to take all the stuff you need from online and your archives and put it all in ONE PLACE and available off-line. Evernote just so happens to make this really easy to do.
4) Now, disconnect your internet using Freedom for 30 minutes. During this 30 minutes, complete the task you wrote down for #1.
NOTE: If shutting off the Internet scares you (a good sign of Internet disconnection fear is that you start shouting 1593 excuses at your monitor for why you need to stay connected), then unplug your network cable or your wireless for just 5 minutes to test this out. Then you can start using Freedom when you get more comfortable.
When using Freedom, I typically only use it for 15-30 minutes at a time in case my manager needs me to do something urgently. Once my manager asked me in the middle of my work, “Did you get that email I sent 2 minutes ago?!?!” and my Freedom was still active. I just told him, “I was working on [task he really wanted me to get done — probably your #1] and was really focusing to get it to you quickly. What can I help you with?”
He quickly summarized and, since I had provided great results (via this system), he didn’t mind that I wasn’t living in my inbox.
5) Use Evernote as much as you want for any information you need to reference.
If you find yourself part-way through the session and realizing you need some information to continue, relax. You only have 15 minutes left until you have full access to the digital ambilical cord – just write what you need to get on a Post-It note and continue working on something else on that project in the meantime.
6) Once your timed session is over and you’re re-connected to the web, then set CoolTimer to 15-20 minutes to research what’s on your Post-It note. Save everything you’ve learned to Evernote.
7) Go back to #3 and disconnect your Internet. Continue this cycle until the task is complete or you reach the break time you set up for #1.
Seven steps may seem like a lot, but it’s pretty quick in practice:
Sit down. Add an hour-long appointment for BREAK in Google Calendar. Write down the task. Gather the materials I need in Evernote. Turn off the internet. Do. Repeat until the task is done (at which point, you work on the next project) or you reach your BREAK.
Try it out and see how it works towards developing your motivation.
If this exercise interested you and you want to get more updates and exercises on how to hone your focus automatically, join my mailing list and I’ll keep you up-to-date on my latest posts, including some materials that I don’t share anywhere else: