1-on-1: Stay Focused

Be more productive, organized and focused.
January 8, 2009

The Experts Up Close Louis Barajas is a financial expert and business author of Small Business, Big Life and Overworked, Overwhelmed & Underpaid.

Jan Yager has been researching time management and conducting workshops since the 1980s. She is the author of three books on time management, most recently, Work Less, Do More: The 14-Day Productivity Makeover.

Peggy Duncan is a personal-productivity expert, speaker, consultant and author of The Time Management Jogger and Conquer Email Overload with Better Habits.

Q. I am often working simultaneously on diverse projects with different deadlines, and I have employees with their own projects. My challenge is in focusing adequately on each project, without neglecting anything, but still being able to shift gears and answer questions from staff. Can you help?

Jan Yager: I have observed that successful individuals, whether in the business world or the creative worlds of writing or arts, are able to switch back and forth between projects. Now this is different from multitasking, where the tendency is to try to do several projects at the same time. As I point out in my book Work Less, Do More, in the chapter on multitasking, what you really want to do is what’s been called selective attention. Most of us have to juggle, one, two, five, 10, or even 20 projects over whatever time period it takes to finish those projects. But -- and this is a very important “but” -- the selective attention part is that when you are working on a specific project -- when you have shifted from project A to project B -- you are completely focused on one project. Avoid distractions and don’t go back and forth between two or more projects. Be focused and concentrate on whatever you are currently working on till you finish or have to shift again for whatever reason (e.g. a new timely demand or a piece of information you’ve been awaiting, etc.).

Louis Barrajas: Multitasking is difficult enough with your own projects. When you are responsible for other people’s projects it complicates matters substantially. It’s important to create structure and systems. Typically, the problem is not the amount of projects, but the interruptions from all the people with their own deadlines. You need to be careful that you create a project calendar in which you can schedule time for each project. I use Microsoft Outlook to block off time to work on my projects and schedule appointments with my staff to review their projects. I also use the Microsoft Outlook Tasks to assign tasks to my staff so that they can keep me up to date on their progress.

Peggy Duncan: It’s not how much work you’re doing; it’s why and how you’re doing it. Look at each project individually and make sure it’s worth everyone’s time. Then figure out how to get it done with the least amount of time and effort. With better processes, it’ll be easier to train your employees sufficiently and this results in their having fewer questions.

You should schedule time to work on each project and avoid jumping from one to the next. You’ll get more done if you focus on one thing at a time, and either finish it or get it to a logical stopping point. Don’t let multitasking rob you of the satisfaction that comes from completing something.

Without realizing it, you may have continued to work as you always have, never considering there might be a better way. Stop long enough to think about this and work to streamline and document everything, step by logical step. If you and your employees start to work like this, you’ll have sufficient time to get everything done.  

Q. How can I stay focused on my business when I run a business out of my home?

Jan Yager: If you can’t stay focused on work effectively at home you will either fail at your business, be forced to get an outside office, or your family will be frustrated and confused. So, the first step is to have work scheduled so everyone knows whether it’s 9 to 5 or 8 to 4 or even 9 to 2. You are not doing the dishes or taking personal calls. Those are your work hours and everyone knows so they will respect the time that is designated work time.

Working from home does have its perks, and one of those perks is flexibility. So don’t be so rigid with your schedule that you don’t make exceptions. For example, pacing and taking breaks from your work is important. Build breaks into your work time even when you’re a home-based worker. Get up from your computer and take a walk or throw the laundry into the washing machine if you want to do that on your break.

Keep in mind that even if you work in an outside office there are distractions and challenges you have to deal with. Instead of the family member who might be asking when it’s time for dinner, it could be the employee down the hall who’s a “drop in” visitor.

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