A range of practical methods exist to help us ‘zone in’ and concentrate on the task at hand.
When we are in a true state of ‘flow’ – as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – we are fully engaged in a task and at the peak of our productivity, exercising control over our consciousness.
Maintaining this level of focus can be challenging, particularly when faced with life’s “hailstorm of distractions” and requires a strong dose of intentionality, discipline and self-control. However, there are useful techniques we can deploy to help us set clearer boundaries when we need to zone in.
The Pomodoro Technique
Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique is a simple tool to help us break down tasks into intervals, separated by short breaks. Its name comes from the Italian for tomato; Cirillo apparently had a tomato-shaped kitchen timer when he was a student. But don’t be deceived by its folksy origins – the technique is underpinned by some very sound science.
Pomodoro’s regular sequence of focused intervals and breaks is proven to increase attention span, train concentration and provide mental stimulation and motivation – all the while busting the cognitive boredom we might experience from working on a task for too long. Those breaks really do begin to feel like a reward. And they really do improve focus and flow.
The Pomodoro Technique has six basic steps:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the pomodoro timer (the default is 25 minutes, but this can be customised).
- Work on the task.
- Stop working when the timer rings.
- Take a take a short break (three-to-five minutes).
- After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15-30 minutes). If necessary, start the process again.
Download a timer and give the power of the pomodoro a go.
The humble to-do list has been under attack in recent years, portrayed as as overlong list that simply paralyses us with the sheer number of choices on offer, lacking sufficient differentiation between tasks of different lengths, complexity or importance, and providing us with no incentive to focus on anything other than the things we like to do or that are easy to tackle. To-do lists lack commitment devices which lock us into a course of action.
Simply making lists more detailed (specifying what really needs to be achieved and adding in more context rather than simply noting down “draft new proposal”) can make them a whole lot more effective. However, the practice of timeboxing can help to boost productivity further.
Instead of writing a list of the things we have to do, in timeboxing (a term borrowed from agile project management) we estimate the time each will take and put them in our calendars. Daniel Markowitz calls it “living in your calendar”, creating a “production plan for your work”. This is often combined with the Pomodoro Technique, with timeboxes adapted to specific intervals.
By asking us to estimate the time we’ll need for what we have to do, timeboxing’s promise is that it will also help us to get better at estimating and scheduling. It also encourages us to allocate time to those routine tasks that can otherwise take over our working lives (such as managing email) and to be deliberate about factoring in space and time for the unexpected. It enables the relative positioning of work and allows us to communicate our schedule to colleagues via shared calendars, enhancing visibility of workload and collaboration. Crucially, it prompts us to get serious about the time we need for thinking and reflecting.
Another benefit of timeboxing is that it provides us with a comprehensive record of what we’ve done, reminding us of the things we’ve achieved and helping us to prepare us for performance reviews.
To get the best out of this process, we must treat an allocated timebox as seriously as a planned meeting – which means no last-minute rescheduling or succumbing to distractions – and adhere to the time limits we set (adjusting them in future if they turn out to be flawed). When managed effectively, timeboxing gives us greater control over our daily schedule and offers insights into the time we spend on the meetings and tasks that fill our days.
We all have similar tasks that we have to do more than once. Batching groups these together, the idea being to focus on the tasks less often, but for longer. It increases efficiency because we reduce the time it takes to switch between, and get ready for, tasks that can be tackled together.
We may think it would be ridiculous to visit the supermarket for just one item of food at a time, but how many times a day do we stop doing what we’re doing to read and answer that one email that’s just pinged into our inbox? Couldn’t we, instead, read our messages in batches, or even try to group meetings so that not every day is disrupted by them? Batching forces us to be more organised about what to do and when.
Batching afficionado, Dan Silvestre, offers a step-by-step guide for creating batches:
- Make a list of recurring tasks.
- Choose tasks suited to batching together.
- Create time blocks for them in your calendar.
- Assign task batches to time blocks.
- Create lists or folders to keep track of tasks.
- Don’t procrastinate or delay batches.
- Don’t cave in and finish the task ahead of schedule.
- Schedule batches as far into the future as possible.
- Have regular reviews to evaluate success and schedule the next batches.
It’s easy to find ourselves spending our working lives bouncing from meeting to meeting, from task to task, hardly drawing breath along the way. Switching task and context repeatedly is not only exhausting, it’s inefficient. It’s hardly designed to help us gain and retain our focus. Instead, we need to cut ourselves some slack, to build in margins – buffers – between activities and events to give us time to process, reflect and reprioritise. For example, if you have to have back-to-back, hour-long meetings, plan to space them out by at least 15 minutes every time. Alternatively, some businesses mandate that meetings can only be booked in 50-minute blocks in order to give everyone at least a minimal break in between sessions.
Taking these restorative breaks saves time in the long run, and also protects us from that awful burnt-out feeling we often have at the end of a day of relentless shuttling between things. Buffering helps to carve out the space we need to regain our energy and our focus.
While there are no fool-proof strategies for achieving or sustaining flow, simple methods such as these give us a better chance of doing so, while signifying our intentionality and commitment (to ourselves and others). We cannot – and should not – be ‘on’ all the time, but when we do want to give our fullest attention to a particular task, positive intentions may be insufficient to combat the intrusions of everyday life.
“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and no longer”, asserts Csikszentmihalyi.
For those of us still working towards this ideal, every hack is surely a bonus.
Test your understanding
- Briefly outline the four methods we can deploy to help us set clearer boundaries when we need to zone in and focus.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider which of the methods might help you to achieve and sustain flow at work.
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