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5 Tips for Staying Focused at Work

A young woan rubs her temples while other are showing her the screens of differenct devices.

A constant stream of emails, instant messages and coworker interruptions can make it difficult to stay focused on your primary task at work. Add in the temptation to check social media and read your favorite blogs, and before you know it, half the day is gone and you've made little progress on your to-do list. Just like eating healthy or exercising, staying focused at work is all about building good, consistent habits. These are some tips to help you reduce distractions:

1. Work in 60-minute blocks. As we work, our ability to stay focused and alert slowly decreases. Rather than trying to power through an eight-hour workday with just a short lunch break, try thinking about your day in 60-minute time blocks. Select one task to focus on for 60 minutes and set a timer. When the timer dings, that's your signal to get up, take a walk around the office, grab a snack and reset before starting your next time block.

2. Block time for your "Most Important Thing." Once you get in the habit of working in time blocks, you can start designating a single project or task for each block. For example, if you are most creative or productive in the morning, try designating the first time block of your day for your "Most Important Thing" (MIT). The MIT is the task that requires your greatest energy or focus. Keep your work environment in mind when scheduling your MIT. If you know mornings at the office are always chaotic with urgent client needs, perhaps mid-afternoon is a better time for your MIT. Being flexible is okay. What matters most is that you're setting aside time each day that's earmarked for your MIT and sticking to that commitment, no matter where it falls in your daily schedule.

3. Take a break from your phone. Can't resist the urge to check your phone? You're certainly not alone in this struggle. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that a smartphone can drain its user's cognition levels simply by sitting next to them on a table. According to the study's authors, when we can visually see our phones, we can't help but think about the message alerts and notifications we might be receiving, draining our working memory and problem-solving skills. Try turning your phone off and putting it in a bag or desk drawer and only check it after a 60-minute work block is complete.

4. Designate office hours. Consider splitting your day into "power hours" and "office hours." During power hours, you commit to working on a project or assignment with minimal interruptions. This could mean putting the phone on silent and not checking email. During office hours, your team has permission to drop in with questions and you'll be staying on top of emails or calls as they come in. Every work environment is different so talk to your team or manager about communication expectations and explain how office hours will ultimately make you more productive.

5. Follow the "touch it once" rule. How many times have you read an email and put off replying only to have that email sit in the back of your mind, distracting you from other tasks? After interviewing more than 200 highly successful people, time management expert Kevin Kruse formulated his "touch it once" rule. This simple rule states if a task will take 10 minutes or less, do it immediately rather than saving it for later. When you read an email, send an immediate reply. When you open a client invoice, send it on to your billing department. Taking immediate action saves you from having to re-evaluate the item in the future and prevents this issue from distracting you throughout the workday.

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