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Focusing

Reclaim Focus, One Day at a Time

To overcome “reactionary workflow,” we experiment with how to build laser-like task focus, day by day.


If your job requires skipping back and forth between several (and vastly different) roles – diverse clients, competing business units, or multiple projects – keeping up with disparate responsibilities can become a major issue. Reacting to each request while setting aside time to proactively research and execute new programs is an unrealistic proposition at best, and flat-out unattainable at worst. As Scott discusses in his “reactionary workflow” tip, more think-based tasks end up relegated to the bottom of to-do lists as immediate requests become more and more urgent.

A lack of focus is at the root of this problem. Constant shifts mean that no task receives the proper attention. Instead, each is carried out in the most automatic (and quick!) way possible. In an effort to gain control over my own reactionary habits, I decided to experiment with segmenting my focus out by day.Each responsibility was designated a day – Mondays for project management, Tuesdays for finances and HR, and so on – taking care to group like with like, if necessary. From there, I reassigned each of my upcoming tasks to the appropriate day and began working within the framework.

Although adapting to the idea of delaying tasks was initially jarring, this system became a great framework for outlining my days. Allowing myself to focus on only a few topics a day vastly increased my ability to innovate within those areas and created an important sense of control over workflow.

That said, I’d offer a few tips to anyone looking to adopt this system:

1) Inform those around you that you’ll be switching to this workflow

… lest your co-workers (or boss/clients!) become completely befuddled by your inability to deliver on a project in your typical up-to-the-minute fashion.

2) Stop thinking of yourself as “on-call.”

Certain tasks (like email) will always require more immediate attention; however, you’ll be completely surprised by how many of the things you need to do are elastic and consequently, how much more quality your output is when focused.

3) Do something to get yourself in the day’s mindset.

Try reading an article on your day’s focus topic, or set up your email filters in such a way that you can review related messages only. Setting the scene is crucial.

4) Allow a bit of flexibility.

Emergencies will inevitably pop-up, so don’t be completely thrown when you need to shift focus. Simply re-center (see #3) when you’re ready to dive back into the day’s tasks, or shift your energy to the new project by reassigning days.

Implementing this kind of structure takes a bit of up-front work, but once you’ve mastered your system, you’ll become more present for both the day-to-day emergencies and the larger projects you’d really like to tackle.

Comments (17)
  • Melanie Benson Strick

    Great tip! I recently challenged my virtual team building clients to stop jumping from task to task and focus on chunks of an activity for 30 – 60 minutes. They had to pay $20 to the kitty every time they “jumped.” Worked like a charm and now they’ve seen the benefits for longer periods of focus, are better at delegation and are less stressed out at the end of the day.

  • Noodles McIntosh

    I’m not sure how you guys did this, but it is like you jumped into my head and then observed my reality and then wrote this article about me. Incredible. This is what happens to me…CONSTANTLY.

    I’ll work on something, but then I have to do research on something else…and then something else…and so on. At the end of the day I still need to get the first thing finished…crazy!

  • mklappstuhl

    “keeping up with disparate responsibilities can became a major issue. “
    Thats definitly the wrong tense. Probably its just a typo but you should fix it anyway. 🙂

    personnally i think that this will not work for me in the way you described it above.
    just imagine that there are so many tasks to do that you are not able to do them all on one day.
    now you have to wait one complete week to actually do your stuff.

    i know that this example isnt the strongest but in general i think its a great point to start and not a finished workflow or philosophy.

    i really like the way melanie implemented your thoughts.
    with smaller segments you are able to do many different stuff but concentrate on it for a defined time.

  • micah

    This is public enemy number one for me. As our business has grown over the last couple of years, my ability to focus on individual tasks has waned.

    Thanks for the suggestions (and for keeping them brief enough that I could get through them)!

  • John Simpson

    Agree, we try to time box every commitment. A tip we’d add to this is to shift from task-based to do lists and prioritize on commitments. Tasks are individual, commitments impact others (departments, customers, partners) and revenue. it’s a subtle shift, but makes a big difference in discussing and deciding on priorities.

  • Jamie

    This comment is definitely relevant to the structure of our business (it revolves around someone in this situation). We are currently reviewing the way we do things, and will take this advice into consideration.

  • Ian Sanders

    I like the theory of this approach but as a one-person-business-unit I have found it’s too impractical to implement; I just have to juggle my tasks every day, day by day segmentation does not work.
    Instead, I have tried to segment my work life into 2 parts: the ‘thinking’ and ‘the doing’. The thinking is writing books, coming up with ideas for clients, writing blog posts, brainstorming ideas for my business development. The doing is project management, admin and running assignments for my clients. Each is totally different and requires different approaches and tools. The thinking i can do on the move, in coffee shops, on trains and planes. The doing I need my iPhone or my office or a meeting room. Segmenting my working day between these 2 mindsets works really well, allocating a coffee shop session for that all-important ideas generation and means i am never more than a couple of hours away from being able to dip back into a client project if something time-critical arises.
    [More on all this from my perspective in my book ‘Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim Your Life’.]

  • Sonny Gill

    No. 2 is one that sticks out to me the most. Such the truth that many of our daily tasks are elastic and don’t require immediate attention, but what also relates to that thought is that the people we’re connected regarding those tasks with won’t necessarily grasp that. It’s not that they’re selfish but rather, they’re accustomed to and a bit spoiled with the hyper-connectivity of today’s digital world and the response rate that is expected from not only businesses but individuals as well.

    It’s definitely something I struggle with but also realize that it requires determination and well, focus, to do this well. Definitely a lot to take note for my own process.

  • Ben Piper

    ah, what the curse of multitasking has wrought! great tips.. we need more of this kind of thinking!

  • Abi H

    Great article

  • richard

    Great theory but implementation is a challenge.

  • Harry Bailey

    Great tips.

    I have found that only opening my email client every 30 minutes and having to manual select to download email helps to avoid distraction while not being such a delay that you receive telephone calls from concerned clients.

    The 30 minute rule also applies to anything I am working on. After 30 minutes I take a 5 minute break to help my brain rest. The break often results in clarifying and resolving any issues / decisions I was having in the previous 30 minutes. To get back in the zone I then re-scan the project brief.

  • Shawn Hazen

    I’ve found that one of the most helpful things in the world is designating a time each day for email. Or a time for turning it off. No matter what, there’s gonna be at least ONE message in there that derails your best-laid plans. But, in truth, it can always wait at least a few hours, right? The immediacy of email as a medium has contributed to (or created) the feeling that our reaction to it has to be immediate. A client makes a request, and the tendency is to try and fulfill it right then.

    So, my ideal plan is to look at email in the morning, and leave it on just long enough to get responses to anything pressing. And then it’s off again until after lunch. Check and await responses, then off for an hour or two. This isn’t every day, but just days I need to actually do some design! Flipping back and forth between a design and email every few minutes is crippling to the creative process.

    Here’s to New Year’s resolutions!

  • Daniel Sykes

    Thanks. I needed this

  • Nicole : Three By Sea

    I’m digging this approach. I work for myself in a creative capacity with a two-year-old on the loose, so I understand distractions. I find myself spending so much time just creating my daily blog posts because of the interruptions that my creating time sort of falls to the wayside, which really stresses me out. I think I may try using this approach to write out blog posts for the entire week on Monday and Tuesday, thus giving me the rest of the week to work on designs. Thanks for the idea!

  • Parin Patel

    Nice! I really like Tips #2 and #3. 🙂

    With technology moving the way it is, we have several ways to stay connected and because of this I think we always assume we’re “on call” like you said (whether it’s our intention or not, it’s just something I think we get used to and eventually turns into a habit). It’s easy to forget that things like our mobile phones are meant for OUR convenience too – so, we’re not required to constantly check our email. It’s ok to ignore the “buzzing” blackberry sometimes :).

    And Tip #3 is so true. It’s sometimes hard to “jump right in” and work on that topic, but reading an article, quote or watching a related presentation, interview or video gets the ideas flowing. This is something I discovered recently and it’s made me much more productive in my work.

    Great article! Thanks!

  • court_jenifer

    This is perfect for a person who is an Adminstrative/Executive Assistant like me! Thanks for sharing!

  • Business logo design

    Amazing designing…Keep it up!!!

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