In order to get your best work done, you need to buckle down, eliminate as many distractions as possible, and focus on each task at a time as much as possible. However, few of us have the luxury to wall ourselves off from the world all day.We have meetings, coworkers, phone calls, lunch breaks, and other things we don't want to forget. Here are some tips to isolate yourself so you can work, but set up some non-intrusive alerts and reminders so you don't forget to come out and join the rest of the world from time to time.
Photo by See-Ming Lee.
Step One: Set Up Your Cone of Silence
The first thing to do is to set up your personal zone of isolation. Once upon a time, you could just close your office door to focus and get away from the buzz of the workplace, but few of us have offices these days. If you can, invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones that can help you block out the chatter of your cube-neighbour or the sounds of your coworkers talking. I've found a good pair of active noise cancelling headphones are your best friend when you work in an office with "open-style" cubicles and boisterous colleagues. Rearranging your desk so you can focus on your monitor and not the goings-on around you can help as well.
Sometimes headphones don't cut it, though, and you need real isolation to get your work done. If it's crunch time and you need to focus, consider squatting on an open conference room in your office for a while or finding a vacant office somewhere in the building. You may not be able to do this for days at a time, but some of my most productive days were days where I blocked off a rarely used conference room and sat inside for the bulk of the day, away from my desk and the distractions that came with it. If your home is a distraction-free environment (and not everyone's is) consider working from home when you really need to focus and churn out some work as well.
Photo by Adam.
Step Two: Set Up Non-Intrusive, Timed Reminders to Get Up and Out
Once you have a distraction-free (or at least, distraction-minimised) work environment, either at your desk wearing headphones or holed up in a conference room somewhere, now it's time to make sure you don't forget about the real world. Earlier this week we discussed how setting a morning playlist can help you leave home on time. You can do the same thing for your focused work sessions — if you want to stay in the conference room for an hour with no distractions, build a playlist that's exactly an hour long of your favourite tunes, and start it. Don't forget to schedule your working time on your calendar so coworkers don't assume you're free and try to book you for a meeting or interrupt you while you're working. When your playlist starts to wind down, you know it's time to pack up and go grab a bite to eat, or at the very least take a break.
Another helpful tactic that offers a natural, organic cue that it may be time to end your isolation and rejoin the real world is to keep a water bottle handy with just the right amount of water in it that you'll need before you need to refill it. Mark the water bottle with how much water you'll drink every few hours as a reminder to hydrate yourself. In this case, by making note that you need to refill the bottle when you drink down to a certain point, you have a reminder to get up and take a break. If you keep drinking water, nature may call too, which is as good a reminder as any. For shorter bursts of work, try filling up the teapot for a cup of tea — way more water than you may need — and turning the heat on low. By the time the whole pot is boiling, it's a good bet you'll need the break you get by getting up and making your tea.
These are just a few examples, but the goal is to come up with simple but effective cues that assert themselves and need to be resolved at times that are just right for you to either wrap up a timed work session and grab lunch, or take a break before starting the next session.
Photo by Jeremy McWilliams.
Step Three: Set Up More Assertive Fallback Alerts, In Case They're Needed
If these techniques sound familiar, they should. They're something of a natural application of the Pomodoro productivity technique, a method we've mentioned before, especially in our guide to building your own productivity technique by remixing the best. If natural cues aren't enough to make you get up and take a break, you may need something a little more aggressive, like actual timers and alerts. Don't fear timers and alarms — as much as they can create some pressure to finish working, they also serve as "containment units" for your work, and can help keep you sane and productive.
If you want a better reminder that it's time for a break than your water is running low or your playlist is running out, a good old-fashioned desktop alert can make all the difference. For example, an upcoming calendar appointment or a planned meeting that coincides with the end of your scheduled work session can serve as a great reminder. We've discussed several alarm tools here at Lifehacker, but previously mentioned WatchMe is a great tool for keeping track of multiple timers at once. For something more geared towards breaks, Breaker is another app we've mentioned that can help. Mac users can try Coffee Break for a reminder to get up at certain times.
Photo by mlpeixoto.
Ultimately, single-tasking and making sure you're isolated from the distractions that make you less productive doesn't mean you have to stick your head in the sand and forget the rest of the world exists. If you plan for it, you can come up for air on a regular basis, make your next meeting, remember to take lunch, and still network with your coworkers without anyone knowing the secret to your incredible productivity.