A coaching client of mine is looking for a job and consulting in the meantime. He also had started a business a few years ago that has some traction, just not enough to replace a full-time job (hence the job search and consulting). So, he’s also trying to at least maintain his original business idea, while consulting and looking for a job. Finally, his spouse also works and is also in a career transition, so they are juggling each other’s career activities while working from home.
Even if the specifics of your career goals and your work environment differ from my client, you can probably relate to the flurry of activity he faces. Each day unfolds with a smorgasbord of tasks to do, across multiple goals each demanding more time and attention than can easily be mustered. How can you still be productive when you have too much to do?
Here are a few ways to tame distractions and focus better on your work:
1 - Batch your goals
You might have heard the advice of batching like activities – e.g., answer calls and emails in one sitting, run errands on one trip out. Batching activities enables you to build momentum in a given task and avoids the switching costs of having to refocus. When you alternate doing different things, you have to constantly refocus your attention and energy, and even though it may seem like just a few minutes before you’re back in focus, over time those switching minutes can really add up.
Similarly, dedicating a separate day or block of time to each large goal saves you the switching costs of shifting from your different categories of activities. In my client’s case, he would earmark specific days to work on his original business, job search, and each consulting client. Or he could earmark 2- to 3-hour blocks of time each day to different goals. Switching day-to-day has the advantage of lower switching costs overall since you spend the full day only focused on one or two goals. However, switching intra-day has the advantage of being able to work on each of your goals more frequently. For something like a job search, where you want to respond quickly to messages or job postings, spreading activity across multiple days is preferable.
If you’re not sure what is best for you, try both approaches over a set period of time, say two weeks each, and notice when you get more things done. You might also measure success by when you feel more energized and able to sustain a higher level of concentration.
2 - Define success metrics and a timetable in advance to stay on track
Trying both approaches over two weeks and measuring results by tasks completed, energy level, and concentration ability is an example of defining success metrics and a timetable in advance. You need a clear definition of success and deadlines to stay on track. Otherwise, you’re simply playing whack-a-mole with your time. Perhaps you’ll get disparate activities done, but they won’t necessarily bring you closer to your goals.
Another example of success metrics and timetable is generating $1,000 of new consulting revenue by next month. Yet another is landing a new consulting client before the current project ends. For a job search, it could be identifying five new companies to target, or scheduling three meetings with people who are well-connected in your target field. (You can get more ideas for measuring your networking efforts here.)
3 - Have a kill switch
If you find that you are off track, you should spend more time on that goal and/or change your approach. (Don’t forget that this means you will have to make adjustments with your other goals!) But at what point that things aren’t working that you will drop that goal altogether?
Having a kill switch –i.e., defining when you’ll stop doing something – seems so finite. However, it can also be freeing because you can always decide to try again later or restart a goal if you get a new idea for how to approach it. The point of the kill switch is to have a consequence for inaction or for unproductive action. If you don’t have a kill switch, then your success metrics and/or timetable are not clearly enough defined.
4 - Grow what works
If you’re juggling several possible career pivots, having a kill switch for each of these is critical because, at some point, you will need to increase your efforts on the goals that are gaining traction. The time, energy and focus on those increased efforts have to come from somewhere – i.e., your other goals. If you are pursuing freelancing and a full-time in-house job, and you find that your freelance demand is increasing while your job applications are not being returned, it makes sense to redirect efforts from your job search to consulting.
If your first choice is an in-house job, you may decide not to kill the search entirely and earmark one day a week to keep it going. However, you do want to grow what works – in this case, the consulting – so you can generate even more momentum and positive results. Focusing on what works will give you insight into how you can best apply your skills and expertise, and this might enable you to fix your approach to your other goals (e.g.,, the job search). Or you may find your other goal made redundant because success in one area is enough.
5 - Commit to regular breaks and fun time
Whether you’re in the stage where you are building on success or still troubleshooting and trying to gain traction, you deserve and will benefit from regular breaks and fun time unrelated to your work. Commit to rest and refreshment by putting it in the calendar and even designating specific activities for how you will unplug.
Commit to regular breaks and fun time from the beginning of your career transition. Don’t make rest conditional on hitting specific success metrics. You will get less done and possibly at the lower quality if you don’t take regular breaks. Just like you block off days or time periods for specific goals or activities, block off time on your calendar for your breaks. Set reminders and alarms. If you have picked activities in advance, say an exercise session, have your clothes and equipment readily available to make it as easy as possible to keep your commitments.
6 - Set up an accountability system
To make it even more likely you’ll keep that exercise commitment, you could arrange to meet a buddy for a walk or gym workout. That buddy is your accountability partner that ensures you show up. You might also have an accountability partner for your goals. They don’t even need to have the same goals as you, just any goal where you can hold them accountable. The two (or more) of you schedule a call once per week to report in on what each of you has done. Not wanting to show up to a call with no results may be enough to keep you focused on your work for that week.
Other forms of accountability include a coach or mentor that you enlist to keep you on track. Or you can set reminders in your calendar or future emails to arrive in your Inbox that ask you what you have accomplished. The accountability system you choose doesn’t matter as much as having something to keep you accountable. If you’re not sure, experiment with different approaches until you find one that works for you.
7 - Sync your professional and personal commitments
Even if you get yourself to the point where you are no longer distracted and can focus on your work, you still might be interrupted by others in your household or work environment. In this era of work from home, there are fewer boundaries between professional and personal so if you don’t set up a system in advance for how you’re going to incorporate your commitments to others with the goals you set up for yourself, you will invariably get distracted and pulled in conflicting directions.
If you’re navigating a household where you have a working spouse and kids, make sure you explicitly coordinate how you’ll handle the scheduling, workspace, and the inevitable interruptions. (You can get more specific tips here.) Do not assume that your personal or professional relationships know your schedule, your work style, or all these new routines you’ll be implementing to stay focused! You have to sync up with the people around you to ensure you can all work together.
With a little planning, you can tame distractions and focus better
Whether it’s getting further along on your career goals or just carving out more quality time for family or personal interests, with a little planning you can implement the above suggestions and take your time back. No more playing whack-a-mole each day, overwhelmed by all there is to do and not getting traction on anything. There is always enough time to get started, and then you can adjust along the way.