Guest Post by Shannon Terry

“Creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines. They think like artists, but work like accountants.” ~David Brooks, New York Times, 2014

We’ve all had a day where we get lost down the Internet rabbit hole, trying to focus on our work, only to be interrupted by a well-meaning colleague, an interesting website, or say, a meeting. I’m a work at home mom/freelance prospect researcher, so when I need to work, I can’t be drawn to things other than the project at hand.  So, when I decided that I had to take time management to the next level and make sure I was on the right track, I picked up Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport outlines how to successfully avoid the pitfalls that take your focus away from your work and he details how he trained his brain to do deep work through teaching himself how to concentrate on his work. He mentions the analogy of how concentrating is much like flossing your teeth, something that you know is good for you, but people don’t do because of lack of motivation. But, if you focus on your work, and learn to avoid distractions, you will be motivated to continue! 

Newport’s research indicated that people who multitask are “chronically distracted…and mental wrecks” and that once your wired for distraction, you begin to crave it. It was the same when I worked in an open concept office with a big workload and a small research staff.  

Staying organized, focused and on task is all about habits, routines, rituals and techniques so you can do deep work when you really need to. Some of the ways that I have weaned myself from distractions and keep myself focused on my work are listed below.

Tips and Tricks

These tips and tricks are a cumulative from my close to 20 years as a prospect researcher, as well as some new techniques I learned from Cal Newport. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Use checklists:

Keep a checklist for profiles and prospect identification projects you are currently working on. Make notes! That way, if you get interrupted by a meeting, colleague or lunch, you’ll know exactly where you left off and can hit the ground running.

Bookmarks:

Bookmark all your regular searched websites. Extra points for organizing them all in in different folders. The websites I consult when building a  profile are simply in folders named Corporations, Foundations or Individuals, and sometimes, if I’m feeling really organized, those folders contain subfolders such as News, Wealth Indicators, and so on.

Use an RRS feed reader: I use Feedly to organize all the articles I need (and want to!) read. And, since I only look at the feeds on specific days and times, and I’m no longer distracted by reading articles that may not pertain to the exact project I’m working on at that moment and lead me down a rabbit hole.

Schedule:

Don’t let a morning go to waste! Craft a plan and try and schedule your day into blocks of times through block scheduling where you give devoted time to each item at hand, instead of having a checklist of tasks. But, what if you have a schedule and you get sidetracked? Simple, just reschedule. Also, try and work backwards, determining what you need to accomplish by the end of the day and work on that project first.  You’ll feel good knowing that you accomplished what you needed to accomplish when you were fresh and energetic. And, at the end of your working day, make a list of what you want to accomplish the following day. Repeat Monday to Friday. 

Write it down:

If I’m working and I have a thought that I don’t want to forget, I write it down right away and then forget about it. I’ve been using Google Keep to store all my thoughts, sites, etc. that I don’t want to lose in the moment.   

Find a quiet spot:

I work from home, and often I just wear my earphones with nothing playing. I jokingly call them my blinders, as it helps me focus. If I listen to music or a podcast, I will automatically become distracted and my work will start to slow down. For true deep work, you need to find a quiet spot – you might not be able to go to a cabin in the woods – but I bet you can move your furniture around your space, move to a different office for a few hours, and so on.

Take a break for distractions:

Working deeply requires breaks to do the simple tasks that you need to do in your job, but you have to plan for them accordingly and make rules.  I use the Stay Focused extension on my computer to block distracting websites, but when the timer goes off, I know that it’s okay for me to take a look at websites, email, social media, get up and stretch my legs, etc.… for a certain amount of time. Additionally, if you work in an environment where immediate responses to emails is not required, try checking your email at specific times and having rules about which ones you will answer right away, bump the ones that can wait and so on. But turn off the notifications, and decide which types of emails you need to respond to first, as to not end up spending large chunks of time responding, when you should be working. The less you look at your emails, the more you will get done. 

Write longer emails:

Put more details in your emails. Say you need to schedule a meeting, give the recipient a day, times and locations. Or, if you need to schedule a chat with a colleague, fill them in on the topic, tell them when they can expect you and how long it will take. And, if someone needs your feedback on a document, tell them exactly when you’re going to read it and when you’ll get back to them. I started implementing this level of detail, and it really works to eliminated the unnecessary back and forth on emails.