Be honest with me. Are you reading this while procrastinating? Don’t worry, I won’t judge you for it. Procrastination can be a very, VERY difficult hump to summit. With many working professionals switching to a work-from-home setup in the past year, the importance of ‘good’ time management habits has only increased. Unless your work-from-home office is Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, there is likely a virtual cornucopia of differing distractions that could keep you from doing what you need to do. Full transparency – during the course of writing this blog I got up to feed my cat (twice), spent a few minutes editing my fantasy hockey team, got a snack (also twice), made a pot of coffee, and fully trimmed my beard.
I’ve always struggled with time management. Like, a lot. It was always one of those things teachers wrote on my grade school report cards. To put it this way, if I were as good at basketball as I am at procrastinating, I’d probably be warming the bench in the NBA. It has never been an inability to do the work, just that I get distracted easily and find it hard to plan my days effectively to encourage productivity. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in a bit of a time management rut and reached out to my fellow Regroovers to see if they had any helpful tips on how to stay focused and manage time effectively. Here are a few of the tips that they shared:
- Ditch Your Phone
- Set Yourself to Do Not Disturb
- Listen to Focus Music
- Take a Solid Break
- Time Blocking
- The Pomodoro Technique
Keeping your phone on silent and hidden
As someone who loves to stay plugged in, this was a huge one for me. I didn’t realize how often my phone distracted me or altered my train of thought until I tried leaving it on silent, in another room for a few hours. Gone was the barrage of push notifications about vaccine shipments and the score of the Red Sox game – things which are important, but certainly not pressing towards my task at hand. This is a great way to help zero in on completing a specific task if that task is time sensitive. I found that I was able to focus on my tasks a lot easier without the distraction of my phone. The only reservation I have for this method is the fact that sometimes it is necessary to be in reach of your phone in case someone desperately needs to get ahold of you, or for communication efficiency. There are ways you can get around this though – apps and settings exist on most modern phone user interfaces which can block push notifications for a given time, and only alert you when a call comes through, or a certain contact messages you.
Arbitrary rating – 8/10.
I would recommend this method for the rapid completion of shorter, time sensitive tasks but doing this for an entire workday makes me nervous.
Set yourself to Do Not Disturb
The Microsoft Teams app is a phenomenal way to stay connected and communicate with colleagues. However, being logged into Microsoft Teams while trying to focus on a task can be a challenge. Microsoft Team’s banner notifications flashing on the screen and incoming audio notifications pinging away in your ear can be distracting.
Instead of logging out of the app or shutting all notifications off, some Regroovers set their Microsoft Team’s availability status to Do Not Disturb. Being set to Do Not Disturb means you only get notifications for urgent messages and from priority contacts.
If you don’t use Microsoft Teams, Windows 10 also has a Focus Assist feature in the Notification Action Center that turns off notifications across all the apps you have open on your computer. You can also go into your Windows settings and choose which apps you want to receive alerts for.
I have found this to be a great way to silence a lot of the pinging notifications brought by Microsoft Teams. When I’m focusing on a time-sensitive task, it’s a simple but excellent tool to make sure that your focus stays on the work. I’ll admit that I’m easily distracted by notifications in Microsoft Teams, and I find it difficult to not respond to messages immediately. This opens up a lot of opportunity to lose focus on the task at hand, which is less-than-optimal for tasks that are time-sensitive or require a good amount of focus and concentration.
Arbitrary rating – 7/10.
I would recommend this method for focusing on time-sensitive deliverables, but I have forgotten to turn it off after, so I prefer to set it for a specific duration to ensure I don’t forget to return myself back to Available. It also has limitations in that it doesn’t directly ‘help’ you focus, it just mitigates the potential for you to lose focus due to push notifications which could pop up during your work. A great way to help stay on track though.
Listening to a good music playlist with no or minimal lyrics
This is a method that has always worked wonders for me. Whenever I need to focus on any kind of work, I like to put a playlist on in the background – either on a speaker or in headphones. It is a bit harder to focus when music has lyrics though, so I prefer instrumental playlists when work needs to be done. There’s a very good reason why the continuous YouTube livestream, ‘lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax / study to’ by user ChilledCow has millions of listeners worldwide. It provides an excellent background of carefully curated music that is designed to be played in the background while the listener can execute more productive things.
I find when listening to playlists of this nature, as the music plays and I begin to work, eventually I sink into a rhythm of focus without even thinking as the music fades into the background and cuts out any other distracting noise. This kind of music is also formulated to provide a sense of calm and comfort within the listener. I’m sure there’s a fine science in composing lofi or ambient music to do with how the brain reacts to certain sounds but that kind of auditory-neuro link is way over my head (ha).
Arbitrary rating – 11/10.
I’m currently listening to Apple Music’s Beatstrumentals playlist as I type this. I highly recommend this method, even in addition to other methods of focus. I appreciate that for some it might not work as well, but this helps me focus every time.
Reminder: Many headphones also have an Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) button to eliminate unwanted background noise if you’re the type of person who prefers silence to focus.
Take a solid break to go for a walk / get outside / watch TikTok – something to switch your brain off
It is proven that the human brain functions in more of a productive manner when short breaks from focus time are taken. Burnout is a remarkably easy thing for your brain to experience and is something that should be taken seriously to avoid. If the weather outside is nice, breaking your focus to go for a walk can be beneficial, especially if the work you are in the middle of is mentally taxing or stressful. If the weather outside is awful (or you just don’t feel like dressing up), taking a few minutes to scroll through Twitter, watch TikTok / YouTube videos, or even stop to read an article or Reddit thread can be a good way to break up arduous or monotonous tasks.
I would be careful with this method though, as it can be easy to be completely distracted by whatever you use to ‘switch off’ for a short period. For someone like me who is easily distracted anyway, I find it valuable to unplug for a short period here and there during the day, but too often I find myself reading one article and going down a rabbit hole of other articles or scrolling through Twitter for a lot longer than I intended. Even going for a walk has sometimes led to taking time to shop at the grocery store or other, more time-consuming tasks.
When you don’t have time for a walk outside, try simply leaving the room you are working in. Go grab a glass of water or look out a window. When you walk through a doorway, your brain takes that as a cue to refresh and compartmentalize your memories. (Human behaviour studies refer to it as the Location Updating Effect.)
Arbitrary rating – 6/10.
Taking some time to break from your tasks is very important for your own mental well-being, but for folks who are easily distracted like me, it can be a slippery slope that makes it much more difficult to focus again.
This is one I never would have thought to try before it was suggested to me. You can schedule your workday in blocks using the calendar in Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Teams. To block time, schedule an event or meeting with only yourself, then title the meeting with the project you would like to work on. In addition to this, scheduling meetings back-to-back can block off a section of your day for ‘meetings’ so you can block the rest of your day to work on other projects. This technique works with whichever planning and calendar tool you use, including Calendly, Teamup, and even paper-based calendars.
I see the merit in blocking off portions of your day to work on different things. Personally, however, I found it incredibly difficult to stick to the blocked-off time to work on certain projects. Some projects require more time to complete than you think they will. Sometimes priorities can shift, and suddenly the time you blocked for one project needs to be altered to allow for more time to be given to another one. I also found that scheduling several meetings back-to-back was challenging for me, as I found mentally switching gears between meetings to be difficult.
Regroovers who love time blocking explained that they immediately shuffle time blocks in their calendar to the next day or next week when “things come up”. They start and end every day looking at their time blocks to adjust for changing priorities. They also block 15 minutes of time after every meeting to perform wrap up tasks (add “to do” items to task list) and prepare for the next meeting (open notebook and review notes to switch gears).
Arbitrary rating – 4/10.
For those who are naturally organized, I can see this as a valuable way to manage your time during the day. As someone who has difficulty with organization, I found that this simply didn’t work very well for me.
The Pomodoro Technique
Named after a distinct kitchen timer (shaped like a tomato), this technique was developed by software professional Francesco Cirillo in the 80’s. There have been a great many books and articles written about this technique, and it has developed somewhat of a cult following in the business world. The steps for this method are as follows:
- Take a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes.
- Work on a particular task for those 25 minutes with no interruptions.
- When the timer goes off, take a short 3–5-minute break.
- After 3-5 minutes of break time, set the timer for another 25 minutes.
- Repeat steps 2-4 until the workday is over, taking a longer 15–20-minute break every 4 completions of the timer.
Upon recommendation from Regroove’s Chief Troublemaker, Sean, I gave this a try for a day to see what the fuss was about. For the first few sessions of the timer, I found this technique helpful. I silenced the notifications on my phone and found that focusing for these short bursts wasn’t too onerous a task. After a while, however, I found that this highly structured approach to the day began to feel much more difficult. I began to feel more and more relief when the timer would chime for a break, and when time came to set the timer and focus again, I felt myself cursing the technique under my breath. I found that tasks felt like much more of a chore when having to constantly reset a 25-minute timer, dangling the promise of a short break in front of me like a carrot. This may have been unrelated, but I also felt a lot more exhausted after using the technique for a day. To use an athletics analogy, it essentially breaks up your day into a series of sprints instead of one slow-and-steady marathon.
Arbitrary rating – 2/10.
Similar to time blocking, this highly structured way of planning your day just simply didn’t work for me. I can see how it can be effective though – it forces you to focus for those short bursts when the timer is ticking. Clearly the technique has lasting merit for some – it seems to be incredibly popular in the business world. I recommend giving it a try to see if it works for you.
After taking some time and trying these techniques, I certainly have much more of a grasp for what works for me and what doesn’t. Each of my given ratings are completely arbitrary – it’s likely that these techniques will work differently for you than they did for me. I implore you to try different time management tactics and techniques – even if it doesn’t work for you (as some really didn’t for me), at least you know that it doesn’t, and you can move onto something which hopefully does!