It’s hard to concentrate right now.
If you are working at home (as I have been for the last five years), you may have to deal with noise from neighbors, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and people cutting down trees.
You may have children at home who need attention. You may have others in the house (children, spouses) taking classes, participating in meetings, making meals, or making messes. You may have pets who need or seek attention, too.
You may be worried. You may be worried about air quality, global warming in general, hurricanes, the state of the nation, lying politicians, protests, conflicts between police and protesters, how Facebook and Instagram are distorting our view of the world, pandemics, people losing their jobs in the pandemic, shortages of PPE, people wearing or not wearing masks, open carry firearms, . . . well, the list is endless.
But some work requires concentration. And you can probably set aside some time to concentrate, with the help of the others in your house.
I suggest dividing your time into four parts. And by dividing your time, I mean actually blocking things off in your schedule.
1 Ordinary time
Ordinary time is the bulk of your workday. This is the time in which you answer email, review stuff that others have created, check up on content that you’re required to review, and do other work that does not require full concentration.
Tasks in ordinary time are typically tasks you take care of in ten or fifteen minutes — tasks for which, if you are interrupted, you can easily get back into the right context to complete the task.
You can do these tasks despite the distractions. That’s why you can do them in ordinary time.
There is one other thing you can do in ordinary time: prepare tasks for when you can concentrate. This means doing research for writing projects, or gathering information for other types of analysis. Imagine your future self needing to concentrate without interruption. What will you need to be able to do that? Be your own “executive assistant” — by preparing material that your future, fully-concentrated self will need. Your future self will thank you.
2 Concentration time
Some tasks require you to concentrate for at least 45 minutes. This includes writing, preparing a speech or presentation, or analyzing data.
Attempting to do those tasks while you are distracted will result in poor quality work.
So block off time for these tasks. This may require some negotiation with others in your household. It might require you to work early in the morning, or in the evening, or on a weekend. (One of the best things about working at home is that you can trade off these times for times during the day when you are, for example, doing child care instead of working.)
If you properly prepared the source material during ordinary time, you’ll have everything you need to start concentrating.
Now turn off all distractions. Close the door (I hope you have one in your workspace). Pay no attention to email, text messages, or social media. Put your phone aside. Banish all thoughts of your flaws and failings. Now: work. With luck — and proper preparation — you will enter a flow state and become highly productive.
People in a flow state like this are often amazed that they can accomplish what seemed like two hours’ work in something like 40 minutes. That’s only possible because you banished the distractions and prepared properly.
These times are precious. Do not pollute them with trivia. Do not use them to worry about whether it’s time to fix the roof or get orthodontia for junior or find better ways to communicate with your spouse or who to vote for. That’s what ordinary time is for. This is concentration time, and use it to get valuable work done.
3 Relaxation time
This is when you recharge. Take time off for lunch. Take a walk or do yoga. Watch TV. Play music. Play with your kids. Curl up in bed with your loved one.
Build relaxation time into your schedule. You will need it. Without relaxation time, your brain will frazzle. You will be unable to get as much done during ordinary time, and you will be unable to concentrate during concentration time.
Meetings swallow up your time. Get rid of as many as possible.
There are meetings that require you to present and make a decision. These are crucial. You will need to concentrate during these meetings — which will cut into the distraction-free concentration time you would otherwise have.
There are meetings where you need to pay attention, but your participation is not crucial. You can do these in ordinary time when there are other distractions. Or maybe find ways to get out of them altogether, or rethink if the meeting is necessary?
There are meetings where you are required to attend, even though you don’t really need to be there. Try to convince whoever is running the meeting that you need that time back.
Meetings in the COVID era swallow up attention, which is a crucial resource. That’s why fewer of them is a better way to do things. Organizations that replace meetings with other channels, like Slack, may be doing better right now.
Time is crucial
Unless you figure out how to get some time to concentrate — and use it wisely — you’ll never prove your worth to your company or your clients. So manage the time wisely. And don’t undermine your ability to concentrate.
It may make the difference, not only in your career, but in your sanity during these impossible times.