“Jess, I work so hard every day, but I get to the end of the day and I am exhausted! I don’t get through everything I need to and I go home feeling “flat” and unfulfilled. I am just not enjoying my work at the moment. I don’t feel as happy as I could be.”
Can you relate?
After hearing about my friend’s struggle, I asked her, “Tell me about your to-do list, how do you decide what you will focus on in the day?” She said, “Oh, my to-do list is massive. I just write it all down and try to get as much done as I can.” I then asked her how often she is able to focus on one task at a time without interruptions. She said, “That’s hard. There are just so many distractions all the time!”
What my friend was struggling with is not unusual in today’s work environment. Having a massive to-do list, trying to multi-task and struggling to resist distractions leaves most of us frazzled, working below our true abilities and not feeling fulfilled in our roles (see more about this in my article, The Hidden Cost Of Multitasking).
The good news is that you can make small changes to how you work in your day. You can improve your focus, get more done, enjoy your work and not feel as “pushed and pulled” by the demands of the day.
Mindfulness At Work
Being mindful of how you are working and what you are trying to achieve every day is the first step. According to psychotherapist Russ Harris, “Mindfulness is a mental state of openness, awareness and focus”.
Mindfulness at work starts with how you begin the day and how you create your to-do list. Is your to-do list more of a “brain dump” of everything that has to get done, rather than a clearly defined, prioritised and “do-able” list? If you start your day with a massive to-do list, you are starting your day on the wrong foot by overwhelming your brain.
Your brain works less effectively when it’s overwhelmed, as I discussed in my last article. In her book, Make Your Brain Smarter, Dr Sandra Bond Chapman says, “Looking at an endless list of tasks freezes our mind.” So how can you set your day up so your brain isn’t overwhelmed and you feel calmer, clearer and in control? It begins by re-defining what the habits of productivity look like.
Less Is More
Were you raised believing that a good work ethic meant hard work, long hours, saying yes to everything and trying to be across lots of tasks at once? Most of us were, yet the latest in neuroscience is showing that these strategies negatively impact our ability to focus, get work done and solve problems effectively.
What is now known about how the brain works, particularly the pre-frontal cortex, is that less is more. Your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain involved in deep, critical and focused thinking, works best when it isn’t overworked. Chapman says, “Our brain works for us when we quit working it to the max.”
What this means is that in order to get more done in your day, you need to stop trying to do everything. Less is more. It’s time to get rid of the massive to-do lists and instead bring more focus, simplicity and clarity into how you work during your day.
Creating Clear “Do-Able” Lists
To approach your day with greater clarity and prioritisation, start by asking yourself these three questions:
- What three core tasks do I need to complete this week?
- Based on these weekly tasks, what three task do I need to complete each day?
- How can these tasks be further broken down into “tick-able” smaller tasks?
For example, your three major tasks for the week could be to finish a report, create a slide pack for a presentation and conduct preliminary research into a new project. These three major tasks could be broken down into 15 smaller tasks to be completed over the week. For example, you might need to gather remaining data for the report, choose a design layout for the report, write the first draft etc.
Big tasks that haven’t been broken down overwhelm your brain, but smaller “tick-able” and well-defined tasks allow your brain to more easily focus, complete the task and get a hit of the feel good chemical, dopamine along the way. You can read more about the role dopamine plays in motivation in my last article.
Accepting Your Limits
Do you feel that you should be able to get through everything? While I have no doubt that you are incredibly capable, the truth is there are only so many hours in a day. Setting massive to-do lists for the day sets you up to feel like you have failed and shifts your focus away from what you have achieved.
Like my friend, you can work hard all day but when you see those unfinished tasks you feel like you didn’t work hard enough. Feeling like you aren’t working productively is often demoralising, stressful and not a true reflection of the progress you are making.
By choosing only three core tasks to work on each week and day you bypass that feeling of failure at the end of the day while also providing your pre-frontal cortex with the right conditions to move through tasks efficiently.
Task Batching To Stay In Flow
What about the tasks that don’t fall under your top three tasks for the day or week? What about phone calls, emails and admin tasks? While your top three tasks are designed to focus your attention on what truly matters, you can still approach those less important tasks with greater efficiency.
Task switching causes your brain to work more slowly, leads to more mistakes and exhausts your brain. To overcome this problem during the day, begin to group “like” tasks together in what is called “task batching”.
For example, you can choose a time to reply to all your emails and make non-urgent phone calls. You can also look at what type of thinking your tasks require, and batch similar tasks together. This might mean you keep tasks that deal with numbers together and tasks that require creative thinking together. What “task batching” allows you to do is keep your brain in a state of “flow”.
I shared these strategies with my friend and once she started to apply them at work she noticed a massive difference to how much work she got through. She also noticed that she enjoyed her work day more and went home feeling the “buzz” of having a productive and focused day. She also loved knowing that each day she was working on the most important tasks and not just trying to tackle everything.
In my next article, Super-Focused: Using Deep Work Sprints, I will show you how you can increase your ability to give tasks your undivided attention, now that you know how to focus your day and week.
Russ Harris, Mindfulness, https://www.actmindfully.com.au/mindfulness
Make Your Brain Smarter by Sandra Bond Chapman