For years, I’ve told my clients, “There is no such thing as time management, only self-management.” We all get the same 24 hours each day. It’s up to us to decide how to use every one of those precious hours. So, time management is really about attention management or focus management. If we can manage where we put our attention and truly stay focused on those things that we want to accomplish we can dramatically increase our productivity while at the same time reducing our stress. Yes, it is possible.

I am a firm believer that we get what we focus on. If we focus on not having enough time in the day, we will get exactly that. If, instead, we focus on the reality that we’ve all got 24 hours in a day and further focus on what we want to do with those hours, we will develop an attention-based mindset. We’ll begin to give our attention to those things that are truly important to us. But there’s the rub. What is truly important? Do you know what is truly important to you? Do you know where you want to place your focus and attention? Is it fighting with that “D” client who won’t provide the documents you need for their matter? Or is it making one or two phone calls to an “A” client who truly appreciates you and might send more “A” clients your way?

I’d challenge you to carefully examine exactly where you focus your time and attention. Notice when you are not focused on what you want to be focused on, and get in the habit of bringing your attention back to what you want to focus on. This may sound absurdly easy, but I think you will find, it is not. If you have ever decided to take “ just a moment” to respond to an email, only to realize an hour (or more) later that you are still trapped in your inbox, you know it is not always easy to focus on the things we want to focus on.

Here’s the good news. We can improve our focus and by improving our focus improve our productivity and reduce our stress. Below are a few things you can do to improve your focus. Experiment with them. And let me know how you do. I’d love to hear from you.

Reduce multitasking.
Too much multitasking – or as it is more aptly called, “switchtasking” – is one of the biggest impediments to increasing our focus. The truth is, our brains cannot multitask. They can only focus on one thing at a time. And as we age, our ability to switch quickly from one task to another diminishes. Maybe you’ve experienced this first-hand by accidentally hitting “Reply to All” in an email while talking on the phone and processing emails at the same time.

Research conducted by the University of London found that workers who are distracted by email and phone calls can suffer a 10-point drop in IQ. That is more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana, according to researchers. In The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done, Dave Crenshaw explains that switchtasking only serves to shorten our attention spans and make us more susceptible to interruptions – both internal and external. Interruptions and switchtasking create the self-induced ADD described above. When we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, we lose our ability to focus on anything. Reduce the amount of switchtasking you do each day.

Interval training for your brain.
If you were planning to run your first marathon, you wouldn’t get up on the day of the marathon and expect to run 26.2 miles. So, if you’re not accustomed to focusing for long periods of time, don’t sit at your desk and tell yourself you’re going to work for an hour or more on a project. It is a recipe for frustration. If you were training for a marathon, you’d start small and work up to 26.2 miles over time. My friends who have trained for marathons have all followed some type of interval training method. One of the best ways to condition your body is to use interval training. Our muscles respond very well to short bursts of intense training, followed by lighter training or rest. Our brains work the same way. You can increase your ability to focus by starting out with short blocks of focus time and building up to longer periods of intense focus. Here’s how:

  • Get a timer. Use your watch, computer, or even an wind-up old-fashioned timer like the one referenced in the Pomodoro Technique below.
  • Start small. Create a “Focus Preset” for 10 minutes and a “Break Preset” for two minutes. Tell yourself you are going to focus on a particular task, completely uninterrupted for 10 minutes. Then give yourself a two-minute break.
  • Create additional presets of 15 minutes, 25 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes. And create a five-minute break and a 10-minute break. You could also apply the concept of working 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break. This way of working is known as The Pomodoro Technique. It’s a powerful tool for getting work done in a highly focused way. For more information on The Pomodoro Technique, visit www.pomodorotechnique.com.
  • If you can, work up to 90 minutes of focus time. Then give yourself a 10-minute break. Brain research has shown that 90 minutes is the optimal amount of time our brains can focus on one thing.

Get regular exercise.
Exercise is good for you. You already know that. But what you may not know is that exercise is not only good for your physical health; it’s good for your brain. Regular exercise can help to improve your mental focus and dexterity. Even 15 minutes a day of aerobic exercise – something as simple as a brisk walk – can improve your ability to focus.

Get enough sleep.
Most of us need at least seven to eight hours of sleep to be at our best. Recent research has shown that some people may need as many as nine hours a night. Unfortunately, many of us suffer from “sleep debt,” a chronic lack of sleep that can accumulate over time. Sleep debt not only impacts our ability to focus, it can lead to serious health issues such as increased risk of stroke, heart disease, weight gain, diabetes and memory loss.