It can be hard to focus and stay productive towards the end of the year. With the holidays around the corner, distractions are everywhere, and it’s tough to muster the motivation to be productive. Luckily, there are scientifically-backed ways we can fight against this end-of-year slump, and learn to focus even when we really don’t feel like it.
Whenever I find myself resisting work, I have an arsenal of strategies that I turn to. Here are three of my favourites that work pretty much every time. Given our attention is pretty constrained these days, I’ve bolded the important bits below, in case you’re pressed for time!
1. Go Deadline-Hunting
A majority of us do knowledge-work for a living — we work with our brains rather than with our hands. Knowledge work can be fun and engaging, but it has a downside, it’s usually unstructured. This means we don’t always have deadlines for the projects we’re working on.
Think about the projects on your plate. Which ones are you putting off? Which don’t have a looming deadline?
For your unstructured projects, get a deadline any way you possibly can. Focus, motivation, and productivity come easy whenever we have external pressure to get stuff done. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
- Find an accountability partner that will hold you accountable and set a penalty with them if you miss your deadline (like donating to a politician or cause you don’t believe in).
- Ask your boss for a deadline. If a project is big and complex, and will take longer than a couple weeks, set a deadline for an upcoming milestone on that project instead.
- Tell your spouse that you’re putting off the project, and offer to cook them a seven-course meal and polish every surface of the house if you miss the deadline you set together.
2. Reset Your Attention
There is nothing that will boost your focus more than resetting your attention.
Each time we focus on something new and novel, our brain rewards us by releasing a hit of dopamine — a reward chemical that makes us feel good. This reinforces our distraction habit. Every time we check Instagram, we get a hit of dopamine. Then when we check the news right after, we get another hit. Each time we tab over to check our email while writing a report, we get yet another hit.
Given we tend to have so many distractions throughout the day, there’s almost always a ton of dopamine coursing through our brain. As a result, our mind becomes overstimulated and, at the same time, we feel the need to seek and find more distractions.
Here’s the good news — it’s actually possible to reset your attention, which leads your mind to no longer crave distraction.
To reset your attention, do all that you can to step back from all inessential parts of your digital life for two weeks. This means eliminating inessential digital apps, alerts, and interruptions. After just 14 days, the levels of dopamine in your brain will lower. Here’s a few suggestions to help you on your way:
- Disconnect from the internet each day between 8pm and 8am.
- Have a digital sabbath with your family once a week, where you disconnect for a full 24 hours every Sunday.
- Shut off all inessential phone notifications for 14 days.
- Replace the time you spend in the digital world with analog activities, like hitting the gym, playing an instrument, or reading a physical paper, instead of checking social media, watching Netflix, or visiting your go-to news websites.
We’re all pretty distracted these days. One study from Microsoft found that, on average, we focus for just 40 seconds before getting distracted or interrupted.
For this reason, this reset will feel a bit uncomfortable for the first few days but that’s precisely the point. It takes our mind about eight days to settle down into a new, lower level of mental stimulation. But after you reset your attention, you won’t find yourself craving distractions. And you’ll focus with surprising ease — especially when you really don’t feel like it.
3. Work Slower
When we have more to do than we have time to do it, our tendency is to work faster so we can get our work done quicker. With knowledge work though, this impulse can hurt our productivity more than it helps.
One of my all-time favourite productivity tricks is to work slower — counterintuitively, this usually leads us to accomplish more in the same amount of time. Working at a slower speed actually calms us down and lets us work more deliberately and purposefully.
- If you’re writing a report, instead of trying to crank out the entire thing in an hour, aim to just write a couple hundred words in that time.
- If you’re processing information, give yourself more time, so you can think more deeply and form connections to what you already know.
- If you’re giving a ten-minute speech, craft an eight-minute talk and take your time when you give it.
It’s important that when working slow, you also make an effort to work distraction-free (like by closing your email, leaving your phone in another room, or disconnecting completely) so your attention doesn’t get derailed. By starting slow, you’ll settle into what you’re trying to focus on, while giving yourself permission to take your time when tasks take longer, or speed up to a level that is right for the task at hand. You also become kinder to yourself as you work, because you won’t try to force yourself into getting more done.
What you lose in speed you make up for in deliberateness, and in working with greater thoughtfulness and intention. If I’ve found one thing in my productivity research, it’s that intention and productivity are inseparable.
Called “the most productive man you’d ever hope to meet” by TED Talks, Chris Bailey gives audiences practical, tactical advice for becoming more productive.
Chris’ approach is unique; he believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to becoming more productive. Instead, he has spent the last decade experimenting with every productivity tactic under the sun, separating what works from what doesn’t. Using what he found during these productivity experiments, Chris offers useful tidbits on how we can apply this advice to our daily lives in order to accomplish more.
Chris is the international bestselling author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, and The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy.