Staying on track is a challenge for most people, and can be nearly impossible for people with ADD. Lacking focus at your work, whether from ADD or just generally being too busy and overcommitted, can be crippling to productivity. Here are four tips that will help you stay on track, regardless of why you’re off track in the first place.
1. One big project at a time
As the saying goes, “You can’t hit two balls with one bat.” Your attention becomes diffused when you try to juggle more than one big project at a time. This juggling act will likely cause you to become overloaded. Unless you have a staff of people to delegate tasks to, it’s best to keep to one big project.
I have learned this lesson the hard way after experiencing the distraction and confusion that comes from biting off more than I can chew. More than once, I’ve thought of a cool, fun new project to start before my previous project was complete. I’d get involved developing the new idea and forget about the other project. I did a lot of work, and had nothing to show for it. Why did I do this? Probably because the thrill and novelty of a new idea is always more appealing than the actual hard work that it takes to get an idea off the ground once that novelty has worn off.
By focusing on one project, and being prepared for the romance to wear off with time, you can give it your undivided attention for the long haul. Quality will shine in the details of everything you do. The best part is you will eventually complete that project and be able to start something new.
2. Put it in the stack
When I’m in the middle of a task, and my mind wanders to another thing I need to get done, I say to myself “NO!” I actually yell “no” inside my head. It hurts the ego a bit, but it keeps me from having multiple unfinished tasks. Then, I put that new in idea “in the stack.”
What do I mean by “in the stack”? It’s like the concept of an event loop in computer programming. Essentially, the computer will only start a new event once the current event is done. It can only do one thing at a time. I use this as an analogy for how I should work. If I have a new task I’d like to do, such as browsing Amazon for a lamp, I’m not going to start it until my last task is done. This can work for small tasks like buying lamps to big tasks like starting apps, companies, or art.
Create your stack by utilizing one of the many todo apps out there. Apple and Google both have their own todo apps you can use for free.
3. Question yourself
When deciding to start a new task, carry out a quick but accurate analysis of that task’s ROI. Choose your tasks wisely. This doesn’t mean that you have to go for perfection in task selection and time management. We are not robots, and sometimes you just have to remember that “done is better than perfect,” but if your completed task is useless, then what’s the point?
Here’s an example of a project that wasn’t very useful. Last year I created an application called Dolo. It was a micro-location check-in app. It allowed you to check-in only at Dolores Park in San Francisco. Although this app was really funny, it wasn’t ever going to make me any money or impact anymore than a few thousand people. I built it as a mobile web app entirely from scratch. Instead of using a mobile web framework like jQueryMobile or Sencha, I instead attempted to write my own mobile web framework layer. The Dolo layer and the mobile web framework layer meant that I was actually working on two projects in one. It took me months to build. And no one really uses it due to the rarity of going to Dolores Park. After Dolo I was feeling burnt out. I vowed that moving forward, I was going to focus on one project at time, and only those that had the potential to make a much larger impact.
Make a list of all the tasks you want to start and prioritize them by their usefulness to the world, to yourself, and to your wallet. You’ll find that not all tasks or projects are created equal. Start the task that is most useful first. One exception is if there is a less useful task that is easy to complete. You may want to do that first to warm up to the more challenging tasks.
After you start a task or project, keep questioning it. A common mental fallacy is our inability to go back on decisions. Deciding to change one’s mind after investing time and effort takes a lot of cognitive will, so much so that people will continue on the wrong course because they are unwilling to reevaluate. Question each thing you do, even after you have decided to do it.
If you throw a whole project out, don’t feel guilty. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, starts five projects at once expecting only one or two of them to reach fruition. (Here’s a perfect example of someone who has a staff and can ignore tip #1 above.) You should, however, feel guilty if you are in the middle of five tasks and they are all half done and poorly at that.
4. Stop working so much
Working nonstop is the old world way of doing things. Sure it makes sense when you are a human machine in a factory doing mindless repetitive work, but in the intellectual age we need a lot of breaks. Getting away from work keeps our minds sharp.
I’m a huge fan of the 90 minute rule: After 90 minutes, take a 15 minute break. (You can read more about it) If your office only allows one 15-minute break per day, ignore them and take the break anyway. Just make it 10 minutes and do it discretely. Some people’s attitude toward work is still influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Challenge their archaic mindset by proving that productivity increases when we work less.
Creativity and innovation abound when we are relaxed. If you are searching for a solution to a problem and growing anxious in the process, take a break, and an idea will likely come to you when your body and mind are more relaxed. A great way to do this is with some fresh air and walk. A moving body stimulates the mind.
If you found this useful, or have tricks of your own for staying focused at work, please leave a comment.