Inception is one of my all-time favorite movies. In it, characters find themselves in dream worlds without knowing where they are or how they got there.
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That’s how I used to feel throughout the day… every day.
One minute I was focused on the most important thing on my to do list; the next I was on a news site or on social media with dozens of tabs open in my browser. Once I started noticing myself on Facebook while I was driving, I knew something had to change. Constant distractions had rewired my brain and were having a direct impact on my company’s success and even my safety.
To start, I deleted all social-media apps from my phone and added parental controls so I could not access any of them from my browser. (Only my wife has the password, and she is unforgiving.) I also downloaded the StayFocused chrome plugin to limit my time on social media to 20 minutes per day and installed the News Feed Eradicator to completely eliminate the Facebook news feed. It worked. My productivity skyrocketed.
Going through this process reminded me how important focus is. Curious how others handled distractions, I reached out to some of the hardworking young entrepreneurs featured in the Empact Showcase to see how they stay focused.
Here are 10 tips you can immediately apply for quick wins:
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1. Divide your day into 15-minute blocks
With so much going on in your business, it's very easy to get distracted with multi-tasking. I have found that working in focused batches where I focus on one thing at a time has significantly increased my productivity. Studies show that working while distracted is like working after you’ve pulled an all-nighter and can reduce your productivity by as much as 40 percent.
I start out my week by planning out everything that I'd like to get done this week. I then divide my tasks into 15-minute time blocks which allows me to set realistic deadlines and not waste time. I then use TimeDoctor to hold me accountable. It tracks what applications I use down to the second and gives me insight on how I work.
To learn more about working in focused chunks of time, I recommend checking out the Pomodoro Technique.
-- Founder Syed Balkhi of WP Beginner
2. Forget ‘underpromise and overdeliver.’ Be accurate.
“Underpromise and overdeliver” is age-old business advice, but it may not be worth the effort. According to a recent study, people tend to value promises that are exceeded about as much as they value promises that are simply kept.
In my experience, being honest about the time that I have to do quality work for my stakeholders helps to foster deep relationships built on trust and relieves personal pressure (research shows that feeling control over one’s schedule reduces mental fatigue).
Here’s how I do it:
- I add 25 percent to the total time I estimate tasks will take.
- I factor in delays due to collaboration.
- I engage all involved parties on a collaborative task, as soon as I know something needs to get done.
- I trust my gut when it tells me that I’m pushing my capacity, and I throttle back.
- I track and replicate my successes. If I was able to meet a deadline (without procrastination or personal stress), then I do a quick reflection on how I set myself up for success.
- I use iDoneThis to track tasks on a day-to-day basis. It helps me to gauge whether I have too much on my plate.
-- Co-Founder Nick Monzi of Learn Fresh Education
3. To-do lists are evil. Schedule everything.
I do what I call ‘fixed-schedule productivity’. I start with the deadline that my day ends at 5:30 p.m. and create an ideal schedule based on my priorities. Then, I work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way. My experience in trying to make that fixed schedule a reality forces any number of really smart and useful in-the-moment productivity decisions.
Scheduling forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take. Assigning work to times reduces the urge to procrastinate. You are no longer deciding whether or not to work during a given period; the decision is already made.
-- Author Cal Newport of So Good They Can’t Ignore You
4. Set clear goals and remind your staff of them often
One of my favorite exercises is to whittle down my "big goals" into five achievable quarterly goals, and then to write these down on an index card. I keep this index card with me at all times, and especially in front of my computer while I'm working. If I find myself getting distracted, I look over to my quarterly goals card and ask myself if what I'm doing is directly contributing to any of these goals. If not, then I move on. I also like to reiterate these goals at each weekly meeting with my team, to let everyone know if we're on track of what needs to change to make it happen.
Studies show that even subtle goal reminders like hearing words related to your goals can prime you to make decisions that lead to their attainment. Departments of top companies and organizations from the Ritz Carlton to the Oval Office at the White House use daily huddles to talk about goals with their team.
-- Founder Nathalie Lussier of Nathalie Lussier Media
5. Let a sticky note be your guide
Every night, I plan five critical priorities for the following day using the two following principles:
Urgency. I ask myself, “what can be pushed off till tomorrow?”
ROI. I ask myself, “Which items will deliver the most value for the lowest time investment?”
I put these priorities on a sticky note at the top left of my computer screen. Basically, I just don't go to sleep until I accomplish them. It's as simple as that. It might sound crazy, but if I get them done early it allows me to relax and not put as much pressure on myself to work. If I procrastinate and don't get it done I pay the price and end up staying up late working on it.
In the mornings when I’m focusing on the priorities, I either work from home so I'm not distracted, or I put headphones on (sometimes, without music) so that people are less likely to interrupt me. Studies show that our environment can have a huge impact on the decisions we make without us even realizing it. My sticky note creates an environment that helps me stay focused.
-- Co-Founder John Hall of Influence & Co
6. Pay somebody to hold you accountable
When I have a task that I know really needs to get done, but I'm not motivated to do it, I get accountable. I ask my assistant to hold me accountable to what I say that I want to do as part of her job responsibilities. When we have our weekly phone calls, we go through the list of things that I had asked her to hold me accountable to. If something needs to be done by a specific day, I'll tell her my date-specific goal and then get back to her when it's done. This puts me in a position where I need to tell her whether or not I've gotten something done. I find the positive peer pressure invaluable in making items a priority instead of putting them off.
Based on the “loss aversion” principle from behavioural economics, it’s human nature to be more motivated to avoid loss than to pursue gain. By paying someone, I put skin in the game and get a reliable accountability partner.
-- Founder Elizabeth Grace Saunders of Real Life E® Time Coaching & Training
7. Don’t respond to emails during the day
I've found that 90 percent of emails I get are either junk mail, are cc'd to me but being handled by someone else on my team, or non-urgent and can be responded to within 24 hours. So, I do email response batching. Instead of checking my email 20 times a day,or between phone calls and meetings, I check it three times (morning, afternoon, and evening). However, I only respond to emails during a two-hour window at night. In the morning and afternoon, I just delete spam and make sure I’m not missing something urgent. The key to not responding during the day is having people on your team that can handle most things without you. It needs to be a huge deal for an owner to get involved.
With this system, I find that I'm able to focus on higher-value things during the day like sales and strategy. This keeps my focus on the task at hand razor-sharp.
Unsurprisingly, a University of California study found that people who do not check emails regularly at work are less stressed and more productive.
-- Co-Founder Travis Smith of VIP Waste Services
Related: How Technology Demands a Different Approach to Your Job
8. Track time spent ‘on’ the business vs. ‘in’ the business
I track my time in a simple Google Doc and use a color-coding system to keep me aware of where my time is going. Red highlighted tasks are those that involve working IN the business (managing the day-to-day operations), and green highlighted tasks are those that involve working ON the business (coming up with strategies for growth, improvement). My goal each week is to see more green on my sheet than red. I aim to spend 50 percent or more of my time working ON the business.
I learned the importance of working on your business instead of in it in Michael Gerber’s classic book, E-Myth.
-- Co-Founder Kelsey Meyer Of Influence & Co
9. Tackle easy/important tasks before hard/important ones
I start my workday with quick and easy tasks that are important, saving the longer tasks for later after I get on a roll. I find the hardest/biggest stuff that requires more thinking, strategizing, and problem-solving takes longer and can't be solved in an hour (or even a day). By doing the small things that make a big impact and don't require too much thought (e.g., shooting out emails for partnership opportunities), it allows me to build momentum and for the bigger things to sit in the back of the mind until a sudden solution pops in my head.
Essentially, I prioritize easy and high impact tasks first; then the hard and high impact. The research of Stanford social scientist BJ Fogg shows that by making tasks smaller, we dramatically increase the chance that we’ll follow through. Other research shows that small wins ignite joy, engagement, and creativity.
-- Co-Founder Grace Ng of Javelin
10. Start your day by journaling
I start off every morning by reaching for my journal. I write one page every day about my bigger goals, my intentions for the day, and feelings about my goals I want to work though.
Sometimes I write about how it will feel to achieve it. Other times, I write about my confidence level I feel around my goals. Basically I give myself a little pep talk! Or sometimes I explore any blocks or resistance that come up when I think about achieving it - what fears do I have around making this goal come true? I don't work on logistics in my journal, purely mindset. If I have a more tactical idea pop up I'll actually jot it down in a different work notebook.
Top performers like Michael Phelps do this everyday as well. This process is a great way to both clear out mental clutter and keep myself focused on having a "perfect day" every day.
An academic review of studies on goal setting shows that most people don’t achieve the goals they set because they can’t control their emotions. Studies show that thinking through what we’d do in different scenarios dramatically increases achievement of goals.
-- Founder Laura Roeder of Edgar and LKR Social Media
11. Bonus: Eat a live frog first thing every morning...
Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” He may not be a young entrepreneur, but his advice still stands over a century later: if there’s something you’ve been dreading doing, don’t let it drag on -- just do it and move forward. Research by Roy Baumeister shows that our willpower starts off high and then depletes throughout the day. Other research shows that starting a goal but not completing it (a.k.a., procrastinating) makes us less effective at the next tasks we perform.
-- Mark Twain
This story originally appeared at Entrepreneur. Copyright 2014.