A Workshifter’s Mantra for Focus


A few weeks ago, I attended the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. While on stage, speaker J.D. Roth made a statement that hit home for me: “It doesn’t matter what we say matters to us. It’s the things we do that are our priorities.” This got me thinking about my own priorities and how my daily focus is – or, more appropriately, is not – aligning with my overall goals and objectives.

I left my full-time corporate job last October to become my own boss as a freelance consultant and to work on the launch of a new business. Every day, I found myself facing the challenges that go along with being outside the traditional office and corporate system. As a workshifter, I realized quickly that freedom and flexibility is both a blessing and a curse.

To earn the freedom to work from anywhere, you must be aware, diligent and accountable every day – what I call my Mantra for Focus. I’d like to share some of the tools I use to pursue this mantra, protect my work-life balance and secure my future workshifting lifestyle.

Be aware.

You have to track – and I mean truly track – your time. Where is every minute spent during your workday? It sucks at first because it is uncomfortably eye-opening, but it plays an important role in finding daily focus.

What do you really spend your time on every day? We claim to work 60 hours a week, but the reality is far from the truth. Most of us spend a large chunk of time during the workday on things that don’t really matter, so we should stop calling it “work.”

To get a clear view of how you spend your time on your computer, download RescueTime. With RescueTime, you do not enter any data. After you install the app, it will automatically track what software and which websites are actively being used, every second you are on your computer.

Below is my RescueTime report for Monday, July 16. I had a total of 7 hours and 22 minutes on the computer.

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And here is my productivity broken down by the hour. (I had a doctor’s appointment in the morning, so my day did not start until noon.)

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Although RescueTime does not solve all time-tracking needs, it is a good reality check for where you spend most of your time and where you can make adjustments.

Be diligent.

Many people do not enjoy the manual process of tracking their time, as it can feel like another annoying task you have to do. However, the real reason I think most people avoid it is that once you start the timer, you need to begin – and finish – what you set out to do before switching to anything else. No checking email, Twitter or Facebook – nothing but the task at hand while the clock is ticking. It’s hard to quit multitasking, and I’m far from a perfect one-task-at-a-time workday, but I’ve made progress with the help of a few apps.

Focus Booster is a nice lightweight desktop timer based on the Pomodoro technique. For Mac users, Concentrate, the most robust time-tracking desktop app I’ve used, lets you specifically define a task and its allotted time. It also lets you force close and block sites and applications during the duration of that task, forcing you to focus. For a dead-simple browser app, Time Tracker is great.

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Be accountable.

Every day, pick the top 3 things you need to get done. A long list of all your tasks and their associated projects and goals can be overwhelming, but identifying the top 3 for the day provides you with an agenda you can accomplish. This helps promote daily focus in 2 ways:

  1. It forces you to identify the real priorities in your longer to-do list.
  2. It makes the day’s work realistic, so you feel good about your progress when you complete all 3.

Once you’ve set 3 tasks, find a “focus buddy,” someone you can share your tasks with who will ask you at the end of the day if you got them all done. This shouldn’t be your boss or even someone on your team, as the point is to avoid having your tasks scolded or questioned. You just want to reinforce your focus, because you will have to own up to whether you completed them or not.

The app I would recommend for this is (drumroll, please) pen and paper. Keep a sticky note or an index card next to your keyboard with your 3 priority tasks.

As workshifters, we have broken free from the office cubicle and from people looming over our shoulders. We have much more freedom than the office-bound worker does, but with this freedom comes more responsibility. We must enable our own structure that demands focus.

What systems do you use to maintain focus during the day? What is your Mantra for Focus?

Photo credit: longo