February 11


Top 15 Strategies for Building Focus

By Mike Spack

February 11, 2016

Build Focus, Focus, survey, survey results

coffee-apple-iphone-desk (1)I asked what your current number one challenge at work is in last year’s reader survey.  Several of you brought up the ability to focus.  This isn’t a technical transportation related challenge, but it is a very real 21st Century challenge that many of us struggle with.

I’ve done a lot of research on the topic – I highly recommend reading Brian Rules, Essentialism and Deep Work.  I’d like to give each of them more than five stars if possible.  I’d also rate The One Thing as a solid 4.5 and I also found the Top Performer course valuable (especially if you’re working on developing new engineering skills).

I can’t fully summarize the wisdom from these books, but here are a few strategies I’ve employed that have made a big difference:

  1. Avoid meetings. Try pushing to emails and phone calls when possible.  Suggest a phone conference instead of an in person meeting (saves a lot of drive time plus wasted chit chatting).  Start saying you’re already booked (no explanation needed).  If you must attend a meeting, make sure they are exceptionally well run (an agenda ahead of time, start/stop time that are followed, standing only will shorten the meeting naturally, clear purpose for the meeting i.e. what needs to be decided, clear action items at the end).  I also like the pizza rule – if a large pizza can’t feed everyone at the table you have too many people attending.  There is a time and place for a meeting, but my opinion is that work does not get done in meetings and they should be minimized.
  2. Work more intensely. I find the Pomodoro Technique fantastic.
  3. Limit email to two 30-60 minute sessions per day. And don’t do work email on your phone.  Try it.  You’ll likely find the world doesn’t even notice you’ve done this.
  4. Break the internet habit. If you consistently check Facebook, Twitter, Drudge Report, etc – STOP.  Constantly checking in wires your brain for distraction.  Schedule in 30-60 minutes per day in the evening or at lunch if you must do this.  Control the beast.
  5. Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a myth.
  6. Get out of the office. Make 2 or 3 ninety minute blocks per week where you are unreachable.  I’ve gone to coffee shops to work at least once per week for my whole career (two different consulting firms and a city job).  You can do it.  Use the Pomodoro Method during these times.  Put your phone on airplane mode.
  7. Walk more. Especially in nature.  No headphones.  We are creatures that were built for walking on the savanna.  Some of my biggest insights have come on while walking.  It lets your subconscious work, which is key to making big decisions.  Walking to/from work every day for the last two years has been a game changer for me.
  8. Schedule your whole day ahead of time and build in blocks to do the very important, non-urgent tasks on your to do list. A couple of hours of focused work per week will have big results.
  9. Exercise. It can be as simple as the walking listed above.  Do something every day.
  10. Eat healthy and limit caffeine. Simple but hard.
  11. Make your bed first thing in the morning. Sounds crazy, but try it every day for a month.  It’s a subtle discipline that reinforces a calm environment and you start every day by accomplishing something.
  12. Buy and use the 5 Minute Journal. I love this simple journal.
  13. Ride your energy wave. I think best in the morning and am nearly brain dead at about 3:30 p.m.  Schedule your work activities so you do your most important work when you think best.
  14. Get good sleep. 20 minute naps are awesome (how I sometimes get more done at 3:30 – see above).
  15. Leave your cell phone in the car more often to force you to be unconnected.

I realize the above strategies are simple, but really hard to implement in our always connected society.  I hope you’ll try one of the above techniques for a month (about how long it takes to develop a habit).  Let me know how it goes.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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