10 Science-Based Practices to Master Your Time and Focus
Breaking the cycle of overworking, under-planning and time crunching.
Author: Ashley LeCroy, Manager, Events & Member Programs, WLG
Time is finite and everyone struggles to manage it. However, learning to control our focus is not only possible but critical to our emotional well-being, sense of self, productivity and overall success. This has never been more challenging than in these times of "work from home" or "living at work." Lack of structure and influx of distractions wreak havoc on focus and energy.
Don't fret. We recently spoke with Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A. Psychology, a former lawyer dedicated to helping those in the profession become the best versions of themselves in high-stress environments. The below is a summary of a one-hour workshop to give you a general sense of the time-management techniques Green suggests. A deeper understanding can be gained through his tailored programs.
Here are ten science-based tools you can implement today to gain control of your time, energy and focus.
Green says there is no pressure to adopt all the habits. Instead, choose those that fit your style. Start small, take your time and add more or swap as you go. Much like yoga, learning a new language or skill, taking control of your time is a practice, so be patient and keep practicing.
Schedule Your Time Management: That's right, make a regular appointment with yourself to assess and actively reflect on your time management skills. Green suggests following Steven Covey's advice by setting aside five minutes, two days a week, to do a 'time audit' by pulling away from our production and focusing on our "production capacity." "Reflect on your recent victories, struggles and learning lessons regarding time management, and methodically optimize these over time."
Use Time Boxing to Combat Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available to complete it—Parkinson's Law. So, Green advises, don't start any task or project without giving yourself a false interim deadline. If you need help getting started, why not find an accountability buddy to hold you to those deadlines the same way someone would hold you accountable at the gym.
Re-Frame Time Management "Success:" Green says many of our time management problems come from, ironically, time management problems. We tend to self-judge when we're not productive, leading to a snowballing of time management problems. Instead, he says, let go of inefficient periods, rejuvenate and come back to it. Don't let a time management lag become a time management plummet.
Eliminate & Shorten Micro Decisions: The more cognitive resources we use throughout the day, the more depleted our focus for tasks requiring our primary performance instrument—our brains. Green suggests reducing micro-decisions and mindfully shortening less important tasks will make room for our brains to focus on essential tasks. Think Mark Zuckerberg's and Barack Obama's limited wardrobe options.
Systematize Task Prioritization: Developing a task prioritizing system to avoid mistaking activity for productivity. Green suggests the four quadrants of urgent/non-urgent/important/not important, the 80/20 rule or his personal favorite, assigning priority levels one through five and completing level five, the most important work, first. "Time management is often not a productivity issue, but a task prioritization issue," says Green.
Take Non-Intellectual Short Breaks: "Most people take short breaks that undermine their willpower and ability to focus throughout the day," says Green. A lawyer's primary performance instrument is their brain. Professional athletes don't take breaks during halftime or time-outs by playing their sport recreationally with friends; they rest their bodies by sitting on the bench. Similarly, lawyers should take short breaks that provide mental and cognitive rejuvenation, such as breathing exercises, listening to music, walking (or even looking) outside, meditation and even intentional boredom, versus emotionally enjoyable activities like social media, personal texting, web browsing, in-person interaction, and personal emailing.
Reduce Multitasking & Increase Uninterrupted Work Blocks: You can walk and chew gum simultaneously, but your brain cannot think about multiple cognitive tasks at the same time. "What we're doing is rapidly task-switching throughout every hour of the day," says Green. "But every time we task switch, our brain suffers from 'resumption inefficiencies' and 'attention residue," which destroy our ability to focus and efficiently complete tasks." Reducing the number of task switches by even 25% per day will significantly improve productivity and time management.
Adopt Tangible Pre-Boundaries to Defeat Productivity Killers: Research shows that just the sight or sound of our phones destroys our productivity. Green's suggestion is to silence and stow your cell phone for blocks of time to allow yourself to focus on driving your substantive deadlines forward. Set important contacts (e.g., key partners or clients) on your phone whose calls and emails will override the silent setting, but do not allow yourself to succumb to "death by email" by the countless people messaging you. Identify a specific boundary of how often you check email throughout the day, rather than impulsively responding to each "email itch." Choose actual productivity over the appearance of responsiveness.
Attack Procrastination with the Ten-Minute Rule: The two most common causes of procrastination: perfectionism and "monsterism"—a term Green coined to describe the human brain's distortion of the relative complexity of a task. "Our attachment to unconstrained perfection and our unconscious exaggeration of the complexity of the pending task causes us to delay starting it," says Green. Apply the "ten-minute rule" to overcome procrastination by alternating between 10 minutes of "average" work and 10 minutes of break for an entire hour when you begin an onerous project, rather than forcing yourself to begin the project with one hour of genius work. "You will trick your brain into the 'flow state' and massive productivity," notes Green.
Use Time of Day Discernment: Every brain is wired differently and works better on different types of projects at different times of the day. Green suggests dividing the day into four time periods and categorizing your ten most common tasks into when you best perform that task. "This will enhance your productivity by leveraging your task-specific peak performance windows," he says. "By mastering the chronology of your projects over the course of the day, you will accomplish far more in far less time."
Jarrett Green, Esq., M.A., is a former Biglaw litigator who left the practice of law so he could live his passion of helping lawyers, legal professionals, and other high-stress individuals experience less stress, more happiness, greater focus, improved productivity, optimized cognition, and enhanced overall success in their work, and lives. He has a Masters in Psychology and certifications in Executive Coaching, Stress Management, and Mindfulness. Jarrett consults and leads programs at nearly half of the AmLaw 100 firms and many Fortune 500 companies. He is a regular keynote speaker at legal and corporate events across the globe. Learn more at Jarrett-Green.com
Jarrett recently spoke to WLG | beyond borders participants, a six-week virtual program designed to engage young lawyers in the network and develop necessary professional skills to enhance their practice and careers.
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