businessman stressed by too many tasks

By now you’ve heard it’s bad to multi-task, but your to-do list reads like War and Peace and you need to finish it today. If you were actually reading War and Peace, though, shifting your attention between two to three different chapters at the same time would confuse your memory of what happens. And if you’re only going to remember the book as a jumbled mess of Napoleon trudging through snow while Russian aristocrats divorce each other, you might as well not read at all.

It’s a daunting task, but if you want to keep your work coherent, you need to read one word at a time. Since you aren’t just reading a book, and the relentless network of emails coursing through your smartphone and desktop aren’t written by Tolstoy, here are three steps to get you focused with your devices:

Step 1: Dedicate your Time

Set aside time for one task. You don’t have to finish it in that time (although that would be ideal), you just need to work on that task and nothing else. It will feel weird for the first five minutes or so, but when you know the time is going to end and you’ll still be able to check the google of notifications building up, it becomes easier to push everything else aside and focus.

Step 2: Silence Communication

Just switch your app notifications to “off” on your computer or sweet tablet, then turn your phone volume all the way to silent.

Of course, everyone knows you’re sitting at your computer with your phone in your pocket, and since you know they know, you’ll feel the need to respond to everything immediately. And what if you get a text about your son getting his head stuck in a wall, or your favorite Starbucks catching fire, and you missed it by an hour because you were too busy focusing on doing your job well?

Or what if an undetected meteorite smashes into your house right now? No one could have known about it, and there’s nothing you or Bruce Willis could do after it happens. But the odds of it happening are astronomically low, and in the meantime you can do something about the quality of your work.

Give it an hour. Chances are, the world won’t end within that time.

Step 3: Limit Programs and Consolidate

This is where we get a little technical, because many single tasks usually require you to think about several different things. For example, if you’re entering data, you’ll probably have at least one Excel window open along with any number of PDF manifests and maybe a reference sheet for organizing everything.

Hopefully, you have dual monitors so can keep the excel window open in one and the manifest in the other. You could put a third window on a tablet or phone if needed, but the idea is to dedicate each screen to one program. Stacking tabs on top of each other is a handy tool, but all the clutter will interrupt your train of thought when you have to dig for a specific window. If you keep the manifests on one screen, the data entry on another, and warehouse reference numbers on the tablet, you can switch your attention between them without breaking your work flow.

Step 4: Breathe and Stop Looking for Someone to Help You

When you get down to it, everything relies on your own head. There is nothing to help you concentrate if you aren’t willing to quiet your mind and apply all your energy toward accomplishing one thing. That’s either the path to nirvana or a productive work ethic. Either way, it’s a good thing to practice.

Bonus Step: Music

You probably still think you’re cool for listening to Arcade Fire because you saw them in concert one time and someone with a beard said that was rad, but you’re working right now. No one cares if you’re cool here. If you need some background noise, a lot of researchshows that ambient music you don’t care about with an up-beat rhythm and no words is probably best for maintaining speed and concentration.

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