5 Surefire Strategies to Keep Yourself Focused and Accountable

Getting ahead in today’s highly competitive, connected, and demanding business world requires a level of digital connectedness and focus that is unlike anything predating this time. Or does it just feel that way?

In our technology-driven business environment, remaining connected to colleagues and on top of client developments is simpler and more ingrained in workplace cultures than ever before.

We wake up, grab the phone on our nightstand, silence its alarm, roll back over with phone in-hand, open email, and get to work. And why wouldn’t we? It’s been a whopping six hours since we completed the same routine, just in reverse. What if we missed something during that time?

What Busy Is and What Busy Is Not

At some point, being busy became a point of pride. It became synonymous with hard work. Those who stay online from the time they wake until the time their head hits the pillow again must be working harder than their 9-5 counterparts, right? Yes, surely workers on the opposite end of the spectrum—those who regularly sign off and manage to stay signed off—surely, they must not care as much, get as much done, or have as important of roles.

Or is the other end of the spectrum simply more disciplined, focused, and accountable? Is this group able to get as much done, if not more, in less time?

To answer this question, let’s take a step back and discuss where so much of our working hours are being spent.

The McKinsey Global Institute reports that an average office employee spends nearly 30 percent of the workweek managing email. Radicati Group projects that the daily number of emails sent and received per person—a number that already tops 120—will increase through at least 2019.

Beyond email, business messaging tools like Slack, Hipchat, and Skype keep the constant stream of communication going strong, as do text messages and phone calls. And then there are meetings.

The single ding of a new email may seem harmless enough. It’s not. Take, for instance, the internal study conducted by Microsoft, which found that workers spend an average of 15 minutes from the time of a distraction—e.g. an incoming text message—before they return to the initial task at hand. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the 15 minutes is not spent responding to the interruption; instead, it is used on non-work activities like browsing social media and surfing the web.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Microsoft research scientist Eric Horvitz after the study. “If it’s this bad at Microsoft, it has to be bad at other companies, too.”

The 15 minutes lost per distraction is not the only detrimental effect. When we allow ourselves to be repeatedly disrupted, we form a bad habit of multitasking. Similar to “being busy,” the idea of multitasking sounds great on the surface. It’s not. Successfully multitasking is something a meager two percent of the population is capable of. For the rest, trying to complete two or more tasks simultaneously is not a cognitive possibility and drops productivity by as much as 40 percent.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” explains cognitive scientist David E. Meyer. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Looking to the long term, a life plagued by continuous disruptions interferes with everything from focus to creativity, from short-term memory to long-term memory, and from workplace satisfaction to general happiness.

How much focus do we have?

When you take a moment to reflect on your own performance and work-life satisfaction, findings from UC Irvine might be of little surprise. Its team of researchers sought to understand the effects of email access on heart rate and focus. Two groups were tracked with heart rate monitors—one with access to email and one without. The latter group switched windows an average of 18 times per hour and logged significantly less elevated and varied heart rates, showing both decreased stress and increased focus compared to their email-checking counterparts.

“We are not designed to be in a constant state of nervous system arousal and with all our portable devices all operating on a variable ratio reinforcement pattern,” says Kimberly Young. The author of Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment, explains, “We feel as if we cannot turn them off and we begin to feel that we cannot live without them.”

Habitual task-switching and failed multitasking can make days, weeks, months, and even years pass by where we feel busy and therefore believe we accomplished a great deal. Only later, when it’s time to report on our output, do we look back, scratch our heads, and wonder, “What happened?”

Enough of the bad news.

As the productivity problem continues to grow, so too do discussions around solutions. Today, numerous strategies exist to overcome digital addiction and return to a state of peak performance—here are five.

1) Create and Communicate a Work Schedule

Your time is limited. You cannot and should not do it all. Keep and communicate a firm work schedule whenever possible, even if not required by your company. Doing this the right way goes beyond noting which hours and days you will be working. It involves allocating set times to tasks like managing email, being able to attend meetings, collaborating on projects that do not directly fall within your purview, and so on.

Going further, inform colleagues of the best way to reach you depending on the urgency of an action item. Generally, a phone call or in-person visit is best for tasks requiring an answer now; a text or instant message is appropriate when something is needed within a few hours; and email is good for items that have a 12- to 24-hour grace period for addressing.

Aside from letting colleagues know your availability, keeping a public work schedule indirectly asks others to be considerate of your valuable time and sends the message that they should follow your direction and be mindful of their own.

2) Reduce Distractions

The same technology that was initially designed to increase productivity can do just the opposite when used inappropriately. Taking phone calls and responding to emails at all hours of the day disrupts work activities.

The first thing you should do is turn off notifications for non-critical apps on your phone and computer. Next, remove mobile apps you don’t want or need and move distracting, habit-forming apps from your home screen. To give yourself an extra reminder of what you’re working to avoid, move this final group into a folder a label it “Distractions,” “Productivity Killers,” or anything else that will help your willpower.

For your computer, consider applications such as RescueTime or a browser extension to block access to distracting websites for periods of time. Programs like RescueTime also help you track productivity and provide weekly recaps of your most distracting web habits and how they’ve changed over time.

3) Employ the Pomodoro Technique

Remember that multitasking is not your friend. Keep yourself focused with the Pomodoro Technique.

Developed in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management method in which you work in highly focused 25-minute intervals on a predetermined task or set of tasks. If you become distracted during that time, jot down the thought and get back to work. When the 25 minutes is up, take a short, 3- to 5-minute break, then complete another Pomodoro cycle. Once you’ve finished a fourth consecutive cycle, take a longer, 15- to 30-minute break to reset and reenergize.

As with some of the programs mentioned in strategy number two, there are browser extensions that allow you to block specified websites during your work intervals.

4) Delegate Strategically

It can be difficult to delegate and let go, particularly for Type A personalities and chronic micromanagers, but offloading distracting tasks will free you to focus on projects that truly move the needle.

A large part of leadership is developing other people and handing off tasks that would be better completed by another person. Delegating tasks that do not require your direct input is a way you can train junior and peer associates who want to gain experience in different job functions while also saving yourself time. If you remain accessible to the employee for guidance, the training opportunity can turn into a success story for all parties.

5) Make Effective Lifestyle Changes That Promote Well-Being

One of the most important elements of success for modern managers is keeping bodies and minds focused and energized. Unfortunately, real and perceived busyness often leads to poor activity levels, food choices, and sleeping patterns.

Regardless of how packed your schedule is, you should be able to make room for healthy habits 99 percent of the time. Download a version of the seven-minute workout to get in a fast, effective full-body workout every day no matter where you are. Use Headspace or Inner Balance to build resistance to stress through daily meditation and breathing exercises. Subscribe to a meal service like Munchery or Pete’s Paleo that specializes in delivering pre-made, freshly prepared dishes created from quality ingredients, or opt for a service like Blue Apron that delivers recipes and pre-proportioned ingredients so you can make fast, healthy meals at home. Disconnect from sleep-preventing digital devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, commit to getting a healthy amount of rest each night, and consider testing technologies like blackout curtains, and wake-up lights, and the various sleep applications on the market.

Making profound changes is not easy, particularly with long- and hard-set habits. When you find your willpower diminishing and distractions creeping in, take a break, practice mindfulness, and remember why you set out to make the changes in the first place.

What are we missing? Please share your go-to strategies for enhancing digital discipline and workplace focus.

This was a guest post from Rachel Dotson, Marketing Manager at SaneBox. About SaneBoxRemember when email used to help your productivity? SaneBox takes you back to those days again with insanely intelligent email filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and more. See why SaneBox is being called the best thing to happen to email since email’s invention at

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