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7 Ways to Stay Focused at Work

Make your distractions work for you and get out on time.

In a world filled with instant access to information, coworkers and friends, finishing a solid eight hours of work seems nearly impossible. Avoiding distractions, however, is not a Herculean task. Just like getting to the gym each day, staying focused while at work is a matter of building good habits.

Set clear goals: Instead of saying, “I’m going to work a solid eight hours every day,” make a list of your top priorities for the week. This helps you avoid reacting to every distraction that comes up. Review your list each morning and decide—realistically—what tasks you can accomplish that day. Be concrete: “I’m going to finish steps 1-3 of the project by noon.”

Work in 60-90-minute blocks: As we work, our alertness drops off, increasing the lure of distractions. Set a timer and take a break at the end of each cycle. Reset your focus by listening to music for a few minutes, taking a short walk, or going for lunch.

Turn off the world: Let’s face it, the world is a distracting place. Avoid temptation by severing all ties. This includes email, office phones, cell phones and your coworkers. This might require finding a quiet place away from your office to work—such as booking a conference room or hiding out in your office. If you need to, set up a system for urgent messages to reach you. This doesn’t include where to go for happy hour.

Schedule distractions: Distractions are not all bad, but you need to make them work for you. Use them as reward for a solid chunk of work. Start out with distractions that are good for you, such as working out or calling your friends. If Facebook and Twitter are your thing, block off time in your schedule to post or browse other people's updates, but stick to your schedule. Remember, you control the distractions.

Practice not being distracted: Meditation is a great way to do this because it’s just you and your thoughts. If that’s not your thing, practice single-tasking throughout your day. At lunch, just eat. Don’t read the newspaper or check your email at the same time. In meetings, don’t doodle in your notebook or play with your phone.

Pay attention to yourself: Start to notice when and how you get distracted. What thoughts happen just before that? Are you tired, hungry, or bored? As you learn what triggers your distractions, you can head them off before you slip into an hour-long IM chat.

Use technology to your advantage: From blocking out distracting websites to tracking how much time you spend surfing the web, many apps can actually help you stay focused. Once you identify what your habits are, pick one that will help you meet your goals, but don’t let these become distractions in themselves.

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