How to Organize your Workday for Increased Focus at Work

As knowledge workers, we rely on our ability to concentrate and complete our tasks efficiently and effectively. However, with the constant influx of new information, interruptions from co-workers asking for help and distractions, it can be a major challenge to stay in focus for more than a few minutes at a time. Balancing all the different activities and duties and constantly recovering from interruptions throughout the day can be taxing on workers, resulting in higher stress, reduced motivation and more errors. In addition, finding such a balance can be challenging due to intricacies of everyday work, such as unplanned tasks or problems coming up, the natural need to collaborate frequently within and across teams, personal preferences on when and how to communicate and work, as well as trends towards remote/hybrid work.

Blocking slots for focused work

One simple, yet effective way to get a few hours of focused work done each day is to work in short bursts of full focus, and blocking out everything else during that time. Blocking out distractions and notifications can include disabling notifications, closing the email client, logging out from social networks, closing the office door and other quick measures. A very simple approach to manage quick ad-hoc focus sessions is to apply the Pomodoro technique. With the technique, you’ll focus on a single task for 25 minutes. Afterwards, you get a quick 5 minute break, and then restart the cycle with the next focus session. The 25 minute duration of a focus session is thereby just a suggestion. Focus sessions can be shorter or longer, and I suggest to experiment a bit to find your ideal duration. I personally like 45 minute sessions.

Instead of performing ad-hoc focus sessions, I recommend to plan your focus sessions in advance, by blocking off time for focused work in your calendar. That way you can ensure you will be able to have a couple of focus hours of focused work every day, without meetings fragmenting your work and not enough time in-between meetings to get into focus. Sharing your calendar with your co-workers could be not only helpful for them to gauge when you’re unlikely to respond to a request and can adjust their expectations accordingly, but also to let them know you’re focused and hopefully reducing interruptions. Some tools, such as Microsoft Teams, even automatically set your presence state to ‘busy’ for what they call focus time.

How to make Focus Sessions work: The ONE Thing

I’ve personally experimented with focused sessions in the past years and have had my fair share of challenges with implementing what sounds great in theory. I’ve often kept postponing planned focus sessions, or still interrupted myself at a time I actually should (or wanted to) focus. About a year ago, I’ve come across a book called “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth about Extraordinary Results” (by Gary Keller). As the Gary Keller makes a convincing argument on how to do more by doing less, by doing the most important thing first, and then continuing with the next most important thing and so on. Through the process, one can constantly ask the question “What is the ONE thing I need to do right now that will make everything else {in this project / in my life / in my work} much easier?”.

How I am implementing the concept is that when planning or before performing an ad-hoc focused session, I break down my large task into several smaller tasks that I can do in ca 35 minutes and pick the most important one. In case one of them is (very) challenging and bears the chance to be procrastinated, I pick that one. It’s a fantastic feeling to later realize that I’ve just completed the most challenging subtask. To the focus time of 35 minutes I add a reserve time of 10 minutes (yielding 45 minutes). Really committing to such a relatively small but very important subtask seems less overwhelming and more realistically doable. And it’s a great feeling to be able to cross-off an item after 45 minutes and visualizing my progress; something which motivates me to do another focus session after a (well-deserved, but previously regularly skipped) 5 minute break.

By the way research confirms my own learning that prompting people to make concrete plans is improving chances that they follow-through with their intentions: people were more likely to go and vote, get a flu shot, or get a cancer screening after having it planned.

(Picture Source: found it on Twitter a few years ago, but couldn’t find the account who posted it again)

Experiment and find a System that Works for You

As I tried to show by telling my story on how it took quite a bit of time until I found a good system of planning and following-through with focused sessions, I suggest you to do the same: experiment with different approaches until you find a system that works well for you and is not too complicated to be sustainable over longer periods of work. In addition, I recommend to spend a few minutes from time to time and reflect on your productivity and focus, as well as on how interruptions from co-workers or yourself impact your ability to work focused.

In case you are seeking guidance or want to experiment with a novel approach on planning and following-through with focused work sessions, please consider participating in the study that we are currently setting up (as of March 2023). The aim of our study is to investigate if a team awareness approach showing your own and you co-workers’ current and upcoming focus and interruptibility is helpful for structuring your workday better, and balance focused work as well as interactions with co-workers.

Over several weeks, you’ll be able to use our new team awareness approach that allows you to not only plan and share your personal focus sessions, but also interaction sessions – these are times you are reserving for your co-workers’ questions (similar to office hours). The tool integrates into your existing workflows, calendar (Microsoft or Google) as well as communication apps (Teams, Zoom, Slack). At the beginning and end of the study, we’ll ask you a few questions to learn more about your experience and improve the approach. Please visit our website to learn more about the study and let me know in case you have any questions.