Only a few years ago, multitasking seemed like the only way to get things done. The more we had on our plates, the more it made sense to try to keep every plate spinning at the same time. Now we know multitasking actually slows us down and can reduce our productivity by up to 40%. Our lives aren’t getting less busy, though. So what can you do to get work done effectively? Here are five tips to help you improve your focus and turn complicated projects into easy-to-tackle tasks.
Make a list and set priorities
Though it might seem like a mindless chore, updating the list of projects on your plate is a wise way to start the day. It could actually reduce your stress by making your workload seem more manageable. Next, categorize each project according to your top priorities. Start by asking a few simple questions:
- Which projects are mission critical?
- Which have urgent deadlines?
- Which include creative work that requires your complete focus? (in other words, not administrative tasks)
- Which large projects can be divided into smaller tasks?
- Which tasks can be delegated?
Pro tip for procrastinators: Get started by organizing overwhelming workloads into manageable task lists you can create with a few simple key strokes in Dropbox Paper.
Create one central knowledge hub for each project
If your desktop looks like a sticky note factory after a wind storm, it might be a good time to gather handwritten notes into a Paper doc. Aside from the relief of working in a less-cluttered workspace, investing a few hours to compile the most essential information in a single online document is more than an act of tidying up. It’s a way of creating a knowledge base, a central hub of information that can be shared with your team. When it comes time to invite feedback from collaborators or delegate tasks to teammates, you’ll have a streamlined starting point.
Do away with all distractions
After you’ve removed the clutter from your desk area, think about ways to simplify your online workspace as well. If looking at a long to-do list keeps you from taking the first step on a creative project, start by simply opening a new Paper doc. Unlike editing docs that make you select margins, fonts, and formatting from the get-go, Paper bypasses those distractions and presents you with a clean, blank canvas. A very Zen way to begin your brainstorm.
Now, to stay in that creative zone, you’ll need to tune out all external distractions. Email and text create the biggest temptation to multitask. Did you know the average American checks their phone about 47 times a day? That distraction can lower our effective IQ by as much as 10 points. So when you’re doing focused work, take a break from your devices. Make a habit of designating blocks of time every day to being offline. Set a timer and make a commitment to avoid checking all emails, texts, and calls.
Set aside 45–90 minutes to focus
Ever notice how often you get sidetracked by administrative tasks when you have a looming deadline on a creative project? To prevent this, try setting aside tasks that can’t be delegated, and giving yourself a block of time where you decide not to sweat the small stuff. For creative work like brainstorming, writing, or designing, you should devote 45–90 minute windows of time and give your complete attention to the task at hand.
Why is this important? Our most productive work happens in cycles. Research suggests this is tied to the ultradian rhythm: the human brain needs a break after 90-120 minutes of focused work. The energy we dedicate to a creative pursuit starts to taper off after about an hour and a half. Next time you need to kickstart a creative project, try this: find a quiet place to concentrate, open a new Paper doc, and let your ideas flow for a full 45–90 minutes—before you start editing.
Take breaks between focused sessions
Just as important as the focused attention you bring to a creative session is the break you take when you’re done. Some studies suggest that for every 52 minutes of work, you should take a 17-minute break. It’s hard to boil it down to an exact science, of course, but research has shown that after a break, the quality of our work improves and productivity actually rises.