Insider: Five top tips for staying focused at work

Emma J Bell, management coaching specialist. Picture: Contributed
Emma J Bell, management coaching specialist. Picture: Contributed
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Management coaching specialist Emma J Bell shares her key points for staying focused on what’s most important for you and your business.

One: Be clear about what’s urgent and important and do that first

The important work that enables your business to flourish needs an appropriate amount of time and attention – daily

Emma J Bell

By “urgent and important” I mean that bad things will happen if you don’t do these things today, or by 10am tomorrow at the very latest. It requires laser-sharp discipline to create your “urgent and important” list. Don’t allow anything on it that can wait until Monday if today is Wednesday.

Unless you’re in crisis-management mode that list won’t be too long – and you’ll be able to crack through it in an hour or two. That’s the first thing to get done today, because nothing else matters as much as the things on that list. It’s the only way to get the monkey off your back. Most of us are seduced by the notion that spending the first hour of every day in our email in-box is somehow productive. It’s not. Getting the urgent and important stuff out of the way first allows you the guilt-free pleasure of languishing in your in-box for as long as is truly productive.

Two: Manage your in-box addiction and use the 4-D rule

If the flash on the corner of your computer screen indicating the arrival of a new email causes your finger to click in eager anticipation on your in-box icon, then you’re allowing the rest of the world to run your day – and your life.

I’ve worked with hundreds of lawyers and accountants who start out vigorously defending their right to “click the itch” because the client is king. Except that the itch occurs when they’re already working hard on a task for another client. By allowing their attention to be splintered by every incoming email, they take longer to do work with less focus (and perhaps to a diminished quality).

Successful people decide proactively (rather than reactively) when and how often they will check the email in-box. The frequency must reflect the appropriate balance to be struck in your particular business – will it be half-hourly or hourly, for example? Make the commitment to be proactive with email and stick to it.

Technically, this is a separate tip – but I’ll give you two for one. Tackle your in-box mindfully using the 4 Ds; delete, delegate, deal with it or delay it (for the right reasons). If an email can be dealt with in under three minutes, deal with it now. Start at the top (or bottom, depending on your sorting preference setting) using the 4 Ds rather than pouring over them all and starting from the top (or bottom) again – that’s double-handling and a waste of time.

READ MORE: Monday interview: Emma J Bell, management coaching specialist

Three: Do the big things daily

The important work that enables your business to flourish needs an appropriate amount of time and attention – daily. You might live on fantasy island where you imagine a gaping chasm will open in your diary enabling you to do the strategic review, the business development plan, the client care plan, the lengthy report for that client or any of the other cerebral and time-consuming stuff that aren’t yet urgent.

The trouble is that a gaping chasm won’t appear in your diary and the deadline for the important stuff will approach. Whilst you might have developed a coping mechanism for your procrastination by telling yourself that you work better under pressure, the truth is that creativity needs space – and time. It tends to be throttled by tight deadlines. By dedicating even 30 minutes a day to starting the task, and then to doing it chunk by chunk in the following days or weeks you’re triggering the “incubation process” and alerting your reticular activating system (RAS).

Let me explain. The incubation processes are the creative juices that flow, enabling great ideas to pop up when you’re in the bath or sitting in your car at traffic lights. Your RAS is the part of your brain that starts to notice information in your environment that would be handy to include in that business review you’re working on. It’s the same process that has you noticing how many BMW Z4s there are on the road right after you’ve decided to buy one.

Four: Don’t multi-task

Multi-tasking was big in the 80s along with Rick Astley and perms, but if you’re still doing it now then you are way out of date. Neuroscientists have now established that we can only consciously do one thing at time. You have never, in fact, been multi-tasking.

The term suggests that you were able to do more than one thing simultaneously. Instead you’ve been taxing your brain by having it shift from one task on to another and back again, normally resulting in both tasks being done badly and you becoming exhausted to boot. By consciously focusing on one task to the point of completion and then moving on to the next, you’ll conserve your mental energy and maintain your focus, as well as doing a great job.

Five: Focus on what’s important to you and your business

I came across a story recently that I’d love to share with you. James Clear tells the tale of Mike Flint, a friend of a friend of his, who was taught a valuable lesson by Warren Buffet, the renowned investor.

Mike Flint was Warren Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for ten years. According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett, who asked him to go through a three-step exercise.

Step 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down.

Step 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top five goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his five most important goals.

Step 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The five items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top five goals right away. Buffett asked him what he was going to do about the second list. Flint replied: “Well, the top five are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

Buffett replied: “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

My “take away” from this story is that in order to do what’s really important, you must ignore everything else, no matter how loudly it cries for your attention or pulls at your hemline. Those other things must wait – or they’ll dilute your focus and undermine your effectiveness.

• Emma J Bell has been a practitioner of leadership and coaching for 16 years, having previously been a partner within commercial law firms. Find out more at

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