How to Stay Focused in a Multitasked World

Being productive sometimes means saying "no".

There's no doubt about it: Studies show that multitasking — constantly switching between activities — makes it hard to concentrate and do your best work.

Where does that leave office admins, who have multitasking practically built into their job description? Try these techniques for finding and keeping the focus you need to complete long-term projects.

1. Put limits on your to-do list

Use your to-do list to note down quick tasks that take less than 30 minutes. Try making two columns: One for things you need to do by the end of the day, and another for items that can wait. That will help you prioritize. What about bigger jobs that take half an hour or more? See #2 below!

2. Schedule your own "meetings"

If you estimate that a task will take more than 30 minutes to accomplish, go straight to your calendar, and bypass the to-do list. Schedule these jobs as you would a meeting, and then keep that date with yourself when the time arrives. To avoid getting overwhelmed, assign just a couple of larger tasks to each day. When that dedicated time slot starts, commit your full focus: Close your door if you have one, or put up a cheerful "Project time — Do not disturb!" sign on your desk.

Of course, urgent requests may still disrupt your plans — as soon as you start planning the company picnic from 10 a.m. to noon, for example, your boss will find you at 10:15 and ask you to book travel arrangements for her next trip, ASAP. Try to build in flexibility for these unplanned interruptions by not scheduling things back to back. Reschedule any project time that gets scuttled.

3. Tame your tech

Office software, the web and other technology are huge productivity boosters, but they can also be a major source of distraction. Some experts recommend avoiding list-making apps on your smartphone and keeping a pad or notebook on your desk instead, since picking up your phone may distract you with texts and alerts.  

If your team uses online chat or collaboration tools, find the "do not disturb" settings and turn them on whenever you are in "project" mode. Try checking email just on the hour and half hour marks, unless key people, such as your boss, expect faster responses. You may need lots of willpower to stick to this habit: Research shows the brain's reward centers become conditioned to seek out new emails and texts!

4. Wrap up, review, and plan for tomorrow

A little time spent organizing at the end of the day can set you up for success in the morning. Review the day's to-do list and write a fresh one for the next day, reassessing priorities as you go. On Friday afternoons, try to give yourself at least 15 minutes to not only write out the list that will be waiting for you Monday morning, but also schedule out the longer tasks you want to get done in the coming week.

Once you start carving out chunks of time where you are able to dedicate your focus to one task, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much more you're able to get done.