The A-Z of Personal Productivity logo

F is for Focus.
Regardless of our occupation, there are always blocks of work that need to be done. The best way to dispatch such tasks is to just immerse yourself in the work and focus solely on that until it's complete.

Unfortunately, the modern world conspires against us. We're constantly encouraged to take on more; exhorted to multi-task; and it seems as though each day there's something new clamouring for our attention.

This is particularly true with computers and the Internet. There's a lot of truth behind the old joke: if a train stops at a train station, and a bus stops at a bus station, what happens at a workstation?

There are some ways that you can alleviate the problem and tackle the attention-vampires on your terms, rather than theirs.


This has to be the biggest productivity-killer of the modern age. It's also extremely useful, so we can't just give it up.

The problem with email is that it promises speedy delivery of a message that can be stored for when the recipient is next available, but we seem to have forgotten the second part of that promise.

Once that little new message icon appears at the bottom of your screen, it's almost impossible to ignore, and with the amount of spam flying about these days it appears with increasing frequency. Even if it only takes a couple of seconds to flip to your email program and delete the spam message, you'll have interrupted your train of thought and it will take much longer than those few seconds to get back to where you were.

The best solution is not to leave your email program running. Make checking your email a separate task that you do and then finish, rather than something that's always going on in the background.

Closing my email client when I've finished reading my emails has probably been the single biggest improvement in my productivity. I wish I'd started doing it years ago, rather than just a few months back.

Some people advocate going even further and not opening your email client in the morning until you've done some "real" work. That way you get to achieve something concrete before your day gets overrun with responding to an assortment of email messages.

The Web

The web is another place where it's easy to get distracted. You start off checking the exchange-rate from £s to $s and before you know it, half-an-hour has gone and you've somehow ended up watching a video of somebody playing Guitar Hero...

Like email, the best solution is to close your web browser. That additional step to open it could be enough for you to catch yourself before it's too late.

But what if you need to use a web browser for work?

That makes it trickier. As a lot of my time is spent developing code for the web, my browser is pretty much always running, and so at times I do succumb to the wonders of the web. I use my email client as my blog reader, though, which means that my biggest source of web-based distraction is removed at the same time as my email distraction.

There are still a couple of other options to explore if you can't shut down your browser:

If you're using Firefox then you can install the MeeTimer extension. That shows you how much time you're spending on different web sites, and has a "Discourage Me" mode where you can configure it to stop or warn you if you're visiting places where you'll waste too much time.

And if you only need access to a certain site then Prism (formerly called WebRunner) could be the answer. It lets you create a specialised web browser that only lets you access one website. I wrote about how to use it with tedium a couple of months ago, and there are versions for common web apps like GMail and Yahoo! Mail already available. It's also not too tricky to create your own.


Phonecalls are another source of interruptions, and if you're receiving too many non-urgent calls then maybe use your voicemail service or answerphone to screen them when you're trying to focus on a task.

Ignoring calls can be seen as rude, so if you are going to use this strategy then it's best to change your voicemail message to explain what you are doing. Tell callers when they can try again, or encourage them to send you an email for non-urgent messages, and make sure you do return the calls when you break to check your messages.

Instant Messaging

As this is the most recent communications development, it hasn't built up the same level of expectations as the other forms. It's also a more casual medium, and we can use these attributes to our advantage.

Use the status mechanisms to show that you are busy, or pretend that you're away from your machine, and you should be bothered less. Or even better, sign out from the services altogether when you're working - then you won't be tempted to initiate the conversations either.


This one was a killer for me. Particularly the simple games that come installed with Windows, like Solitaire and Minesweeper.

Because they're so quick to play, I'd delude myself that I could just have a quick game as a break for a minute or two. I don't know if there were any occasions when I'd stop after that first game, it was just too easy to start another...

In the end, I decided that they weren't bringing me any benefit whatsoever and, although it was a much harder decision than it should have been, I just uninstalled them.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed a common thread to these techniques - they generally involve turning off the source of the distraction. It's an easy technique to implement, but it does require some discipline not to fall back into the old habits.

I think Rob May summed it up well in his recent article:

"I don't think there is a single message I've received in the last year that couldn't have waited an hour or two for a response. But when I don't finish a software spec, or a business plan, or returning emails, or whatever it is I wanted to get done but didn't - then I do feel bad the next day."