By nature, I’m messy and disorganized — and my mind can be too. I have trouble sustaining attention on just about anything.
In grade school, this meant I didn’t do well in classes. In college, it meant that I largely blew them off and spent most of my time partying. (When you’re at a party, no one expects you to focus.) After college, I was diagnosed with ADHD, as 11% of kids are these days.
That certainly explained a lot, but it didn’t let me off the hook. Once I entered the working world, I knew I had to make some changes. I couldn’t spend my life running away from this problem, especially if I wanted to succeed in sales, my chosen field. I’d have to organize and track my interactions with prospects and clients and stay attentive to their needs.
Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve discovered several work-arounds that can help anyone struggling to stay focused at work.
Pursue roles that match your passions and attention style. Most people find it easier to stay focused on things they’re deeply passionate about. Even if they’re “scatterbrained” by nature, they may be fully present when teaching a class, treating a patient, or building a house. So try to work in a field that you love.
But go a step further and look for a job that meshes with the way your mind works. For me, that meant going into social selling. It allows me to use written communication in short bursts across multiple platforms. It also allows for lots of quick conversations. I reach out to business leaders and prospects over Twitter DM, Facebook, and LinkedIn messaging.
Whiteboard your tasks. I list everything I have to do each day, with no exceptions. A small, 2-foot-square whiteboard sits on my desk. All my short-term responsibilities are listed on it, in the order of when they’re due: sales calls, proposals, meetings, contracts, and more. A larger, 6-foot-square whiteboard is mounted above my desk, listing my long-term responsibilities: business growth, prospecting, website changes, and so on.
These lists stare at me all day. I update them constantly and stick to them religiously. When I find myself thinking about a task other than the one I’m supposed to be working on, I glance up, make sure it’s listed for me to tackle in the future, and immediately switch back to the task at hand. And to keep myself focused only on one task at a time, I make sure nothing else is in my line of sight. I have a mini-cabinet on my desk to hide magazines, books, gifts from clients, and other potentially distracting objects.
Structure your days. I do long-term tasks only on Wednesdays. On the other four days, the short-term whiteboard rules my schedule. I don’t give myself the option to improvise or change my mind about this (unless there’s an emergency). I’m strict with myself, because if I allow myself to shift back and forth between the two whiteboards at any time, I’ll just keep bouncing around among different tasks and not get anything done.
Some people structure their work differently — switching to long-term tasks every other day, halfway through the day, or every other week. Find the pace that works for you, and keep to it.
Never multitask during a conversation. When you’re not focused on the person you’re speaking with, they know it. If you’re on the phone, they can hear it in your voice and inflection. If you’re meeting in person, they pick up on it through subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, cues.
When I’m speaking with someone in a professional setting, I don’t allow myself to do anything else at all. I can’t. If I so much as open an email during a call, I’ll miss what the other person is saying entirely. I prefer video conferencing over speaking on the phone — it engages me visually, reducing the risk that my attention will wander. If I’m talking to someone in person, I set aside my phone and other distractions.
I’ve also learned to “scan” conversations for key points. As the person is talking, I pick up on certain lines and phrases — the points I would write down as a summary of what they’re saying. It keeps me listening with intent.
As a result, people know they’ve got my undivided attention — something rare these days. They like talking with me, which matters a lot, since my work is all about relationships.
Have somebody always holding you accountable. Even when you take all these steps, there may be times your mind starts wandering. That’s why it’s helpful to have someone who knows your struggles and can help get you back on track.
For me, that’s my wife, a partner in my business. She keeps an eye on my whiteboards as well as my calendar. But it doesn’t have to be someone that close. It can be an assistant, a colleague, or even a boss.
People who are similarly invested in your business want it, and you, to succeed. And there’s reciprocity — you have their back, they have yours. You can hold each other accountable in different ways. Maybe you’re teaching them how to be more confident speaking in front of a group, or sharing some of your savvy with a new technology. We all have things to work on.
Opening up to colleagues or bosses about your struggle to focus can be nerve-wracking, because no one wants to be judged. But in my experience, if you give people insight into your world and your unique ways of getting work done, they’re likely to open up to you about their challenges as well. It leads to a more empathic, collaborative, and human work environment.