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Productivity Hack: increase your focus in 2 minutes by using your vision

In an increasingly distracted world, mental focus might be our most valued asset. And with many of us working from home, there is even less delineation between our work life and home life making it even harder to focus and concentrate on the task in front of us. We jump from one zoom call to the next, emails keep coming, and our homelife makes its way into our work day at random times. 

But while concentration and focus might be in short supply at times, there is a growing understanding in the scientific community that vision and breathing –both of which we can control voluntarily– directly affect the brain and our emotional states. That means we can consciously alter our vision or our breathing to bring about a state of alertness or a state of calm for instance, or even a state of focus. 

Most of us have heard about changing your breath to either increase your energy or to calm down, but you can also consciously alter your vision to tap into your ability to focus.

In effect, you can use your vision as a shortcut to boost your concentration and lean harder into productivity

Strategy #1: Intentionally narrow your vision to engage your mental focus

Your eyes are designed to determine your state of arousal.  In a high alert state, your pupils dilate and you start seeing one thing in sharp focus and everything else disappears. Mental focus follows visual focus. In other words, once you are focusing intensely on something visually, your mind follows and concentrates on that. The visual focus is what brings the brain into cognitive focus.

Armed with this information, you can bring on a state of alertness voluntarily. Consciously narrow your vision when you need to concentrate on something.  Put intense visual focus onto what you need to laser in on.  Go into “Portrait Mode” and let everything else fall into the background. By deliberately narrowing your vision, and blocking out all visual distraction, you’re sending a clear message to your brain about what matters and what needs its energy. 

Strategy #2: Take “focus breaks” to help you lean harder into your work. 

Interestingly, micro-recoveries in between highly focused work sessions can help us focus even better in the next work session. Think of it as a sort of mental HIIT. 

You want to deliberately decompress between sessions of intense work/focus. 

You can do that by periodically widening your vision like you do when viewing the horizon. Changing your gaze to this panoramic vision will relax your brain and turn off the alertness mode in your brain which will allow your mind to destress. In effect, when you widen and relax your gaze you’re hitting the “reset” button so you can handle the upcoming load.  

Learning how to de-focus and re-focus very rapidly is a hugely practical skill to reduce the strain of stress, so you can get back and lean harder into the work again. 

For instance, when you walk out of your meeting, don’t dive into your phone to check your emails or hop on social media. Staring at your phone narrows your vision and does nothing to help your brain recharge. Instead, give yourself a couple minutes before you re-engage into work. Go into panoramic vision: relax your gaze, relax/lower your alertness. Do the same when you get off a call or complete a highly focused work session. Intentionally relax your visual focus periodically to boost your mental focus on the things that matter.

Practice toggling between narrow intense focus, and lowered alertness whenever you can. By relaxing your autonomic nervous system, you will be able to lean into the stress better and be more productive in the session that follows that small break. 

Try these strategies and let me know how it goes for you!

5 Brilliant Productivity Apps Worth Checking Out to Get More Done Today

To be clear, no one needs a productivity app to be productive. When it comes to productivity, what’s more important than the apps you use are the habits and systems you put in place to show up consistently and do the work. But within that context certain apps can help you work smarter and improve your workflow. They can help you set up those habits and systems. And they can help support you as you implement them. 

These are a few apps I found helpful in addressing some of my productivity goals.

1- Drafts for grabbing ideas on the fly  

Drafts is an app that allows you to jot down information on the fly before you forget it and it does that with minimal fuss. Think of it as having a pad of paper with you at all times. When you launch the app –it works with your iPhone, Apple Watch or iPad– it opens to a new page in your “inbox” with the keyboard and microphone ready so you can dictate or type immediately. It lets you capture that information without you having to create a new note, document, or folder. Once you have captured whatever thought or information you needed, you can send it to a zillion different apps like Dropbox, Evernote, Reminder, or apps like Twitter, iMessage and Email. You can tag the info, flag it, or file it. The interface is ultra simple and streamlined. 

I used it primarily for temporary information like I would a Post-it Note (the Apple Watch app is fantastic for that purpose). It’s a great great spot for instance to capture anything from a name, a book or restaurant recommendation or a website. It’s also a great place to prep a message without the fear of it sending before you have worked out exactly what you wanted to say. But you could use it as a  blogging platform, journal, task manager, or something entirely different since each entry is tag-able and searchable. It’s extremely flexible.

Ultimately, Draft is a great way to capture information first, and figure out what you want to do with it later. 

2- Otter to transcribe your voice or someone else’s voice. 

Otter is a free transcription app that transcribes conversations, meetings, phone calls, podcasts and interviews in real time. It’s the best voice to text app I have found so far. You can record your own voice and it’s smart enough to recognize a different speaker making it particularly useful when trying to capture conversations during a meeting or phone call. And you can also use it to do a live transcription of any podcasts or youtube videos for instance which is where it shines for me.

It integrates with Zoom and generates searchable transcripts that are remarkably accurate.  It’s available on desktop, Android, and iOS devices, and there is a limited free plan for new users to try it out. 

What’s even better, it synchronizes the audio with the text during playback, so you can tap on any word to hear exactly what was being said at the time. And it even offers collaboration features to save time and boost productivity.

3- Focus Keeper (or Interval Timer) to keep you on task using the pomodoro method

For anyone who uses the Pomodoro method as a way to push past procrastination, this simple app is a gem! And for those who have not used that strategy yet, I encourage you to give it a shot –particularly for mundane administrative tasks you don’t necessarily feel like doing (i.e. billing in my case). The idea is to work on only one task for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minutes break. Putting a time limit on something will help you concentrate and force you to work quicker and this timer app makes it easy to dip your toe in.

It’s as simple as it gets and that’s precisely why I like it! It does only one thing and it does it well without flashy visuals. There is absolutely no friction. As soon as you launch it, you can get to work. It’s simple and effective. If you want to go in there and customize it a bit, you can, but it’s great right out of the box. 

If you prefer to work in longer time increments than the built-in 25 minute segments (research has shown that our brain naturally works best in uninterrupted 90 minutes intervals) and if your work gives you the flexibility to block out a longer period of time, you might want to upgrade to the paid version to you can customize the timer length, or I suggest using a timer like Interval Timer (iOS, Android). Technically, it’s designed to time your intervals when you do a Tabata or HIIT workout, but because you can customize the cycles at will, it’s perfect for mental work as well. It takes a bit of practice to do deep work for 90 minutes at a time, but your productivity can shoot through the roof by strengthening that mental muscle.

PS: If you’re looking for something that has more features, Focus To-Do might be a better fit for you. It isn’t a Pomodoro-exclusive app. Instead, it’s a full-fledged task manager –complete with folders, due dates, reminders, data charts and reports– that also incorporates a pomodoro functionality. It’s much more complex than Focus Keeper or Interval Timer but it offers you the ability to track your tasks.

4- Brain.fm to get in the zone and get work done

Brain.fm is a science-based app that gives you 2-hour long AI generated soundtracks designed to help you stay focused and be more productive. I have found it to be truly effective at keeping you on task (the results are evident within the first 10 to 15 minutes) and it’s particularly useful when you need to do deep or creative work like writing or programing for instance. 

In addition to helping you focus, you can use Brain.fm to help you sleep, relax or even meditate. The interface is pretty seamless and easy to use. First, you choose a mental state (focus, relax, sleep, or meditate) and then you choose the length of time you have and a sub-category (deep work, creative, study and read, or light work). Based on your selections, the app will create a soundtrack that you can customize further if you’d like based on your mood (you can pick electronic, grooves, cinematic, piano, and forest sounds for instance).

If you are one of those people who can focus while listening to regular music, this app might not be immensely useful, but if you find that music with lyrics, or even classical music, is either a distraction or doesn’t help you focus significantly better, Brain.fm is worth checking out. I have found it personally very useful. 

Brain.fm is available for Android, iOS and as a web application, with a free 3 day trial.

5- Freedom to block distracting websites and apps

Whether it’s because when you work from home, it’s easy to slip into bad habits or because you simply find yourself irresistibly attracted throughout the day to the myriad of websites and apps clamoring for your attention, sometimes you need external support to remove electronic distractions from your space so you can focus on your work. This is where Freedom comes in.

Freedom lets you choose specific websites, desktop apps and mobile apps you want to block or choose sites to whitelist and block all the rest. You can even block the internet itself if you need. 

It’s easy to set up and use and I love the fact that you can schedule your deep work sessions in advance or you can start a session anytime you sense it will be useful. Plus it sync blocks across all of your devices and it’s available across all platforms.

You’ll find a plethora of advice about productivity apps and, in a more general sense, what you need to do in order to be more productive. But in reality, your ability to work more efficiently depends on your personality, how you process information, as well as the specifics of your work and personal situation. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and trial and error is the only way to find what’s best for you. I hope you’ll find value in a few of these apps. 

BONUS: … 2 nifty apps to manage your home life

1- AnyList to keep track of anything from your grocery list to your home projects 

Using a shared grocery list keeps everyone in our house on the same page. I like AnyList for its instantaneous cloud syncing, integration with Siri and Alexa, shareability and automatic sorting into categories. We’re finding it useful for any other types of lists and AnyList can also keep track of specific stores and even meal plans. It’s free, available for iOS and Android.

2- Libby to borrow ebooks or audiobooks from your library for free and Audible – For listening to books

I love books, but the fact is that I end up reading a lot more books by listening to them while I run. Audible is my go-to service to get my audiobooks, but the free option offered by your library is an unbeatable deal. The Libby app is a breeze to set up and use for exactly that purpose. Definitely one to check out!

Tame the chaos: 6 Tips to Stay Productive Working from Home during Covid-19

Tips to stay productive when working from home

Coronavirus pandemic aside, working from home definitely has its advantages: no commute time, less distractions from the people “stopping by to chat” and a flexible dress code. But, the lack of dedicated office space, direct accountability and rhythm also means a total lack of structure and distractions everywhere you look. It’s easy to lose your focus before the day even starts.

How do you maintain, or even increase, your level of productivity and efficiency while working at home during the Covid-19 outbreak? Here are 6 tried and true strategies to help you get going, stay on task and telecommute like a pro.

1.   set up a designated “work” area and optimize your space.

Creating a defined workspace is essential to help you stay focused during the workday. Soon you may go back to your office, but for now, you need to establish a base camp to operate from. Don’t make that your bedroom or your kitchen.

→   Pick your new office wisely. If you have a home office, recreate your workspace to resemble work. If you don’t have one, set up shop in a space preferably away from high traffic like a guest bedroom or a dining room. The idea here is that you want your mind to associate that specific space with work. Whatever your poison (email, social media, Reddit or browsing) make a commitment to stay away when you are in that designated space. Take your breaks in a different room/area so the distinction in clear and the lines don’t get muddled.

→  Tackle your tech: 

  • If you can, remove your home computer from your office to limit distractions or if that’s not an option, turn it off to make “jumping on it for a minute” more inconvenient. Another idea is to create 2 different user accounts to create some separation. Some even go so far as partitioning their hard drive.
  • Reduce your browsing time: Whichever computer set up you use, consider installing an internet blocking tool like Cold turkey to help you stay away from the internet rabbit hole during working hours.
  • Clean up your desktop. It’s easy for your desktop to turn into a junk drawer over time. Put some order back and clear some space on your digital desk and in your head by removing anything you don’t need, or installing a desktop organizer to streamline your screen.

2.   Create a work routine and adopt habits to stay productive

→  Go to work. Physically go to your work space to start your workday. Close your office door if you have one and post a do not disturb sign. If you don’t have a door, use a stand alone partition. You can even be creative and rearrange the furniture to close off your space. Separate yourself from the rest of your home and then start.

→  Limit interruptions. Don’t come out unless absolutely necessary to limit “impromptu” conversations with family members. Set up clear breaks so when you do come out, you are present and available. Multitasking is not the way to go here.

→  Create BOTH a morning and evening routine. It’s one thing to decide you will start work at a certain time, but it’s another to set up a routine that primes your brain so that when you get to your desk in the morning, you are ready to start working and be productive.

For the morning, if you already have an effective ritual that starts off your work day stick with it. If not, now is a good time to set one up. Whether it’s getting a cup of coffee, spending a few moments with your kids at breakfast, walking the dog, or reviewing and writing your goals for the day, give your mind external cues that your workday is starting. Over time, the repetition will lower your internal resistance to this new set up to the point where it will be automatic.

Don’t underestimate the power of an evening routine. Separating your home life from your work life is exponentially more difficult when you work from home.  But especially amid the Coronavirus pandemic, you need that time away from work to recharge and it’s important to clearly signal to your brain that you are shifting gear. When the workday is done; turn off your computer, clean off your desk, write out your to-do list for the next day and close the door behind you (or walk away from your dining room table). Leave work means leave work!

3.   Prep for your day the night before

→  Communicate your schedule to spouse and children to set expectations for how the next day will go. Setting up ground rules about when you will be available for questions or to tackle domestic forest fires will help everyone keep a positive attitude and will reduce the tug of war between your personal and professional life.

→  Get clear on your outcomes for the next day. Now more than ever, having a plan ahead of time for what needs to be done is essential. If you wait until the next morning to figure out what you want to accomplish, you will lose precious time and increase your likelihood of getting distracted by low priority but seemingly urgent tasks.

→  Pretend like you ARE going to the office. Lay out your work clothes so you don’t end up “working in your pajamas.” While keeping it casual is one of the perks of working from home, keeping a professional standard of dress by always being “camera ready” for that impromptu video conference call is another cue for your brain that this is not the weekend.

4.   Use meetings and interactions with others to create structure and accountability.

→  Make it very difficult to procrastinate. Nothing like scheduling early morning meetings to create the leverage to get out of bed and resist the temptation to sleep in.

→  Schedule your lunch time just like you would if you were at work to create the sense of normalcy and that “escaping from the office” time. Working from home also means that the fridge and pantry are always within reach. Having a set time to stop and grab lunch, and meal prepping ahead of time if you can, will help you stay focused on work instead of making hourly runs to the kitchen to snack and distract yourself.

→  Stay on top of your communication with your colleagues. Review your schedule and outcomes periodically throughout the day. Remember, you know what you are doing but no one else does. Even less so now since the one-on-one office conversations that normally happen in the workplace are gone.

5. Use family time as leverage to stay on Task

Zig Ziglar used to say, “the problem with most sales people is when they are home, they are thinking about what they should have been doing at work and when at work, thinking about what they should have been doing from home.”

→  Commit (or re-commit) to family dinners, dedicated times with your kids and other family rituals. Committing to being available a certain time can be a powerful motivator to get things done. Explaining “I can’t spend time with you now, but I am all yours tonight from 6-7pm”, and then being true to your word, will help you create some leverage for yourself.

→  Maintain to your nightly routines with the kids. Working from home may mean that you have more flexibility with your schedule, but sticking to your normal family schedule will help reduce the chaos at a time when the constant uncertainty can make it difficult to stay centered.

→  Schedule your workout times and rest time. Decide ahead of time when you and your spouse can “tag team” with the kids so that everyone can have some time off and DON’T use your “time off” to work unless it’s a MUST or you have already gotten in your workout-recharge time. Part of being as productive as you can at work is about managing your energy. Whether it’s working out or meditating (ideally it’s both), now is not the time skimp on self-care.

6.   Resist the urge to multi-task and juggle your personal life and work life during your work day.

The mind will always take the path of least resistance, especially when no one is watching.

→  Be careful of small, quick distractions becoming large time wasters. For instance, throwing in a quick load of laundry which in your mind will take 2 or 3 minutes can result in a wasted 30 minutes getting your kids to bring theirs down, sorting, folding, etc.  Set a timer for your breaks, keep your eye on the clock, or schedule a conference call to force you to get back to business in a reasonable period of time.

→  Have a few minutes between conference calls? Maximize your time by keeping a small work “to-do” list of items of value that you can accomplish in tiny pieces of time. Have a 5, 10 or 20 minute Short List of items you need to get done. As an added benefit, getting these “little” things off your plate will also help you stay out of overwhelm.

→  Keep a running list of people to email, call, text or follow up with. Keeping business relationships strong during these tough times can pay long term benefits. Let your business colleagues /clients know you care and are thinking of them.

→  Make your commute time count. Reallocate your commute time to productive ends. Be intentional about how you spend that time. If you used to spend 30 minutes to and from work, you can use that 20-30 minutes to do some things you didn’t have time for before. Schedule that time to get a walk or a run in,  read a story to your kids, play a family game or sit down with your teen to watch a show, read, meditate, make that phone call to a family member or dedicate that time to that side business you always wanted.

The coronavirus and Covid-19 may have created an abundance of uncertainty and it might have upended your normal office word day, but you can make working from home work for you. It can be very rewarding even. Some things have changed, but some things have remained very much the same: you have control over your productivity and your time management. You are still in charge of creating the most effective strategies to stay on top of your game. Set yourself up for success at work and use the extra time to stay engaged with family, your health, and anything else that matters to you. Stay healthy!

Tips to increase productivity when working from home

Trouble Staying Focused on Your End Goal?

It’s easy to loose focus on your end goal when all you see is obstacles in front of you.

When we lived in Arizona, one of my neighbors was a firefighter for the City of Tempe. One day, we started reminiscing about our respective training experiences; my Marshal Service days, his firefighter training. One of the training exercises they conducted was to place a dark gray cover on the inside of their air mask to simulate being blinded by smoke and then practice moving in buddy teams to clear a home, conduct a rescue, or practice putting out a fire. They had to rely on something outside of what they could immediately see, in order to succeed.

I guess that is true in many professions, take airline pilots for example. Have you ever really noticed how small the windows are in the front of the plane? When it is raining, dark, or they are in the clouds, how functional are the windows in helping them stay on course? Many times they have to fly blind.

Invariably, these same challenges happen in the pursuit of dreams and goals. Our vision can become blocked or clouded by obstacles and we can not see where we are going. What is there to rely upon in these times of need?

Staying focused on several things will allow forward movement towards our dreams.

* First, stay focused on the end goal, NOT what is blocking the line of sight. Expect and anticipate the moment when you will lose sight of where you are but don’t lose sight of the end goal. Anticipate the challenges.

* Second, focus on core training principles, habits and behaviors that have allowed you to succeed in the past.. This helps to control the fear, anxiety, nervousness, or other emotional states that may be experienced when obstacle blocks your view. To keep your focus, remember your support team, your co-pilot or buddy you are entering the burning house with.

* Third, rely on the fundamental instruments of your profession. Revert back to using the basic tools of your trade to stay on track and measure success. The firefighter relies on his boots, jacket, helmet, and breathing apparatus. The pilot relies on the compass, altimeter, fuel gauges, wind gauges and communication equipment. What are the instruments of faith you can rely upon in times of need?

When you are lost suddenly and can not see where you are going in pursuit of your goals. STOP, take a moment and reflect on what you can rely on. Who can you turn to in your buddy team for mental, emotional and spiritual support? No one ever achieves a goal without the help from someone who believes in them. What are the tools of your trade that you can always rely on without hesitation? Is it your brilliant mind, your technical aptitude, your emotional intelligence? What are your unique abilities that you take for granted everyday?

And, lastly, as you move through the inferno of obstacles or are blinded by the rain, clouds, and storm, keep faith and focus on your end destination. No fire can rage on forever and every storm eventually brings sunny days.

Remember, there are so many more resources available in the world to achieve your goals than are in your direct line of sight. It would even be exciting to put the screen in your visor and move into your obstacles once in a while. There is newfound confidence and freedom when the exercise is over and it has been a job well done.

 

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