How to Focus at Work and Avoid Distractions – The Conscious Choice Method™

Did you know that there are 168 hours in a week?

**Scroll down for The Conscious Choice Method™**

I did not, until I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2011). As a creature of habit, the book automatically made me want to track my 168 hours, just as Vanderkam and her test participants had done. My 168 Hours Experiment produced wonderful insights about my productivity (and the lack thereof), work habits, procrastination habits et al. In this post, I share one of the most effective time management strategies that I have designed using the 168 hours experiment. Read on if you’d like to learn how to increase focus and improve productivity at work.

I have tracked my waking hours in busy weeks and weeks when I am home with my kid, and recording my weeks have been insightful to say the least. After all, how you spend your time says a lot about who you are.

Effective time management skills are crucial to a successfully integrated life; one in which you have enough time to pursue grad school and other career goals while being there and spending time with your loved ones. My 168 Hours Experiment was an eye-opener in this regard and it provided me the information that I needed to have a healthier and happier personal and professional life. (More about the experiment and how I did it in a later post!)

The 168 Hours Experiment helped me devise a way to stay focused while at work. I call this my Conscious Choice Method™.

For years, I have tried techniques like Pomodoro timers to keep me productive. But over time, I realized that 25 minutes of work-5 minute break pomodoro routine was cutting into my peak productive time by forcefully taking my attention off the task on hand when the timer goes off.

Research has indicated that once your attention is diverted from tasks on hand, it takes you 20 MINUTES OR MORE (!!!) to get back on track. While the Pomodoro timer is one of the best time-management tools out there, I have a better one for you!

Further, as I was deliberately recording the time I spent on various tasks through many weeks, I realized that my focus times were not the same for all tasks. Studies have indicated that our periods of concentration varies from person to person. This is where the Conscious Choice Method™ comes to help. The Conscious Choice Method™ helps you figure out your ideal focus time on key tasks that you undertake daily.

Conscious Choice Method™

The Conscious Choice Method™ is based on a simple fact: no two tasks are alike and therefore periods of concentration required to complete tasks vary. Here is a simple way to find out how much time you take on key tasks.

Step One: 168 Hours Experiment

Using an app like Toggl (not sponsored but I use Toggl and love Toggl) or simply using a timer and a pen and paper to record your findings, time your activities throughout your day for a week. I suggest one week so that any variations can be observed as you spend time on your various tasks.

Click here for my Toggle review or watch it on the @productivephdninja IGTV channel.

Before you start your experiment, make sure to have some categories ready for input. If you are in grad school or doing a PhD like me this would include: reading (for dissertation), writing, research, analysis, outlining/brain dumps, preparing presentations, teaching prep, reading (for classes your teach), administrative tasks and so on. You can have as many categories as you want. I also have categories for personal time and tasks at home.

Now each time you do a task simply click on the designated category and record the time spent on the task. Keep in mind that throughout the week, you do not assign a time limit or any task. Simply continue to work until your brain exhausts from the task. Then take a break of not more than 5-10 minutes.

Use Toggl or a timer!

The key idea is that you are going to freely go about your tasks this week without really worrying about too little work or too much. The 168 Hours Experiment is to provide you with an idea of how much time you take during different tasks.

In my case, I was astounded to realize that I ALMOST ALWAYS focus for exactly 35-37 minutes before my brain naturally takes a break! This was a breakthrough!! No wonder the Pomodoro technique was driving me nuts!! At 25 minutes I was still about only two-thirds into my focus period and my brain was being cut off ahead of time. I also observed that when I am writing, I can concentrate for more than 37 minutes. 57 minutes if I am working on a blog posts such as this but up to two hours if I was working on analytical writing such as writing my dissertation chapter.

By conducting the 168 Hours Experiment, you can find out your organic periods of concentration.

Step Two: Implementing your findings

By finding out what is your natural periods of concentration for various tasks, you can schedule your work day more consciously. This is what I call the Conscious Choice Method™.

Once you know your periods of concentration, then use time-blocking or another tool to plan your daily calendar with the right amount of time scheduled away for each tasks.

So, for example, because I now know that I take 37 minute (max) for most tasks like reading and 57 minutes for a blog post, after which I need a break, I time-block my day like this.

10:00am-10:40am: read
10:40am-10:45am: break
10:45am-11:25am: read
11:25am-11:30am: break
11:30am-12:10pm: read
12:10pm-12:40pm: long break 
12:40pm-1:40pm: write blog post
1:40pm-1:45pm: break
1:45pm-2:45pm: write blog post
2:45pm-2:50pm: break
And so on....

Notice that I have divided up the day into 40 minute intervals when reading and 60 minute intervals when writing blog posts rather than keeping my work intervals uniform.

Recording 168 hours of a week (or at least your waking hours) might appear like an onerous task but I assure you, it is worth the pain. AND by day 2, you will start doing it on auto-pilot. Toggl is the best tool to help you automate the process as it can be used as an app on your phone and on your desktop so it’s literally at your finger tips whenever you need it.

Are you intrigued by the Conscious Choice Method™? If you questions, drop them in the comments below!