Now that so many of us are working remotely, we are faced with a pretty interesting challenge: the time we spend on a task matters a lot less when you’re not in an office than the amount of work that we get done. At the same time, though, your dog wants to cuddle, your kids are jumping up and down on the couch, and news of the world outside is always trying to bang down your door. So how do you bridge the gap between these two realities and stay focused outside of your normal work environment? This isn’t always easy, especially when you’re working remotely, so we’ve put together this list of strategies that will help you figure out how to plan more focus time in your week.
As always, not every strategy will work for everyone, as we all have unique situations, but they’re a great way to help you get started.
What is focus time?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it might be helpful to define the term “focus time” just so everybody is on the same page. Simply put, focus time is the amount of time each day where you are actually productive and working. This may seem obvious, but it’s still important to consider, since we all know an eight hour workday doesn’t always mean eight hours of productivity for most people.
It should be your goal to increase the amount of time per day that you are focused and productive. And by scheduling and defining your focus time, you’ll have the opportunity to plan it, track, and optimize it to get higher levels of productivity, as well as simply being able to quantify the amount of time you actually spent working. Woven is specifically designed with features to help you do that, but that’s something we’ll touch on in a bit.
Start with what you need to do
Before you worry too much about how much time you spend working, figure out the things tat absolutely need to get done on that day or week, and how much focus time you think you’ll need for them. This will ensure that your focus time is applied better, meaning you will have more of it in the long run. Just think about how much time you could waste a day on tasks that are not as urgent as others, just because those are the ones that are in front of you in the moment. Those are the tasks we referred to as “Urgent, but Unimportant” in our article on The Eisenhower Matrix. These tasks are taking up valuable chunks of your focus time, and it turns out that one of the easiest ways to get more focus time for the work that needs it most is to do an audit to make sure you’re not spending it on things that don’t matter.
Before your week really starts, take some time to pick out the projects and assignments that are the most urgent or important, and make them a priority. As simple as this is, it will end up increasing your focus time because it won’t be wasted on less crucial projects.
Use a productivity tool or timer app
While I’m sure some of you are more than capable of scheduling out this focus time on your own, without an external tool, I know that sometimes I need a little extra push to keep me on track or my busy work just expands to take over my whole day (blame it on Parkinson’s Law.) Luckily, there are a number of tools that will help you plan out your focus time for the day and keep you on task during that time.
For starters, we obviously recommend using Woven as your planner to start getting more focus time on your calendar and blocking other peoples’ ability to schedule things during that time. Our guide to time blocking is an excellent place to get started, and a helpful way to think about how to make your days more productive. If you check out our article on the best scheduling apps as well, you’ll find a fascinating tool called Skedpal that integrates with Woven to automatically rearrange your calendar around your most important time blocks. If you’re serious about scheduling more deep work in your week, that’s an excellent way to make your focus time the priority and let the magic of software handle where to put everything else.
Apps like Focus Time for Mac or Focus 10 for Windows are great ways to help you stay on track and manage your time. They are simple timer apps that work based on the Pomodoro Technique. Basically, this system schedules out periods of focus (25 minutes) followed by five minute breaks, with a longer, 20 to 30 minute break after every four focus periods.
Psychologically speaking, this is supposed to be the sweet spot of getting in the groove of working without feeling overwhelmed or overworked. It also is great for people, myself included, who like having a little external motivation or gamification to help stay focused.
How to find more “focus time” with Woven
So how do we actually build more focus time into our schedules? With Woven, that’s going to rely on two of our favorite features: Analytics and Private Tags.
Analytics are where you get the weekly report on how you’ve been spending your time. That includes things like meetings, phone calls, planned teamwork, and of course, hope it’s time. This is a critical tool for helping you become more aware of where you’re actually spending your time during the week, precursor to being able to optimize that time for more of the things you want to get done.
Meanwhile, Private Tags are critical for feeding Analytics the information that it needs to deliver an accurate portrayal of how you’re spending your time. The problem with other calendars, and calendar analyzers, is that they’re relying off of lots of public events you’ve scheduled with other people, meaning that they assume everything on your calendar is an equally valuable use of your time. Of course, anyone who’s ever worked for a company that relied a bit too much on all-hands meetings and didn’t leave enough time for making things knows that’s simply not true.
When it comes to focus time, it’s especially important that you set time aside on your calendar for focused activities, and that you tag them as focus time. By default, Woven calculates any block of unscheduled time during your working hours as “focus time.” After all, it’s the calls, meetings, and other events that interrupt our deep work. However, if you’re going to effectively time block your week, you need to make sure you set time aside. That’s where Private Tags come in handy
Private Tags allow you to add your own categories of events, or opinions of them, without anyone else needing to know.
While we might not be quite so sassy with our private tags in real life, they’re an invaluable tool for baking your priorities in your calendar, and helping your Analytics give an accurate assessment of how you’re spending your time. When you’re creating a new event, are are invited, simply scroll down to Private Information underneath the event’s details and add the tag that’s appropriate for the event. Start by blocking everything on your calendar you know in advance counts as focus time.
When you review your report for the week or for the month, that’s the only way you’re going to know for sure how many hours of focus you were actually able to get in. It’s too easy to assume you’re getting enough if you’re not specifically marking it off on your calendar – after all, we all try to give ourselves a rosier assessment of our work than what the reality might be.
To be more productive, you need a clear picture of where you’re spending your time and what you can do to find more time for focused work.
Communicate boundaries with coworkers
While you might think focus time means cutting off your coworkers, it’s extra important that you stay in touch with teammates so that they have what they need from you and will leave you alone to work. You might think that more communication would become a distraction, eating away at your focus time (and it certainly could if you don’t do it the right way,) but in reality, we want you to focus on communicating more clearly, not more often. This can be a great way to keep yourself and your coworkers accountable. Let’s say you and a team member both have deadlines at the end of the week, but they want to chat about a different project. While you’re talking/messaging, say “Okay, let’s work for an hour and then talk after that.”
Or if you are both getting used to your productivity tools of choice, maybe try increasing that time- a little competition never hurt anyone! Effectively communicating with your coworkers to set up these kinds of accountability systems can both increase your focus time as well as make your focus time even more productive than it would be otherwise. And this way, your coworkers will be even more productive as well. It’s a win win!
Woven’s availability sharing makes this as easy as the click of a button. That makes it easy to book a meeting or a call without endlessly sharing emails bac and forth.
When you click on the Appoint Sharing icon in the bottom left corner of your Woven calendar, you’ll see two tabs: one for Sharing To and another for Sharing With you. Like the photo below. Simply time the email address of the person you’d like to share your availability with, or whose calendar you’d like to request access to, and they’ll receive a request.
Understand expectations (so you can work around them)
Although these tips are geared towards keeping you productive and focused, it is also a good idea to be aware of what is actually expected of you and build your scheduled focus time around that. For example, if you communicate with your supervisor or team members and find out that you’ll all be dealing with an increased workload that week, you know you’ll need to schedule additional focus time (in your shiny new calendar app, of course) You could simply schedule more blocks of your normal-length focused time, or you could increase each individual block by 10 or 20 minutes.
That said, a big part of finding more focus time for yourself is finding chunks of time when no one will bother you, so you need to get crystal clear on when your team needs your attention, and how high of a priority that is. For instance, we all get a little grumpy when we’re invited to yet-another required meeting, but your attendance is actually negotiable. Talk to your boss, or your team, about their priorities. Let them know that you’re happy to attend, but need a certain amount of focus time to meet the other goals they’ve set out for you, and give them the chance to let you know if your attendance is really critical.
After all, whether you have a boss or you have employees, they want you to be productive so everyone can move forward, and you might not be needed at those meetings as much as they need your deep work.
Gradually scale up your focus time
While most focus time apps are based on the Pomodoro Technique, which calls for 25 minutes of focus followed by 5 minute breaks, that doesn’t mean you need to be married to that format, or those time blocks. There is more than one way to increase your focus time during the week. While you could just simply block off more 25 minute windows of working time on your calendar, it might be worthwhile to try increasing the amount of focus time per block. So instead of 25 minutes of work followed by a five minute break, you might try 30 minutes of work, or an hour, with a ten minute break instead.
This can be a useful approach if you are working on a project that is too involved to really get the ball rolling within those 25 minute focus periods, like writing or programming. Increasing the length of your time blocks is a great way to gradually add more focus time to your week, and minimize distractions when you’re working on something that requires concentration. As nice as the Pomodoro breaks are, stopping every half an hour doesn’t fit all kinds of work.
Additionally, gradually scaling up your focus time allows your colleagues space to adjust to you being less available than before instead of you suddenly barricading yourself in your office (or, yknow, Do Not Disturb on Slack.) This will give the people you work with time to adjust to your new schedule and work around the time you’ve set aside to do your best work.
Know your limits (and make a plan to break them)
Of course, it is important that you don’t overdo your focus time. While it might seem like a good idea to keep working steadily without very many breaks, the truth is that, eventually, you will need to take a break in order to continue working at your fullest capacity. A lot of the time when we talk about productivity, we forget this aspect of the equation. Nobody is a machine, nobody can work forever without taking a breather, and nobody can be focused all the time.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t work around your limits and blow past them someday. It’s okay to take a break when you need to, collect your thoughts, and then dive back in refreshed and rejuvenated. Most focus apps build in break periods for a reason – to avoid burnout and help you have more focus time over the course of a day, instead of just one big push. However, you’ll quickly find that focus is a skill that gets easier with practice.
As we discussed in the last section, it’s good to add more focus time gradually, but don’t get comfortable. Keep challenging yourself to try longer time blocks and take on more challenging work to advance your career as your focusing skills improve.
Be patient and experiment
On a similar note, it is important that you be patient with yourself when it comes to adhering to the focus periods of whatever productivity tool you and your team are using. These things take practice, and just because you want to add more focus time right now, that doesn’t mean it’ll come naturally to you. For a lot of people, that time to yourself can Feel like a break in and of itself if you’re used to people nagging and interrupting you all day. Also, as much as we all want more time to focus, our brains get so used to jumping back and forth from one thing to another that it’s not easy to sit still and work on one thing for a while at first. But if you lay out a plan and stick to it, before long you’ll settle into a groove, get more in touch with your internal motivations, and develop the focus and self discipline to push through and make the most of that quiet time.
Staying productive and building more focus time into your work is no easy feat, especially if you’re working from home right now. And if you’re used to the hustle and bustle of an office, the quiet itself can feel oppressive when you do find time to focus. But, as I outlined here, a focus time system is a great way to build opportunities into your week to buckle down and actually get work done while working remotely. It may take some getting used to, but once you find a productivity tool and a system that works for you, you will be much more productive than you would be otherwise.
Photo by Katerina Jerabkova on Unsplash