Modern life is full of distractions, which detracts from our productivity and erodes our effectiveness. Jo Milston, Enterprise Nation member and CEO at Urban Guru, shares top tips for working smarter this year.

Always on

The reality of modern life pulls us in what seems like a million different directions on a daily basis. Our lives are full of distractions; email, WhatsApp notifications, ad-hoc requests, the lure of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram... I could continue. 

Add to this the expectations of friends and colleagues, as well as ourselves, for immediate responses and it's easy to see the massive influence our 'always on' culture has on our lives.

The prognosis for our productivity is poor; we can't focus for long enough to finish anything, we get to the end of the day feeling like we have achieved little and wonder where all the time went. 

I came across a quote recently in an article on Forbes which sums it up nicely:

"the concept of always being reachable makes us present nowhere"

Concentration is key

The positive thing is that, despite the distractions of modern life, it is completely within our power to manage them to our advantage. 

The key to getting things done is dedicated concentration, or the ability to divert our attention to the areas where it is needed most and, most critically, keep it there for long enough to make a difference.

This is particularly important for the start-up founder and small business owner, where you're expected to wear a number of different hats and be able to switch between them relatively seamlessly throughout the day. 

Top tips for a productive 2017

Here are some useful pointers which you can use to highlight what you need to work on, to help you work smarter and not harder during 2017. Some are fairly obvious, but they can make a huge difference to your productivity:

1) Create mental space at the start of the day

Whether you commute to an office or work from home, create space in your mind at the start of the day for internal reflection on what you want to achieve. 

Many of us succumb to the temptation to check our phones as soon as we wake up, or at least shortly after. Straight away we're caught up in the first thing we come across which looks mildly urgent or interesting, without really thinking about our broader priorities. Try to do nothing for 15 minutes, leave your phone switched off and give yourself some space to think high level.

2) Monotask

The concept of the brain's ability to multitask is flawed. Whereas we think we are dealing with many things concurrently, our brains are actually switching back and forth rapidly between different tasks. This wears us out rather than making us more productive. 

Instead, try monotasking, or focusing your efforts solely on one thing at a time. Work in slots of 90 minutes, which have been shown to be the optimal timeframe for executing tasks before we lose momentum. Work out and diarise your priorities the night before so you can hit the ground running first thing.

3) Break regularly

Taking regular breaks resets the mind and gives you closure on the latest thing you worked on. Although you may feel like you are wasting time, you will end up being more productive than just soldiering through. We all know that after a while, we lose momentum. Take 10 minutes after each session and try to get at least 30 minutes for lunch (away from your computer!).

4) Manage interruptions

Any busy entrepreneur will tell you that they get pulled in multiple directions on an hourly basis. How can you get anything done?! 

Ringfence time for yourself and don't feel guilty for doing so. Turn off your notifications, put a 'do not disturb' sign on your door and dedicate specific times in the day to giving your complete attention to dealing with questions and emails. Many of you may think this is unrealistic; you need to be available for your clients and stakeholders, right? But remember, it's not about being unavailable, it's about choosing your 'available' times. 

5) Look after your body

Clarity of mind is closely linked to the condition of your body. If you feel sub-optimal, you'll perform that way. You don't need to hit the gym every day; it's more about the small things. Go for a short walk on your break, even just to the local Caffe Nero; it will get the blood flowing. We also underestimate the importance of oxygen and water.

Remember the rule of 3s. Our brains shut down after three minutes without oxygen, compared to three days for water and three weeks for food. Take some deep abdominal breaths and feel the difference. Dehydration also limits brain function, so keep a 1.5 litre bottle of water on your desk and finish it by the end of each day

Whatever your challenges in 2017, remember that everything is within your control. With a little discipline and dedication to managing your environment, you can make it the best year yet!

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