When I was a kid, one of my favorite candies was Pez. The bottom half of the dispenser was designed in the shape of a cigarette lighter, and the top was the head of some famous cartoon character. With one swift motion, I would pull back the Donald Duck, Goofy or Mickey Mouse top and out would pop a single, small sliver of satisfyingly tart and sweet candy. I would go on like this, dispensing one treat at a time, until the entire package was used up.
If you’re wondering what this childhood trip down memory lane has to do with today’s time management, I’ll tell you — but first, you have to sit through one more candy metaphor.
Most people approach their to-do list like it’s a box of chocolates (and not in the somewhat endearing Forest Gump “lefe is leke a bax o’ chokolates” way.) No, we take a small nibble out of a caramel cream and dump the remains back in the box or grab a bite of a dark chocolate-covered cherry and then discard it to its holding place next to the English toffee.
Likewise, we tend to take little nibbles on projects, bites of our to-do list and leave tasks half eaten. For the most part, this leaves us wholly incomplete and unsatisfied. Stuffed to the gills with action, but hungry for accomplishment.
I think we should all take a productivity lesson from PEZ candy and promise to start doing one thing at a time. No distractions, no multitasking, just focus — pure, old-fashioned, unadulterated focus. To increase yours, try these focus-building behaviors.
Warning: You may have heard or read a version of these before. They’re classics in the world of time management, and for those of us who peddle this stuff, we’ve all written about them, spoken about them, recommended them and sometimes even followed them — for years. They are, in many ways, common sense. But you know the expression about common sense not being so common? Oh, and if you need a visual to remind you, order a PEZ dispenser.
1. Keep a Brain Drain list on hand: One study by George Miller found that people can only hold five to nine things in their mind at a time; the rest goes into the unconscious mind. To keep your mental real estate tidy, as soon as a thought, idea, task or to-do enters you brain — threatening to strip you of your focus — write it down for processing at a later date.
2. Tackle the hard things early in the morning: One survey by Accountemps found that 69 percent of financial executives polled said that their most productive time for meeting with potential job applicants was between 9 and 11 a.m. Why? Because most people have more energy available at the beginning of the day than at the end. Instead of frittering away your morning surfing the net for fabulous finds, or processing “C” priority emails, put that time to work on your “A” priority items.
In fact, if your are so inclined, I’d love it if you would take just a minute (literally) and fill out a poll on What Is Your Most Productive Time Of Day?
3. Work on increasing your attention span. The next time you sit down to do a specific task that requires your full focus, set a timer for five minutes. No matter what, don’t allow yourself to be pulled away. Yes, your brain will scream for mercy. Yes, you will think you are going to die of boredom and yes, five minutes is both a lot longer and a lot shorter than you realize.
When you can focus on the task uninterrupted for five minutes, try 10, then 15, then 20. If you can get up to 45 minutes of totally focused time — no itches and urges to answer your cell phone, check your e-mail, Facebook a friend or twitter your latest thought — you are Zen master and are hereby absolved from ever having to read another time management book. Not really, but you will be among the few and the proud.
This post was originally published at Karen Leland’s Featured Small Business column on The Huffington Post.