Another busy week gone by, and somehow your to-do list was neglected once again! Your tasks are adding up way faster than you can check them off, and as much as you need a quiet week to catch up, there isn’t one on the horizon.
And while you and your team are super busy, it doesn’t always translate to being productive. The problem with busy work culture is that it’s all too easy to get caught up in other people's priorities. Suddenly your calendar is slammed with all types of meetings - group updates, brainstorming meetings, and information sharing sessions, which leaves you little to no time for your actual work! What’s worse, each distraction just eats further away at your productivity.
It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track after being interrupted from a task according to Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California, Irvine. That's almost 5% of your entire workday! You can see how just a few interruptions can quickly eat away at your productivity. So if you’re interrupted three times, 15% of your day quickly becomes getting back on task, but on a bad day, you might be interrupted a dozen or more times, and suddenly over half of your time is gone. That is, until you reclaim some of that focus time back.
In this post, learn how to create focus time in your busy schedule to make real progress on your priorities and improve your overall productivity every week.
What is focus time?
Focus time is a dedicated block of time that you set aside for productive work on a task or project, without interruption. This time management strategy allows you to prioritize the important work that requires your undivided attention so you can actually produce high quality results. Regardless of whether you’re a manager or maker, or need to spend time writing, coding, designing, or researching, making time on your calendar for heads-down work will not only help you get it done, but done faster with less room for interruptions.
Why is it important?
Focus time is important because it allows you to dedicate your full attention to the task at hand without the added distraction of meetings or interruptions. Oftentimes, you find yourself splitting your focus on two or more tasks at once, or multitasking, and that can come at the expense of missing details, deadlines, or a critical task altogether. By adopting a focus time routine, you’re able to increase your efficiency and quality of work with a single-tasking approach towards your to-do list.
As you well know, one of the biggest challenges of navigating a busy workweek is actually finding the time to enter a productive state of deep work. After all, it’s hard when your attention is constantly being fought over by the many workday distractions, or low-value tasks that can pile up and quickly overwhelm an afternoon. In fact, the average (non-manager) professional only spends 2.24 hours/day on productive tasks, and wastes 1.96 hours/day on unproductive task work like sifting through email, Slack, or a to-do list. By giving yourself time to actually get into your groove, you enter a flow state where everything is clicking and you’re able to make significant progress on your work.
Top work distractions
Focus time is used to combat distractions throughout your workday - here are the top work distractions that most professionals are working around:
- Scattered meetings: The average middle manager spends 35% of their time in meetings, and up to 50% for upper management.
- Slack interruptions: The average Slack user spends 90 minutes per working day reading, writing, commenting and searching in Slack.
- Social media & news sites: The average employee spends 12% of their work day using unproductive sites, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
- Email: The average employee spends 28% of their work day on email, and checks their email 11 times per hour.
- Multitasking rabbit holes: The average employee receives up to 200 notifications a day, causing task-switching and disengagement from their core work.
Focus time benefits
So how does focus time help you combat the constant flood of workday interruptions? By giving you the permission you need to disengage from distractions and focus on the work you need to get done.
- Give your brain the opportunity to settle into a task, entering a productive state of flow for deep work, so you can be up to 500% more productive on your project.
- Prevent interruptions that cause you to context switch, our tendency to jump between one unrelated project to another, so you can avoid catching up after you’ve been pulled away from a task.
- Work faster by focusing on one thing at a time, or single tasking, so you don’t slow your brain down by trying to multitask through complex problems and projects.
- Prioritizing your important work during your actual working hours so you can eliminate the need to work overtime, helping to prevent yourself from experiencing workplace burnout.
When your calendar is filled with meetings every other hour, and Slack and email catch up in-between, you're forced to constantly context switch, which can prevent you from even opening up your to-do list on any given day. With the average middle manager spending 35% of their time in meetings, another 5% getting back on track after each, and then 28% catching up on email, you’re not left with a lot of time for productive work. These distractions are some of the key reasons why focus time matters.
How does it work?
So, how should you structure your focus time? A good way to think about it is by the types of tasks you need to get done, and their level of difficulty. Cal Newport, productivity expert and author of Deep Work, pioneered a new way of focusing your work sessions:
- Shallow Work: This is your non-cognitively demanding logistical work like email, slack, and quick tasks that can be performed while distracted, and usually done in short working sessions.
- Deep Work: These sessions consist of your cognitively demanding work dedicated to your true priorities, requiring deep thinking without distraction so you can push your brainpower to its limits, usually performed in longer working sessions.
So how much time should you spend on deep work vs. shallow work? This very much depends on your role, but most importantly, it’s about doing them right. Bundle all of your shallow work together so it’s not slowing or blocking anything during your deep work sessions. And try to set yourself up for as much deep work as you can! Realistically, the brain can’t do more than 4 hours of deep work per day, so if you have the time in your role, set that as the “most aggressive” goal for cognitively demanding work on your calendar.
There are also many different time blocking methods you can try to optimize your focus time, like the Pomodoro technique which works by setting a series of timers to give yourself frequent breaks during a focus time session. You work for 25 minutes, give yourself a 5-minute break, and repeat 4 times for a 30-minute reward break after 2 hours. Or, if you have a few big projects or responsibilities on your plate, you could try day-theming to target a focus for each day of the week. Task batching is another useful process which groups similar, quick low-value tasks together for your shallow work so you can cruise through your deep work focus sessions without those distractions.
Look, there are a lot of methods, but don’t let that distract you from just making time for it any way you can.
Focus time best practices
As we mentioned above, the most important way to get focus time is to actually schedule it on your calendar -- but is it really that easy in practice? Unfortunately not. Here are some of the major reasons why people aren’t blocking time for focus time on their calendars regularly:
- Time blocks are inflexible and static. Something changes, and you now have more work to do in rescheduling your focus time.
- Time blocks make you unavailable for meetings, which in many roles and organizations, is just not realistic. This often creates more work because people have to ping you to find time. Bleh!
- Time blocks aren’t intentional enough. You block time, then you struggle with what to do with it, and ultimately end up getting lost in your to-do list and start multitasking.
- Interruptions still happen. If your Slack is going off every 5 seconds and your phone is buzzing with social media notifications, your time block ain't gonna help you.
However, there are steps to make this process way simpler to approach and easy implement into your regular work routine:
Plan your time
The first step is of course finding the time, but it will quickly go to waste if you don’t have a solid action plan for how you’re going to focus on and prioritize your work. Without a plan, it’s all too easy to get caught up clearing your email, checking updates, or just poking around your task list without knowing what to focus on!
Focus time needs to be intentional! If your time blocks aren't intentional, then prioritizing them is really hard. While some tools like Clockwise will help you block fixed slots without meetings, these time blocks don’t help you determine what to do with this time. Reclaim on the other hand, blocks out time that is specific to the tasks you need to accomplish, giving you a clearer view of what’s on your plate and how long you need to get through your most important to-dos. These assigned blocks of time will also help you stay on task, and prevent you from bouncing aimlessly from one thing to another.
Slack is a great tool, but it’s also one of the worst offenders for interruption. On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week! One tool that people use to prevent interruptions in Slack is setting their status, and specifically setting do not disturb / DND. The challenge? Keeping your status up-to-date is another thing you have to remember to do, and you don’t want to necessarily be uninterruptible all of the time.
But, you can use tools like Reclaim to automatically sync your Slack status to your calendar, customize your status by event type, and auto-set DND for events you really can’t be interrupted in. There are other integrations like Google Calendar for Slack that works similarly, but the only status it will sync is “In a meeting”, and doesn’t sync shared calendar events, or allow you to automate DND. So, if you’re working through an important focus time session and need to harvest 100% of your brainpower to meet a deadline, DND is what you need to block the non-stop flood of Slack messages so you’re not pulled out of deep work.
So while interruptions can be difficult to prevent, you can defend yourself by anticipating them ahead of time. First being to communicate context around what you are working on. While a basic “focus time” block on your calendar may just be construed as time not spent in meetings (and totally interruptible), your colleagues will think twice before they try to steal your time during a “Write important strategy plan” or “Troubleshoot critical bug” time block on your calendar. By the simple act of communicating through an event title, you are sharing your priorities with your team, defending your focus time, and increasing the weight of their decision on imposing their own priorities to interrupt yours. And, if you sync your Slack status with your schedule - whether you are doing cognitively demanding deep work, or are busy in an important Zoom meeting - you’re doubling the communication power of that calendar context.
Another important part of focus time is staying flexible within your schedule. You might have every intention of working on that slide deck you've been putting off, but if an emergency customer meeting comes up that requires your attention, you need to have enough flexibility in your schedule that you can adapt without having to stress. It’s far too common for all the hard work you put into your scheduling to go down the drain when a new urgent priority drops and it’s all hands on deck. Now you’re faced with completely rearranging your schedule once again.
Not only is staying flexible important for you, but it is also important for your team! Priorities change, new opportunities arise, and you need to be able to adapt and accommodate. Rigid schedules and time blocks make this very difficult, and can make you inaccessible and unavailable for collaboration.
This is where you might benefit with a smart time blocking tool like Reclaim. You’re able to block time for your tasks and regular routines throughout your week, but these time blocks stay flexible to accommodate new meeting requests and priorities. As your schedule fills up, Reclaim will shift your time blocks from “free” time, or bookable time, to “busy” to maximize your availability while defending your focus time. Having a balance of availability and focus is key to actually executing on focus time as a methodology!
Estimate your needs
In order to really maximize the productivity of your focus time, it’s important to estimate your needs! If you have an entire afternoon blocked for focus time, how much can actually get through on your to-do list? By incorporating time estimates, due dates and priority levels into your focus time planning, you can clearly see what you have time to get done in a week so you can better forecast your time and prioritize your workload.
With Reclaim’s Planner, you can see what your week really looks like. You not only get a full picture of all your meetings, tasks and regular routines, but you have a priority list on the side to visualize what’s most urgent, scheduled, completed, and most importantly, unscheduled. Time does not lie, and if you don’t have time to get through everything, you’re going to have to kick some stuff out to next week. Reclaim forces you to think about budgeting your time, without actually forcing you to “overthink” it. Just declare what you need, how long you think it will take, and Reclaim tells you what the reality is through your calendar. So whether you need to trim back on meetings this week, or push out some lower priority projects, it’s imperative you understand how much focus time you actually have time for, and what you can feasibly do with it.
Focus Time examples
So how much focus time do you need? This entirely depends on your role and responsibilities! If you’re a manager, you probably need to spend a majority of your week collaborating and leading your team, but if you’re an engineer, you likely need to allocate most of your workweek towards your heads-down work. Every person has a different schedule and work demands, so your focus time will be completely unique to your role and personal style of work. Here are a couple focus time examples to help you get started:
- Engineer needs to preserve at least 30 hours of focus time/week
- Salesperson wants 1 hour/day and 3 hours on Friday for follow-ups and CRM notes
- Product manager needs 2 hours, 2 times/week for priority planning
- VP needs 2 hours every Tuesday to review status reports
- Content writer needs 10 hours/week to develop a new blog post
How to add focus time to your calendar
Let’s walk through adding focus time to your calendar using Good, Better and Best approaches so you can make time for your important work sessions every week.
Create “Focus Time” blocks without a plan - Good 🙂
- Create a new Habit in Reclaim for “Focus Time”
- Customize the time window, duration, and frequency of your focus time Habit
- Save and auto-schedule your focus time every week!
This is a good way to make sure you have time for productive work every week, and leverage smart time blocking to maximize your calendar availability, but it lacks intentionality and context as your focus time blocks are unplanned and without purpose. Make sure to have a plan in place before your focus time sessions so you don’t waste it wondering how to spend your time!
Create “Focus Time” blocks on a set schedule - Better 😎
- Create a “Focus Time” event in Google Calendar (one-time or recurring)
- Change the event availability from “Free” to “Busy”
- Add #reclaim_free to the event description
- Save & defend your focus time!
While creating a focus time block on a set schedule guarantees you time for solo work, the problem is that it locks you in, leaving you inaccessible for new meetings and collaboration opportunities. Rigid, fixed time blocks on Google Calendar aren’t able to adjust to maximize the availability of your schedule like the smart time blocking options in the Good and Best options, which are increasingly important as many companies shift to a global workforce collaborating across time zones.
However, the advantage here is that Reclaim Tasks and Habits are auto-scheduled within these time blocks when you use #reclaim_free, allowing you to prioritize your most important work in your focus time sessions. This is also a great approach to blocking an entire day for productive work via no-meeting days so you can reduce distractions, increase productivity, and boost morale across your entire team.
Create “Focus Time” by time blocking your Habits and Tasks - Best 🤩
- Set up all of your Habits in Reclaim
- Set up your weekly Task list in Reclaim (new Tasks integrations coming soon)
- Prioritize your Task list via the Planner as things change
- Auto-schedule your focus time by priority every day!
This is the best way to set up and optimize your focus time because you’re keeping your schedule flexible and oriented around your priorities. If you’re just getting started, think through your routines. What do you need to do often? What do you end up doing in the late hours or weekends? Then create Habits for the maximum time range you could envision those routines taking so you can start reigning them back into your core working hours. Next, take your top 3-5 Tasks, especially those that you know are going to take more than an hour or two to complete, and add them to Reclaim. As your week progresses, you can reprioritize and push stuff off as needed using the Planner, and at the end of the week, you’ll get to see just how much more you accomplished through your calendar productivity stats and weekly report.
It may seem like a little more effort on your part, but you’re basically just integrating your existing to-dos with your calendar so your workday is aligned around what you actually have to get done. You will get that time back tenfold by putting the effort into strategically planning which tasks are the highest priority, and how long you need to get them done.
Focus time is an amazing method for productivity. It not only allows you to get more done in far less time, it also helps you eliminate overtime from your schedule to help you improve your work-life balance. While there are many ways to approach your focus time, the most important thing is just getting it on the calendar so you can start dedicating a healthy portion of your workweek towards productive progress on your priorities. Just remember, the more you put into efficiently using your focus time, the more you will get back! If you have any focus time tips you want to share with us, tweet us @reclaimai.