How to catapult your career forward by creating time to focus

If building a successful career is important to you, then you must look for ways to deliver big wins for your organisation.

Big wins are the types of breakthrough results that increase revenues and profitability, they are the transformations that enable your organisation to defend market share or take advantage of new opportunities – essentially big wins are the things that positively stand out from normal day-to-day business.

However, most big wins are not ‘home runs’; instead they are the culmination of lots of smaller wins being made consistently day-in, day-out.

What sets high performers apart from their peers is not only their ability to identify and create opportunities that will eventually result in a big win, but also the time and energy they dedicate to see those opportunities through to completion.

In reality, if you are going to do something that has any real impact, then you need to be able to carve out time to focus on it every day.Career catapult

The need for focus time

If you imagine time as a currency and each working day you are given an allowance of 8 hours to spend, how do you ensure you get the best value for your money?

On a typical day, it is easy to spend a couple of hours reading and responding to emails, a couple more sat in non-essential meetings, maybe an hour doing bits of admin and then the rest sorting ‘urgent’ problems.

A busy day at work – yes! But will any of that work make a major difference?

Perhaps, but more likely no, not really!

On the other hand, lets say you’ve got a hunch that you could create a new service that will score a major new account with a big customer.

And instead of spending the first 2 hours of your day replying to emails, you use that same amount of time each day to design a new service that in turn leads to a series of major deals, not just with the original big customer, but with other customers too.

Now compare the time spent dealing with emails against the time spent building a new service and it is clear to see which provides the best value for money.

Circumstances will vary for different people, but we all have a to choose wisely how we spend our daily time allowance to get the best return on investment.

How much focus time do you need each day

Ideally (and I know the world never quite works ideally) you should be trying find 2 to 3 hours of quality focus time a day.

3 hours a day equates to 15 hours a week, which equates to 60 hours a month. Just think what you could achieve with 60 hours a month!

In the real world, you might only be able to get yourself an hour a day, but even then you are still getting an extra 20 hours a month and it might be possible to sneak a few more in during the week, so it is still worthwhile.

Importantly, whether you can get an one hour or three, they need to be hourly blocks of time and ideally stacked together so you can really get your head into the work. Trying to snatch 15 minutes of focus time every now and again between meetings just won’t give you enough runway to do really good work.

Priortise to carve out time to focus

To gain your extra hours, you are going to have to reduce the amount of time you spend doing less important day-to-day work activities (rather than extending your working day).

So it is time to start trimming off the fat and one of the best ways to do this is to document what you do on a daily basis and use a prioritisation matrix to decide what you keep and what goes.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a classic. It helped Dwight D Eisenhower win a war and run a presidency, so it is a good place to start.

In this matrix you classify each task into one of 4 quadrants:

  • Important – Urgent
  • Important – Less urgent
  • Less important – Urgent
  • Less important – Less urgent

Eisenhower matrix

Tasks in the Less important – Urgent and Less important – Less urgent quadrants are the first candidates that you should look at delegating or simply not doing (and seeing if anyone complains).

Next you can look at balancing important tasks that have a longer-term impact (i.e. your big win project) against important tasks that are urgent (such as client problem that has just arisen).

Obviously you don’t want to jeopardise an important client relationship by not responding to a very urgent problem as soon as you can, but on the other hand it is important to clarify how urgent a request is, as it might not be as urgent as it originally sounded and could wait a couple of hours before being looked at.

The key thing to remember is Important – Urgent tasks will always be there, and will always take priority over less urgent, but equally important work, so the trick is to schedule time each day to work on the Important – less urgent work to make sure you do it.

Design your ideal working day

To ensure you schedule time for Important – Less urgent work you need to proactively manage your schedule and a good starting point is to design your ideal working day and then try to stick to it as much as reasonably possible.

The following is my ideal day:

  • 8am to 11am – Focus time (my most important, but non-urgent work)
  • 11am to 1pm – My most important, urgent tasks
  • 1pm to 2pm – Lunch
  • 2pm to 4pm – Meetings
  • 4pm to 5pm – General admin (lower priority tasks) and then home

My energy and enthusiasm levels are at their highest first thing, so it makes sense for me to block the first few hours of the day out for focus time and a further benefit is that office environments always tend to be quietest at this time too, which makes it easier to concentrate.

I like to get Important – urgent tasks done before lunch and then ‘ideally’ have the afternoons for meetings and admin stuff that doesn’t require a huge amount of energy.

Does my average day ever go like this?

You guessed it, the answer is no.

Very rarely does my average day match my ideal day; but by having this ideal day template, I’ve got myself into the habit of blocking off time to focus and will always try to keep meetings and other commitments to the afternoon.

Avoid stretching your day

You’ll notice my ideal day finishes at 5pm. This is a hard stop that allows me to get home to my family for dinner.

By the end of the day, I’m spent. My energy levels are low, my concentration is all over the place and I’ve had enough; so any extra hours are only ever going to be counter-productive.

The reason I’m making this point, is that it can be very tempting to bolt on a couple of extra hours at the end of each day for focus time, rather than going through the motions of giving up less important tasks.

Remember the whole point of focus time is to do your very best work and create long-term big wins. To focus you need to be fresh and energetic, which is why I recommend doing your focus work at the start of the day. How can you possibly do anything of the same standard after working an 8-hour day?

The other (slightly less bad) temptation is to do your focus time during the working day, but then stay late to catch up on lower priority tasks on your list.

This is probably the real-life compromise that people will make with their line managers to give themselves the opportunity to have focus time, but in addition to being unsustainable in the long-run, I just think it is pointless.

Lets face it, our to-do lists are never-ending and there will always be new work to do tomorrow, no matter how late we stay to try and get things done.

So why not just accept that Inbox Zero is a myth, that you’ll never be finished and that home time needs to mean home time.

Your challenge

To win big with your career, you’ve got to identify opportunities and deliver results, and to do these things you need to give yourself time to think, create and execute every day.

This means getting away from the constant treadmill of ‘busy’ tasks, by carving out time in your day for high-quality focus work.

So my challenge to you is to regularly achieve 3 hours of focus time each working day (without going home a minute later).

If 3 is impossible to begin with, then start by getting 1 hour a day and gradually increase the duration as you progress.

Remember focus time is crucial, so you need to be ruthlessly nice in maintaining and using it every day.

Good luck 🙂