Q: I don't believe in multitasking, but I have to switch gears so often that it feels like that's what I'm doing. Because of the nature of my work, that's not going to change. I'm finding that it's getting harder and harder to focus; what strategies can I use to lock in my mind when I need to?
A: Paying attention to doing each thing fully — even if briefly — will help you relearn the skill of focusing.
As your first step, grant yourself some time for reflection during which you won't be disturbed. If it's during the workday, you may prefer to leave your office. But at least block your calendar and set your phone, email and chat functions to "do not disturb" so others know you're not available. Then settle in, spending five minutes or so focusing on your breathing and letting tension and the demands of the day slip away.
When all the demands are coming your way, how do you feel? If the pace is energizing, it may be more suited to you than the more in-depth focus, at least at this time in your career. Perhaps it fires you up to be needed? If so, ask yourself if it's a healthy level.
How do you feel when you successfully focus? What tactics have worked recently? When you were able to focus more, what was that like and how are things different now?
Consider whether you're over-delivering on responsiveness, being reactive and losing sight of the big picture. Colleagues and clients alike may not need you to get back to them with quite as much speed, especially if it's taking a toll on other aspects of your contributions.
Teach yourself to focus again. When you're responding to an email, think only of that, even if for one minute. Then take a conscious breath and switch to something else. Every time you move to a different focus, return to your breath. This will give you a clear instant between tasks. Then try to build up your focus time. Start with something brief, say, 10 minutes. Practice on tasks that you enjoy, and build up to those that you may be putting off.
Also try to manage the demands on your time. Meet with your team to discuss the issue. Lay out the competing demands you're experiencing, between giving them what they need and having time to focus on other tasks.
Brainstorm together on time-management strategies that won't keep them up in the air when they need your input. This approach recognizes that it may often be appropriate to get immediate input from you, but perhaps not always.
If external clients are involved, chat with them about their needs. Perhaps you can have a four-hour rule for responding to email (instead of immediate response), and if something is more urgent, they can phone.
Acknowledge yourself when you successfully complete a task that needs more focus, forgive yourself when you struggle and persevere to regain this valuable skill.
Practice focusing, if that's what serves you, and also help others become less dependent on moment-by-moment connectedness.
Liz Reyer is a credentialed coach with more than 20 years of business experience. Her company, Reyer Coaching & Consulting, offers services for organizations of all sizes.