Previously published on Forbes
You arrive to work on Monday morning with optimism and hopefulness about the day and week ahead. You’re going to stay focused. Then, you open your computer and watch with despair while hundreds of emails flood in, including one from your boss about a mistake your team made last week. This trumps everything you had in mind to accomplish.
Welcome to the start of a distracted day. Likely, you’ll spend the day chasing things you hadn’t planned on. You may feel like all you do is react. And it’s not just today. This feeling of being out of control is more and more common.
Of course, you have choices. You can quit your job and go work somewhere easier. Or you can begin to build the discipline to stay focused in a distracted world. The bonus? Research tells us you’ll be happier if you do.
A 2013 study by professor William Hofmann focuses on the relationship between happiness and discipline. He defines discipline as "the ability to override or change one's inner responses, as well as interrupt undesired behavioral tendencies (such as impulses) and refrain from acting on them." This means that you learn to resist the urge to open your web browser and shop online when you are confronted by something you don’t want to do. The upshot of the research findings is that people with self-discipline are happier.
We also know that overwhelmed leaders aren’t seen as being able to take on more projects or accountabilities. They tend to vent their frustration and stress about what they already have on their plate. So their boss may hesitate to hand over the next big assignment or promotion.
This is career-limiting behavior. It’s important to learn how to manage yourself in a way that communicates confidence and efficacy so that others will trust you and lean into you.
Here are three things you can do to develop more discipline at work:
I. Schedule what matters most. Research shows that scheduling when and where you’ll do something makes it dramatically more likely that the task will get done.
A personal example: I am working to build more discipline for writing every day. My challenge was how to shimmy writing into my already full schedule. First, I had to clear the decks. I had to stop doing some stuff that I had previously been doing. I had to delegate and share work with colleagues. In some cases, it was stuff that I knew how to do really well, but it wasn’t the best use of me. In other cases, I had no business doing a set of tasks but had gotten lazy and didn’t ask for support or help. Once I had a bit of breathing room in my calendar, I scheduled time for writing, and I worked hard not to give that time away. Monday through Friday, my calendar reads, from 7:00 am to 10:00 am, “Sitting, Walking, Writing.” This means that I do my 20 minutes of meditation (sitting), I take my three-mile walk, and I write for 30 minutes. No matter what. Little by little, I have become better at maintaining this discipline.
And I am happier. By 10:00 a.m., I feel like I have accomplished something that matters to me. I have attended to the important over the urgent. Of course, it’s not a perfect discipline; there are days where I get lured into the details of my work—reading and reacting to emails and urgent requests. That’s life. But more often than not, I exercise the discipline to sit, write and walk before my day goes on.
What will you schedule into your calendar to hold the space for what matters most to you?
II. Remove distractions, and set a timer for focus. As reported in an article by the New York Times, Clifford Nass, a Stanford sociologist who conducted some of the first tests on multitasking has said that those who can’t resist the lure of doing two things at once are “suckers for irrelevancy.”
Turn off your email notifications and don’t open your email until a specified time. Turn the ringer off on your cell phone so you don’t get text or voicemail alerts. Or any alerts for that matter. Clear your desk so that only the project you are working on is on the workspace. Put everything else out of sight. One task, one project at a time.
Challenge yourself to stay focused for a period of time, and then give yourself a break. I use the app Forest, which allows you to set a period of time for complete focus. A little tree is growing in the background while you find the discipline to stay focused. I like the analogy. Something grows bigger and stronger if I stay with the task that matters to me. Ultimately, I know I will experience success when I stay focused and accomplish something challenging. The app encourages me to keep going.
III. Watch what you say. Our words become our reality. Watch what reality you create, whether you speak the words out loud or not. If you listen to yourself, you may hear yourself saying, “I’m overwhelmed.” Or “I’m tired.” Or “I can’t do it all.”
Practice changing your mantra. Start saying, “I have all the time I need for what matters most.” This gives you far more power and hopefulness. Then see if it’s true at the end of the day. Did you have time for what mattered most? Really look to see if you did. Then do it again the next day. Your words create your world.
These are the three tips I use for discipline. Try them and see if it makes a difference. I wish for you the happiness that discipline and effective work provides.