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stopwatchAshley Wiersma is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on twitter at @throughthe_veil.

Would having more time really make a difference in our productivity? Most of us would say yes – more hours would mean we could get more work done. However, productivity blogger, Scott H. Young, argues that focus rather than time dictates our output. Just turning off the phone, laptop, internet or locking yourself away for hours isn’t enough to maintain your focus. The key to staying focused is energy. Focus requires willpower, which in turn requires energy. The more energy a person has, the more willpower, and the longer one can maintain focus on a difficult task.

The solution, then, is to preserve energy, not "manage time".  Young has several suggestions to do so:

  1. View time off as sacred.  Young suggests taking evenings and one weekend day off. You may not be able to take that much time away, but make sure that you set aside at least some time every week to do activities unrelated to your work and guard that time carefully.
  2. Never sacrifice sleep! If you skimp one hour a night to study, you need two additional hours of sleep to make up for it.
  3. Constrain your working hours.  Work in smaller, intense chunks of time rather than working nonstop all day.

In addition to maintaining energy, we also need to give ourselves the best chance to stay focused by eliminating time-wasting distractions.  Switching between tasks too frequently (constantly checking Facebook, Twitter, texts, and email are the usual culprits) destroys our workflow. Productivity experts admonish us to think about only one thing at a time, but we often have trouble with that. If you find distracting thoughts intruding on your work time, take a minute to write them down to get them off your mind, and if they’re important, schedule time to think about or act on them later. There are also a number of apps that will boost your willpower and therefore help you reserve energy for more important tasks:

  • Self-Control: An open-source app for Macs to help you avoid distracting websites while you work for a set period of time.  This works well with the Pomodoro Technique.
  • Focus Writer: Provides a distraction-free writing environment that is Mac, Windows, and Linux compatible.
  • Anti-Social: This Mac app turns off social media sites and requires a reboot to return to turn it off. There is a free trial available and a registered version for $15.
  • StayFocused: This Google Chrome extension limits the time you can spend on websites you typically find distracting.  You can choose which sites and even specific in-page content and media to limit.
  • Time Out: Another Mac app that reminds you to take breaks periodically – stretch, rest your eyes, switch tasks – and is also customizable.

How do you maintain your focus? Do you have additional app suggestions, especially for PC users?

[Image from flickr user hisham_hm and used under Creative Commons License]