How to focus your energy and get big things done

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What is a typical day like for you? It seems there's an opportunity to get distracted almost every minute.

As I write this article, I have 20 unread emails, 40 Facebook notifications, and 5+ text messages.

To add to that, there's always an opportunity to get pulled into the negative. A friend wrote something disturbing on Facebook, and someone at work was passive aggressive.

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I have to tell a friend and/or confront these people right now. Right? Wrong!

Technology plus daily life make it hard to stay focused. And focus is critical in helping us make progress, especially given the nature of our political climate today.

How can we cut down the noise and focus our energy not so we can get "more" done, but so we can do the right things an impact through our work?

Here are four ways to better organize our day and focus our energy.

Start with gratitude

We all know gratitude is powerful, but I find I need it most in the moments when I just don't feel like being grateful.

The past week has been especially tough. As I hear my son crying in the next room (time to wake up!), I just want to stay in bed. I don't want to go to work, and I don't want to deal with any responsibilities. (We all have these days regardless of what's going on in our country.)

Belma McCaffrey, creator of Work Bigger.
Belma McCaffrey, creator of Work Bigger.

However, I find that waking up with this mentality actually makes me more tired. My focus is on the exhaustion, the negative, all the bad things happening around me.

On the contrary, even while peeling my eyes open, it's when I can muster up the gratitude to say inwardly – Damn, I'm so grateful. Another day, and my son is in the other room. I get to spend some time with him this morning – that my exhaustion seems to subside.

My mind shifts from "I'm so tired" to "I'm looking forward to the day."

What are you grateful for today as you wake up?

Take inventory of when your energy peaks

Our energy levels can be difficult to detect right away. It requires spending some time taking inventory and tuning into the activities that make us feel good and the ones that deplete us.

For example, I'm most alert in the morning after I've had my cup of coffee. At that point, I haven't been inundated with social media, email, and meetings, all events that tend to deplete my energy. Therefore, I schedule my most important project around this time, one that requires me to think deeply and be creative.

How do I prioritize which project is most important?

Stephen Covey, author of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," developed a time management grid that breaks up our activities into four areas:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Urgent and not important
  3. Not urgent and important
  4. Not urgent and not important

Activities that fall in the first quadrant should require immediate action.

The second quadrant is for long-term strategizing, the third is for activities that someone may want now but aren't critical, and the last is for activities that result in little value.

Although I like this framework, I also prefer breaking out my tasks in two simple columns: Important vs. Urgent.

Important tasks are any activities that will push my work forward in the most meaningful way (e.g. if you're a writer, brainstorming and writing about a meaningful topic) and urgent is anything loud and distracting like email and text messaging.

After you identify your "Important" activity for the day, spend whatever bulk of time (e.g. two to three hours) required to complete it. This ensures you're thinking deeply and being productive.

Leverage daily interruptions

If you're anything like me, you hate interruptions. But, they have a purpose and are almost as important as moments of high energy.

What interrupts your day?

Perhaps you have an errand to run or a 30-minute meeting to take. These are opportunities to fit in other "urgent" tasks that don't require a lot of deep thought but can take time and energy.

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The constant back and forth of smaller tasks, including thinking about them does suck up our energy without us even realizing it. For example, have you ever checked your email 20+ times in an hour to make sure your inbox is at zero? Guilty!

Leverage interruptions to make time for these activities, including social media check-ins, text messaging your friends, etc. That way you get your fix without compromising your most important work.

Reward yourself

Managing our energy and focusing can be difficult, especially in the beginning when it's not yet a habit. It's much easier to check Facebook rather than focus on the big project in front of us.

So how do we make this a habit?

One of my favorite books is "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, and James Clear, a blogger who focuses on building habits for success, often quotes his work.

James Clear shares the three R's required to form a habit.

To get through the difficult project, we need something to look forward to, a gift to ourselves, a reward.

Not only does this feel better and inspires us to keep going during the most difficult days, it also makes it easier to continue on a longer, arduous path.

For example, after a full day of intense work, I treat myself with a movie and a glass of wine.

I love this concept and framework because it creates space in our day for "balance." It's easy to get caught up in the grind, but what's the result? Frustration, exhaustion, hating the process, which is a creativity killer.

By recognizing the power of the reward, making space and time for it in our day, we're more effective and happier.

In conclusion: be strategic and focus your energy

To improve our focus, we have to take stock of our day and our activities, not just the physical tasks but also how we're feeling. Make it your goal to feel great, and leverage the moments when you feel meh.

And always make time for the reward because you'll be better off in the long term.

This article originally appeared on

Belma McCaffrey is the creator of Work Bigger, a framework designed to help 20-30-somethings identify their mission so they can make an impact through their work and ultimately change the world.