Focus and Productivity: What Works for Me

Sophie Playle
Focus and Productivity: What Works for Me image

I run my own editing business. So unlike when I used to work in a publishing house (and could slack off and still get paid the same wage every month), the more I work, the more I earn.

And let’s not beat around the bush – though I love what I do, I’m here to make a living.

Which means it’s in my best interest to be as productive (and as focused) as possible.

Here’s what works for me.

Focusing on the Right Task

Like a lot of people, there’s something nested deep in my brain that makes me desperate to feel and look busy. Working long hours becomes a badge of honour, and guilt gnaws at me if – god forbid – I don’t work a ‘full’ nine-hour work day.

I recognise that this is not a good way to be. I also recognise that this is a cultural issue.

Even when I get a handle on these feelings, someone will end up making a comment that spirals it all out of control again.

But when we think in terms of tangible productivity, we forget how important thinking time is – especially in cognitive-based industries. Running a business takes a lot of thought. Editing a novel takes a lot of thought. Yet we don’t properly value this time because it feels as though we’re doing nothing.

The truth is, thinking time is incredibly valuable.

When I dive straight into busywork, I can waste hours doing things that make me feel productive but that actually don’t get me very far. (Social media, I’m looking at you.)

Here’s an example. While doing my yearly review recently, it dawned on me that I would spend around five hours every fortnight crafting my newsletter. I enjoy writing these and they add value to my business (people get to know me, which means they’re more likely to feel comfortable working with me), but were they really worth ten hours of my time every month? Definitely not. So this year I’m sending out my newsletter once a month instead.

Thinking time feels unproductive, but it’s actually incredibly important – so factor it in and don’t feel guilty. And when we take a moment to consider the best use of our time, we can save time and energy in the long run.

Breaking Down Tasks

This is kind of an obvious one, but it’s amazing how effective it is. When I first started out as an editor, when someone sent me a manuscript to work on, I would feel as though I were standing at the foot of a mountain looking up. The task ahead felt overwhelming.

I would put off starting, kidding myself that I had plenty of time – when in reality I was stalling. Back in my early days as an editor, when I had very few clients, it wasn’t uncommon for me to miss deadlines because of this, using the excuse ‘it was more work than I had anticipated’.

Suffice to say, I don’t work like that anymore – and haven’t for a long time.

Now, I block time out to work on a single manuscript, then break down that manuscript into daily targets. For critiques, I aim to read a certain number of pages a day. For editing, I have a daily word count goal, with a few days of wiggle room.

And I break those days down into smaller chunks, too. My to-do list mostly looks like a series of checkboxes next to page numbers. For instance, for my current editing project I’m editing thirty pages a day, so I have three checkboxes next to page numbers in ten-page increments.

It makes the job feel so much more manageable.

Break down big tasks into days, then daily tasks into smaller chunks. This will help prevent you stalling before you even start, and you’ll build a momentum that will encourage you to keep going.

Knowing How Best to Schedule My Day

In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink discusses research that suggests everyone experiences the day in three stages: a peak, when we feel most alert; a trough, when our concentration and mood dips; and a recovery, when we feel okay again but also more creative.

Seventy-five percent of us (morning people) experience the day in that order, but pretty much everyone else experiences those stages in reverse (night owls).

If I’m woken up before 8am, I do a great impression of a zombie for most of that day.

Even so, my most productive hours are in the morning (just not silly-hours morning) – so I make sure I do tasks that require the highest level of concentration as soon as my brain kicks into gear after my morning cup of tea.

My energy slumps at around 3pm, so just before I hit that groggy feeling, I make sure I’ve had lunch and been out for a walk. This seems to make the slump less debilitating, and I’m usually feeling good to go again around 4pm.

My lunch break lasts around an hour and a half. For me, a decent break in the day is crucial. Without one, my productivity, energy and happiness plummets. I don’t like feeling that my whole day is consumed by work.

I might do a little more editing later in the afternoon, but I’ll usually be slower. Instead, I often finish up my day replying to emails, hanging out on social media (I mean, erm, networking and marketing on social media) and doing general admin tasks.

I get a second wind in the evening, but by this point I’m not going back to work. Having a definite end-point to my working day keeps me sane.

Shape your working hours to match your energy cycle (doing the bulk of your high-concentration work when you feel most alert). Make sure you have a decent break and a cut-off time, too.

Closing Emails and Turning Off Notifications

Seeing emails coming in and notifications pop up on my screen is distracting as hell and gives me little jolts of jaw-clenching stress. I’ve switched off all notifications, and I only open my email account when I’m ready to tackle my inbox.

Some people recommend not looking at emails at all until you’ve finished your most important work, but I much prefer looking at them first thing so I get a sense of what I’ve got to deal with later (and how much time I’ll need). If it won’t take long, I’ll clear my inbox before diving into the rest of my work. (That feels good.) If there’s a lot to do, I’ll save it for the afternoon.

I can honestly say I’ve never had an email land in my inbox that’s been desperately urgent.

I’m lucky in this way, because I mostly work directly with authors and we agree on the work schedule ahead of time.

If you work for publishers with crazy workflows or companies with tight deadlines that are prone to change, I imagine this would be different, but I’m sure you could still block out half-hour slots  to focus solely on your work.

Focusing on one task at a time – with nothing else to distract you – helps you get in the zone and work faster and more effectively.

Science-backed Concentration Music: Focus@Will

This is my secret weapon.

I’m not exaggerating. Focus@Will is amazing, and I’ve been using it for years.

It’s an online music service based on human neuroscience that’s designed to help you focus. Their music has been scientifically proven to alter brain activity toward a state that is more conducive to productivity.

I love listening to music, but I can’t listen to Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead and Lady Gaga (don’t judge me) while I’m working. It’s too distracting. So instead I listen to Focus@Will, which not only helps me get into my work faster, but helps me maintain my focus too.

There are other music services out there designed to provide work-friendly background noise, but as far as I’m aware, this is the only one scientifically designed to increase your ability to concentrate.

There are various channels you can choose from, so it might take some experimentation to find which ones work for you. My favourite is Uptempo. It’s like a mini techno rave in your head.

The music does sound a little weird, but it’s not meant to be listened to, exactly. I plug in my headphones and get to work. My focus is on my work, not the music.

The service isn’t free – but it’s worth every penny. You can sign up for a free two-week trial to see if it works for you. After that, it’s $9.95 a month, or much less if you pay for a year or more. And you can sign it off as a business expense, of course.

Listen to music that’s been scientifically designed to increase your concentration (like Focus@Will) while you do your high-focus tasks.

Lastly, I have to remind myself that being productive doesn’t always mean freeing up time to do more work. Sometimes it means getting your work done effectively and efficiently so you don’t feel chained to your desk.

I’m not a machine that needs calibrating to maximum efficiency, and if I start to feel like one, I start to resent my work. And that serves no one, least of all me.

This post contains an affiliate link to Focus@Will. It’s a service I use and highly recommend, and if you decide to sign up, I’ll get a small commission – with no cost to you.

Sophie Playle profile picture
Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in copy-editing and critiquing, working directly with authors. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

Sign Up to Liminal Letters

Monthly insight into my life as a fiction editor

I talk about how I’m attempting to live a creative and meaningful life – as an editor, a traveller and a homely soul. Plus, never miss a blog post.