In the modern business world we have a huge number of demands on our time. When we are not holding meetings, we’re arranging them, when we’re not reading emails, we’re writing them. We have instant, almost unlimited access to information, and our curious minds find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to absorb more.

It seems that the transformative effect that technology in particular has had on the way we work has ultimately done little to ease the burden of the many different things demanding our attention on a daily basis. Instead, it has simply increased the number of opportunities for us to become distracted from whatever it is we really should be concentrating on.

So, in this environment of constant, potential distraction, how do we maintain our focus, and ensure that we are making the most effective use of our time?

What does being effective really mean for you?

For me, when I talk about making ‘effective’ use of my time, I’m actually talking about identifying those activities that add the most value to my professional life. Value in this sense could be directly financial, of course, and activities like business development meetings or agreeing investment deals fall squarely into that category.

But value can also be about other areas of your professional life – for example personal career development, or strengthening relationships with other people – activities that may ultimately bring some financial benefit in the long run, but that are valuable in other ways too.

So, it’s clear that one of the very first things that you need to do in order to start to make the most effective use of your time is simply to identify what those activities that create value for you and your business actually are.

What activities truly enrich you – personally, financially, and professionally – and how much of your time do you dedicate to them in reality? It’s an important process to go through, because these are your most effective behaviours – so now it is time to try and prioritise them above everything else.

Create productive habits

I’ve come to believe that so much of being more effective at work is about habit. Having successfully identified what being effective actually means for you, it’s crucial that you then identify what those activities that actually create value for you on a daily basis are, and then do them. It could be something as simple as reviewing your to-do list each morning (or limiting it to three key things per day), or committing to answering every email you receive within an hour of it arriving in your inbox.

Whatever it is, the trick is to start doing it, and then do it again, every day. Habits – as any ex-smoker will tell you – take a long time to break, but they also take a little while to form. It takes clarity of purpose and persistence to build them into your daily routine, but once you do they will become second nature.

One of the habits that has been most beneficial to me has been to use a Pomodoro timer. The technique breaks your working day up into 20 minute chunks of activity, followed by short breaks. The idea is that during the 20 minutes you are working on a task, you focus only on that single activity. It certainly works for me, and has also helped to wean me away from a less effective multi-tasking approach that saw me getting distracted from the matter in hand.

Spend your time with other people

The single most effective use of my time, I’ve come to believe, is when I spend it with other people. It’s usually where things happen, ideas are formed and deals are struck. Of course, at the same time there is nothing more counter-productive than endless meetings that achieve nothing – rather, I’m talking here about spending quality time with other people in a way that actually generates tangible, practical outcomes.

With that in mind, I’m actually always very strict about the time I dedicate to spending with other people – if it is a formal meeting I make sure that I keep it short, with a clear agenda and a brief, actionable set of tasks that come out of it. For me, cutting the duration of the meeting is not about spending less time with other people – instead it’s simply about making the most effective use of that time when I do.

Outside of formal meetings, I think that it all comes down, once again, to creating positive, effective habits. It’s about being visible around the people I work with, every day, getting out from behind the desk (or off the phone), and actually interacting with them face-to-face.

The key to making all of this work, of course, is listening to others and learning about how I can help them – and I can genuinely think of no more effective way to spend my time than doing that.