Most of the so-called knowledge workers are struggling with the same dilemma: Constant distractions. E-mail, phone calls, text messages, meetings, and colleagues. The solution is not to work more; it’s to work smarter. Here are some tips to get you started.
Make room for work by blocking off time in your calendar
We all know how it goes. If you move a few weeks into the future, your calendar is full of unused time, with plenty of room for work. By the time you get to that week, all the days are full of meetings, workshops, lunches and that dentist appointment you have been dodging for months.
Most of these appointments are in your calendar because you chose to accept the meeting invitation, almost on auto-pilot. Most of these appointments are wall-to-wall. That means that you will always be late, and never really prepared. When does anyone expect some “real” work to be done?
What is the solution? Take back some of your time. Make room for work by blocking off time on your calendar to do the most important and/or complicated tasks.
Have a to-do list
I’ll let you in on a little secret: You are most probably doing it all wrong, the to-do list I mean.
Most people are not keeping regularly updated to-do lists. They make a to-do list only when they feel that they have lost control and need to get stuff out of their head. If you get in the habit of getting stuff out of your head and into some kind of system on a regular basis, you will have a much easier time prioritizing what to do and when to do it. Getting Things Done, GTD for short, is such a system.
Read my blog post about GTD to find out more.
OK, so you have managed to block off an hour of what you hope will be uninterrupted time.
Now what? How do you make sure that you are not disturbed?
If you, like most people these days, work in an open landscape, you do not have a door to close. The best way to keep other people from distracting you is maybe to make a sign saying “Do not disturb” If you are easily disturbed by ambient noise or your colleagues talking, then you may find that putting on your headphones with the right kind of music is a good solution. If you search for “concentration” on Spotify, you will find that a lot of people has created playlists for just such occasions.
If you do not like to listen to music when working, there is a load of noise-canceling headphones and earplugs to choose from. I used to have a colleague that sometimes would wear a pair of bright yellow earmuffs – There you have noise canceling and a do-not-disturb sign in one handy product.
When you have tuned out your colleagues it is time to focus on your three main sources of distraction; email, the internet, and your cell phone. Start by closing your email program. If you cannot do this, then at least turn-off notifications. I would recommend keeping your email notifications turned off permanently unless you work at customer service or helpdesk.
Want to learn more about smart email handling? Read about Inbox Zero.
To avoid the temptation to check Facebook and the local weather, it is a good idea to close your browser too. Turn your cell phone to silent. If you have a landline, forward this to your voicemail. Now you are ready to get some work done.
Focus on one single task
Multitasking does not work. It is true that you can combine tasks that do not require brainpower but the task that you have blocked off time in your calendar to get done, probably does.
For many people, it can be hard to focus on a single task, either because they are easily distracted or because they get totally lost in work and forget both the lunch with colleagues and the dinner at home. I myself find that the Pomodoro method helps me both to sit still and concentrate on a really boring task, as well as making me aware that I have been sitting still for a long time.
The Pomodoro method is basically a way to divide work into chunks of 25 minutes, with a 5-minute break in between.
If you want to know more, please read my blog post on the Pomodoro method.
''Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.'' - David Allen Click To Tweet
Take time off
You need to have room for work, not only physically, but also mentally. If you are going to perform, you have to know how to relax. If you do not give yourself time to refuel, you are going to run out of power.
I’m not saying that you necessarily should spend more time on the couch. I’m saying that you need to do something that will re-charge your batteries.
In high-stress periods, I try to not take work with me home. I’m leaving my work, both physically and mentally, at the office.
Sitting at my desk, or in meetings the whole day, I personally think it is a good thing to do some work in the garden or work on some home improvement project at home. It is the total opposite of what I usually experience – it gives me immediate visible results. Physical labor also makes you tired in a different way than mental labor. I find that I sleep better after physical labor or exercise.
Now I have a task for you: Go into your calendar, not only to make sure that you have room for work but also to make sure that you have room for the rest of your life too.