Over the last year or so I’ve finally realised the importance of actively choosing how to invest my time rather than getting involved with every distraction that comes my way. In a previous post I shared how I plan my time and the tools that I use. In this post I share my top tips for sticking to that plan in an “always on” culture.
1. Only be interrupted on your own terms
If you’re working on a rock (one of the tasks that you’ve decided will get move you towards your long term goals) then be entirely present and focussed on that particular task. If you’re working on a client project then work on the client project. Turn off e-mail, IM and other phone notifications. iOS has a useful feature that allows you to mute all incoming calls unless the same person calls three times. There are very few things that can’t wait an hour and if there’s a real emergency the person will still get through. Schedule time as often as you need to respond to these messages. How often will depend on the type of job you do.
2. Schedule time to deal with requests that come in throughout the day.
Most things aren’t life or death and depending on your job role can wait an hour or even until the end of the day. I schedule time each day to deal with the requests that come in. I know that this block of time is available and this allows me to make a note of the action to get it out of my head (see 3) and then get back to the task in hand.
3. Get it out of your head and schedule it for later.
I’m realistic. Sometimes interruptions are unavoidable. A client is calling or a colleague has passed by your desk to ask a question. If you’re interrupted in these ways don’t get out of the flow. Assuming it’s not urgent (i.e. it can wait until the next block of time you’ve planned in your schedule to deal with things that come up during the day -see 2) write down the action and deal with it in the time you’ve allocated for this purpose.
4. Always have an agenda.
Don’t let people interrupt you without an agenda. It’s great to be accessible but don’t let people eat up the time you don’t have. People will always want to “catch up” or get you to solve problems that are really theirs to solve. It can be hard stopping a meeting in its tracks but if you don’t say “no” to these people then you are saying “no” to other more important things whether that’s your rocks or just getting home to your family on time.
5. Solve problems for good
Solve problems once and for all. If someone comes to you asking for some contact details that are in your phone find a way to share that information with anyone who might need it on the team forever without you having to be interrupted ever again. The investment of an extra few minutes now will save you hours of lost productivity as a result of interruptions down the line.
6. Touch things once
It’s easy to get to inbox zero by responding with half-baked replies or sending questions back to the sender but this is a false economy. You will inevitably get a reply to your reply. This means that you have to get into the zone for that task or project a second time and you’re still going to have to do the task or give a proper response. When dealing with e-mail (or any other communication for that matter) I either respond properly straight away, schedule a time to respond properly by adding it to my task list or file the information straight to Evernote.
7. Don’t be cryptic
Say what needs to be said clearly and empathetically and move on. Cryptic communication results in miscommunication and time wasting.
8. Plan your breaks
I find that regular breaks help me to focus better when I’m at my desk. Plan to get up from your desk for a specific purpose at least once every hour. It could be to make a coffee, buy some lunch or step outside and drop your wife a text. Just don’t get distracted by colleagues or shiny things on the way back.
9. Don’t be afraid to get out of the office
I believe that productivity shouldn’t be measured by the number of hours spent at the office. I measure myself and my team by results alone. I know that when I’m not getting into the groove in the office, I’m much better off moving to somewhere else – whether that’s home or a great coffee shop. Sometimes I just need to go for a walk. The increase in productivity that I experience as a result far outweighs the amount of time lost in moving.
10. Use a different device
If I’m getting distracted from my core task I switch device. I find that working on my iPad where I can only ever have 2 things on screen at once makes it easier to focus. If I leave the office for a change of scene I often choose to take only my iPad with me for exactly this reason – it limits the potential for distractions and multitasking.
11. Call don’t email
Call don’t email. This goes back to the “touch things once” principle. If you call rather than e-mail you can often get a decision there and then rather than wasting lots of time with back and forths. You can also check that thing off your to-do list straight away.
12. Use Instant Messengers
IM don’t e-mail or call. If it’s not life or death urgent then try an instant messaging system to get a response. That way you’re not interrupting someone and you’re not filling either of your inboxes. Slack is a great tool for making this work in a team. By making as many conversations as possible public you can also disseminate your discussion to a wider audience allowing other people to contribute (or just not have to ask you about it another time).
13. You don’t need to update everyone on every detail
At times our team has got into the habit of updating everyone else with every single detail when it’s not necessary. One recent example :
A: Please can you get a quote from a supplier”
B: “I got a quote from a supplier but it’s too expensive”
B: “I’m asking another supplier”
B: “I’ve got a quote from another supplier that’s a good price”
That whole conversation could have been dealt with in 2 message:
A: Please can you get a quote from a supplier”
B: “I’ve got a quote from a supplier that’s a good price”
This would have saved both parties reading / writing / thinking about 2 messages, saving time and brain space for everyone.
14. Meetings don’t have to last an hour.
I’ve never understood why most calendar apps automatically book 1 hour time slots. Don’t book a meeting for 1 hour by default. Think how long you really need. Could you get through everything in 15 minutes if you really focussed? Meetings will always creep to fill the time that you allocate.
15. Install Boomerang
Install Boomerang. Boomerang is an app that allows you to schedule an e-mail to re-appear in your inbox in a specified period of time if you haven’t received a response. This saves you having lots of “reminders to follow up” in your to do list and you are only reminded to follow up if you haven’t already received a response.
Check out this article for more info on my favourite productivity tools.
How about you? What tips do you have for staying focussed?