Five ways to do what you want when you want

Life is full of choices. Barring an emergency, if there is something you really want to do, you can almost always find a way to make it happen. Try these five time-saving tips to find more time:

  1. Plan what you want to do into your day. Activities will almost always extend to fill the allotted time. If you want to have family time or just time to yourself, mark it in your planner. Treat this appointment with the same priority as you would treat an important client. As the company L’Oreal says in its advertisements, “You’re worth it!”
  2. Do what you are supposed to be doing when you are supposed to be doing it. If you have scheduled two hours of uninterrupted time to work on a business proposal or work on your scrapbook, DO it. Do not get sidetracked by a ringing phone or new email. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, and you and I both know he wasn’t talking on his cell phone while he was doing it.
  3. Pack your bags! If you have repetitive activities every week such as a soccer game every Monday evening or a writing class every Thursday morning, dedicate a backpack or sports bag for that specific activity. Always keep the items required for that activity in that bag even if you need to buy duplicate items. If you want to work on your writing while at home, remove the items from the bag, work, and then return the items to the bag. You will always be ready to leave on time knowing you have all your stuff in the bag. Have an overnight bag packed and ready to go for a spontaneous weekend away or an emergency trip to the hospital.
  4. Record your favourite TV shows and limit your social media time. Record your favourite shows and watch a one-hour TV drama in 45 minutes. Fast-forward through the commercials so you will not be tempted to buy more stuff you do not really need anyway. Set a limit on how much time you spend on Facebook and other social media sites. Only check once or twice a day and set a timer so you know when to say good-bye.
  5. Learn to say NO. If you are asked to do something you are not entirely comfortable with doing, say so. Have some answers ready if you are put on the spot: “I’m sorry I give everything 24 hours consideration before I give an answer” or “I am sorry but I don’t have the time available to do an adequate job” or “I can’t help on this project, but have you talked to X? I know she has been looking for ways to be more involved.” If you have paid for a course or seminar and you are not getting anything out of it, ask for your money back. If that is not possible, stop attending anyway. Remember, your time is worth something.

The challenge of saying “no”

Setting priorities and saying “no” to people, groups, causes, and activities can be tough — but it’s also rewarding. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve done some priority setting and no-saying of my own recently.

There’s a group I’ve been involved with for eight years; I’ve met some delightful people through the group, and it was a wonderful fit for me when I first joined. But over time, things have changed. A few weeks ago, I finally dropped out. It was hard to acknowledge it was time to move on. But, now that I’ve said my goodbyes, I’m really appreciating the extra time in my schedule. I’m also noticing that some projects I’d put aside for years are now getting done. And, saying goodbye to the group doesn’t mean saying goodbye to the friendships.

Learning to say “no,” when appropriate, is an important skill. As Merlin Mann said in a Beyond the To Do List podcast:

Everything you agree to do is other things you can’t do.

The most productive people are often those who do learn when to say no. Kevin Ashton highlighted this in his article “Creative People Say No,” which resonated with me even though I’m not an artist, a novelist, or such. I recommend the whole article, but these are a few excerpts:

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.” …

No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. …

How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is.

Peter Shankman, while encouraging others to say “yes” to new opportunities, noted in his article “Saying Yes vs Saying No” that there are many requests to which “no” is the right answer:

There are times when we should say no. The “can I pick your brain without paying you for your time” requests? Yeah, those are pretty much always a no. Not that I don’t want to help you, and if you’re just starting out, or have one question via email, I’ll always say yes. But I’ve learned to say no to those more often than not, because they negatively impact me. (As they do you, as well.) And that’s fine. There are times to say no.

But the best advice, for me, comes from Lisa Barone. She said this on Twitter, and it’s become a new mantra for me:

We only get 24 hrs in a day. So if the answer isn’t “OMG, YES!” it has to be “I’m sorry, but no.”

Four simple steps for coping with significant life changes

Recently, I found out that someone I know lost his job. He described being shocked when he learned he was being let go, and that he had to accept that he needed to shift gears and move into job-search mode. He also said something else I found very interesting:

I found that I have so much that I should and want to do, that it has proved to be almost more difficult to accomplish things than when I was spending eight-plus hours in the office every day. Each day so far, without a schedule as tight as I had been maintaining while employed, seems to be flying by! More time is actually less time.

It’s the paradox of that last statement that gave me pause. Theoretically, it would seem that not having to commute and spend several hours at an office would equate to having more time to work on anything you want — in his case, job search activities. I think a couple of things are happening here. First, he’s dealing with a change — and not just any change, a major one that came as somewhat of a surprise. Second, his routine is not his routine anymore. Even though he has systems that work for him, they may not necessarily fit his current situation. And, now that he has less structure built in to his day, it can be easy for time to just slip away and for him to become frustrated.

Change, unwelcome or unexpected, doesn’t have to have a negative spin. Auriela McCarthy, author of The Power of the Possible said:

People think of change as something dangerous. But it helps to remember all the ways your life has been altered in the past and realize that not only did you not keel over and die, things often turned out for the better.

When a significant change occurs in your life, you might find yourself consumed by stress or even fear, but there are several things you can to do to stay positive and keep moving forward:

  1. Take a look at what has worked in the past. If you find that you’re feeling frustrated about your new circumstances, you can take hold of your emotions by thinking about the strategies that have previously been successful. Can those techniques be incorporated in your new routine? What adjustments would you have to make?
  2. Consider new strategies. While you can rely on tried and true action steps, this might be a good time to explore other options that might help you more easily manage your current circumstances. You can talk with friends and family members to find out what strategies worked for them to help you decide the ones you’ll try. Be sure not to get stuck at this stage as it can delay how quickly you can focus on your next steps.
  3. Create a new plan. Once you’ve reviewed all your options, you’ll need to craft a plan. Select specific tactics you’ll employ consistently so you can successfully transition to your new routine.
  4. Put your new plan to the test. Of course, there’s no point in having a plan if you don’t implement it. Keep in mind not every day will go as you intend and you may need to make some adjustments. If you encounter hiccups along the way, you can again talk with someone you trust (perhaps a long-time advisor or mentor) to give you objective opinions or make necessary changes.

Whether it’s changing jobs or doing a whole house uncluttering project, being organized with your process is a great way to stay on track and move forward when undergoing a significant life change.

4 questions for preventing information overload

I’m more selective about the information I put in my body than what food I consume. — Robert Reid

If you have wide-ranging interests or just a huge sense of curiosity, you may be like me — someone who could happily spend days just reading things online or in newspapers or magazines.

But, of course, we also want to do other things with our lives: earn a living, get exercise, see friends, pursue our hobbies, etc. So how do we cope with the never-ending flow of interesting information?

When I’m making my decisions about what to read, I focus on four questions.

Why do I want to know about this subject or read this article?

If it’s information related to my profession, it might change how I do my work. Since I do editing work, updates from Associated Press about changes to the AP Stylebook matter to me. As an organizer, sometimes there is a new product or an explanation of a specific technique or even just a cool way of wording a familiar concept that might really help a client.

News about what’s going on in the lives of family members and close friends matters to me, because I care about these people. So yes — I do use Facebook to follow the lives of the relatives and close friends who use Facebook for that kind of sharing.

Sometimes there’s information I need in order to take action. For example, if there’s an election coming up, I need to get informed about the candidates and the ballot issues. And I may want to learn more about a specific cause to decide if I want to get involved.

Irrespective of the reason, it is a good idea to be aware of why you want to know about a topic before you take to reading about it (even if it’s a simple reason like I want to smile at cute kitten photographs to lighten my mood).

How much do I need to know?

Do I need an in-depth knowledge of a topic? Often, I don’t. Sometimes just a headline is enough. Sometimes one thoughtful article by a trusted source is enough; I can read one article instead of 20.

Is this a source of information I want to pursue?

Many people write about the topics I care about. Over time, I’ve found which ones tend to provide the most useful information, so I can ignore the rest. I’ve also found which people tend to refer me to articles I want to read; if they share something, I know it’s likely to be worth my time.

Do I need to know now?

If the article relates to something I may do in the future — travel to a place, buying a product — I can just file the information away, often in the form of a bookmark to the article or others might save the link to Evernote. All I need is a very quick skim to determine if it’s likely to be useful; I’ll read it more carefully when the time comes (such as when I’m waiting for an appointment or relaxing on a Saturday afternoon).

Asking myself these questions allows me to skim through a huge amount of possible information and pick the few things I really want to read. It’s still a challenge — I’m an information junkie at heart — but these questions at least set me going along a path away from information overload.

Change the workaholic mindset to improve productivity

Many people are often in search of a strategy, tool, or productivity system that will help them to get more done. This is a good goal to have — afterall, who doesn’t want a set of habits that will help them cross stuff off their to-do list? In addition to actually accomplishing what you set out or agree to do, there’s a strong feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually pull it off on a regular basis.

On the other hand, it is possible this exuberant feeling you get from being productive can be taken to the extreme. You might crave that feeling so much that in your attempt to consistently recreate it, you end up working all the time. One could speculate that the need to work all the time is really about wanting to be in control. Others may characterize this as an addiction to working, even if the task you’re engrossed in is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps, work feels like a comfortable place to retreat to, a way to escape other parts of your life. No matter what the underlying reasons are, if you find yourself focusing on work tasks all the time, you are likely to be considered a workaholic.

On the surface, there may not seem to be a downside to spending a few extra hours at work each day, especially when you’re achieving the goals you set for yourself. But, keep in mind that you may be confusing working too much with having a strong work ethic. While both may require diligent effort and a reliance on core values, overworking likely includes a lack of discipline or the inability to stop working and recognize when it’s time to take a break. Here on Unclutterer, we’ve often extolled the benefits of taking mini-breaks throughout the work day as well as the positive effect exercise and sleep has on productivity. Certainly, if one is always working, there would be little or no time for either of those activities or any outside interests. Ultimately, this would lead to burnout.

In addition, an overly zealous worker is not beneficial to employers. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, explained:

A workaholic might seem to be every CEO’s dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn’t take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don’t delegate, aren’t team players, and are often more disorganized …

If you’re taking on too much, it is possible that you may not realize it (take Dr. Robinson’s quiz). As I mentioned before, you may think you’re simply a hard worker. Of course, there may be times when you need to work extra hours. Business owners everywhere (myself included) understand this all too well. However, it is important to prioritize specific tasks and to recognize when it’s time to ask for help. The latter will not only allow you to streamline your focus, but also help you to be more productive.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: A new productivity book from 99U featuring advice from Unclutterer

This past fall, I was contacted by the amazing people at Behance and 99U about contributing to a book series they’re editing and curating. I’m a big fan of 99U and have been in the LifeRemix network with Scott Belsky (the publisher behind Behance and 99U) for years. It took me exactly one second to agree to the project before I even really understood what it entailed.

The book, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, released today is the first in a three-part series exploring creative productivity, time management, individually tailored processes, and great design. 99U’s traditional focus is the creative community (artists, designers, writers, etc.), but the information in this book is applicable to most everyone — especially those of us tied to desks all day.

Jocelyn K. Glei, the editor-in-chief of 99U and this book series, explains:

In Manage Your Day-to-Day, we address the specific challenges that this 21st-century influx of information presents for creative professionals, and offer solutions for how to build a daily routine, maintain focus amidst a constant stream of distractions, and keep your creative mind (and work) fresh … Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, Manage Your Day-to-Day provides a playbook of tried-and-true best practices for producing great work. To accomplish this, we recruited 20 of the smartest creatives and researchers we knew—from Stefan Sagmeister to Seth Godin to Gretchen Rubin to Tony Schwartz to Dan Ariely—and asked them to share their road-tested insights on what helps them do great creative work.

The chapter I wrote for the book is “Learning To Create Amidst Chaos” and admits that “like it or not, we are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions” while working and to “truly set ourselves apart, we must learn to be creative amidst chaos.” I provide advice for ways you can train yourself to find focus in disruptive circumstances, much like a basketball player has to learn control so he or she can be successful throwing free throws on a rival team’s court.

The official book trailer:

The book is published by Amazon’s new publishing house and is available in paperback, audio, and digital format for the Kindle. Learn even more about the project and the contributors at 99U.

Are you constantly running late? Strategies for making appointments on time.

You know the annoying feeling of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for minutes on end, doing nothing while the doctor is running late? It can be aggravating. Oncologist Dr. James Salwitz recently published an article expressing a doctor’s perspective on this trial on our patience. He wrote about a normal busy day at his office — or what was a normal day, until this happened:

The 1:30, 1:45, 2:00 patients all arrived at 2:15 and suddenly I was looking at an afternoon that would run deeply into eve. I really hate it when patients are late. …

As an oncologist, I detest running late, because it means leaving people with cancer on their minds, stewing in my waiting room. Personally, I worry when I am waiting at the dentist for a cleaning. What goes on in the mind of someone waiting to see me?

This got me thinking about how much grief we can cause for ourselves and others when we find ourselves running late. Usually we just inconvenience people, but sometimes the implications are more serious. Laurie Perry shares a story about the woman who hit her Jeep:

After the crash she sat in her car, writing out her phone number for me, saying, “I was late for work.” I remember looking at her with absolute disbelief, thinking You almost killed me because you were late for work?

That line keeps coming back to me at the oddest times. I’ll see someone blow through a red light and hear that lady saying, I was late for work. And then I think, I hope they don’t kill someone just because they couldn’t bother to leave on time for work today.

What causes us to run late? Some people fall prey to underestimating the time it will take to get somewhere. That’s not my personal weakness. I’m what Penelope Trunk calls a “time pessimist”; I assume things are going to take longer than my first estimate. I’ve learned that Google Maps gives me an optimistic driving time. And I live in an area with minimal public transit and winding two-lane roads, where any traffic snarls lead to major delays — so I’ve learned to pad many minutes into my driving times.

Some people are hooked on the adrenaline rush of cutting things close. In her book It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, Marilyn Paul notes that “there is a thrill in running late, postponing something to the last minute, or meeting a deadline by minutes. If you’re in your car, rushing to an appointment, you experience the exhilaration of trying to get through each traffic light.” She goes on to explain that there are better ways to get your adrenaline rush. But I don’t get a thrill from cutting things close — quite the opposite. I’m one of those people who is nervous enough about missing a plane that I arrive at airports ridiculously early.

I’m also not someone who tends to get held up because I’ve misplaced something. My house keys go on a hook by the front door. My Prius car keys and my wallet stay in my purse. I’ve got a tote bag that has everything I need for a certain weekly meeting. Sure, I will sometimes misplace something and have to scramble, but it’s a rare event.

Rather, when I’ve found myself leaving home later than I intended, it’s usually due to what Kathleen Nadeau calls one-more-thing-itis. I send one more email. I do one more seemingly tiny task. Then I hope there’s no traffic jam, because I’ve eaten up all my carefully planned buffer time. And I promise myself I’m never doing this to myself again.

But for many people, it’s difficult to develop the habits needed to arrive on time. For anyone who is chronically late and concerned about that, but is finding it hard to change, I’d recommend Never Be Late Again, by Diana DeLonzer, which presents “seven cures for the punctually challenged.” It’s a book filled with both humor and wisdom, from an author who has overcome this challenge herself.

Additional help: Hang something as simple as a removable utility hook near your front door or inside your coat closet to hold your keys every time you come into your home. Set alarms on your smart phone, watch, or Time Timer to remind you to get out the door when you need to. Time yourself doing regular morning activities (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking your dog around the neighborhood, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.) to see how long it really takes you to do these activities. As humans, we often underestimate how long things take us to do, and having a real sense of the time it takes you to get ready can help you plan your day better so you can get places on time.

Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity

“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.

It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.

I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.

For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.

Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:

Sorting by context

Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)

Time and Energy Available

Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.

Word Notebooks

A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.

Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.

  • Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
  • Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
  • Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
  • Draw an “X” over items that are complete

It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.

The Dash/Plus System

My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.

Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.

Four ways to manage work-life challenges

It’s Valentine’s Day, and so a lot of people are focused on romance. But, what happens after the day is done? How do you keep focused on an important relationship when “things go back to normal?” A recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggests that finding the right (dare I say) balance between your work and personal lives can be difficult, particularly for entrepreneurs.

When starting a business, managing a relationship with a significant other can be tough. Entrepreneurs often need to work long hours, weekends and holidays. They may have to travel unexpectedly and answer calls in the middle of the night. That kind of dedication — combined with the emotional highs and lows commonly associated with starting a business — can take a toll on an entrepreneur’s love life.

The article goes on to say how frustrating it can be for those in relationships with entrepreneurs, particularly when their partners estimate that “a business task will take just a minute when in reality it takes a few hours.” Sound familiar? Of course, work-life challenges are not unique to business owners.

Whether you work for yourself or someone else, there are specific steps you can take to create some boundaries between your work and personal responsibilities. That’s not to say that there won’t be hiccups along the way, but if you incorporate one or more of the strategies listed below, you’re likely to notice an improvement in how well you manage both your personal and business lives. Where should you begin? A good starting point is to come up with a reasonable plan:

Create ground rules

The hectic nature of one’s job probably will not go away, but you do have some control over the frequency with which business tasks interrupt your personal time. Create and stick to some general rules of thumb that you find reasonable to follow, like putting away your cell phone while having dinner with your family or limiting business calls and emails while you’re on vacation. You can practice unplugging from your mobile phone by turning it off (or leaving it in another room) for short periods and then work your way up to longer time frames.

Create a realistic schedule

It’s not very probable that you can completely turn off all thoughts about work. On the other hand, you can’t realistically spend every waking moment working. Set a reasonable schedule and consider creating blocks of time when you’re “on” and when you’re “off.” It’s also a good idea to test out the schedule that you come up with. Can you stop working at 6 pm, spend time with your significant other for two hours, and then continue working for another two hours? You’ll probably need to try out several scenarios before finding the one that works best for you.

Share your calendar

A calendar (digital or paper) can help keep close friends and family members up to date on times when you’ll be unavailable. If there’s an important project that will require quite a bit of your attention, the calendar is a great way to communicate that. That way, you’ll reduce the possibility of having personal events scheduled during times when your focus needs to primarily be on work tasks. You’ll also be able to pinpoint and block off the best opportunities for personal activities (vacations, daily personal time).

Find alternate ways to get things done

Business owners sometimes get caught in the trap of doing everything themselves. Sure, there may be things that only the company owner can do. But, there are a myriad of other things that can be delegated either to a business partner, virtual assistant, or an intern. You can also use technology tools to streamline processes and automate some tasks. And, of course, there are a number of apps you can rely on to help you be productive once it’s time to get back to work.

Five ways to successfully manage interruptions at work

Would you be surprised to learn that when you are distracted while working, you can make mistakes when you get back to your intended task? The results of a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that you also have a greater chance of “resuming at a different point in [your] train of thought” then if you had not been interrupted. Perhaps the most telling thing the researchers discovered is that even quick interruptions of less than three seconds made participants more likely to make a mistake.

They reported:

… when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up … the error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds.

Interruptions seem to be a part of everyone’s daily work life and they can come in a variety of forms: a request from a colleague, a phone call from a client, or even your own desire to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing. All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be.

Since shifting your focus even for short periods of time has a direct effect on the quality of your work, it makes sense to:

Figure out what your regular interruptions are

Are there interruptions that happen frequently during your day? Do specific people continually seek your attention causing you to pause what you’re doing? Do you respond to all phone calls and emails immediately? Take a few minutes to jot down all the things that tend to take your focus away from your intended tasks.

Come up with a game plan

No matter what the interruptions are, you can thwart them with a strategic game plan. Create a time plan so you can manage your tasks. By doing this, you’ll be able to set realistic timeframes for working on your to-do’s and setting your schedule accordingly.

Share your calendar with others. Make your schedule available to colleagues so they’ll know when you’ll have time available to meet or talk with them. You may still get interrupted, but hopefully your colleagues will begin to request your attention when they know you’re not otherwise occupied.

Use friendly, but direct reminders. When you do get interrupted, consider using statements such as:

  • “I’m working on a project that is making my brain spin and requires a lot of focus. Can we meet this afternoon at 3:00 to discuss your matter in detail? I’ll be much more helpful to you then when my mind isn’t filled with this project.”
  • “Unfortunately, I’m swamped today finishing project X so we can meet the deadline. I won’t be able to help today. Have you talked to Sally? I know she has been interested in getting involved in a project such as this.”
  • “I’d like to help, but if you need an answer today, I’ll have to to say no.”

You can also post a sign on your office door (if you have one) or cubicle panel, and you can even wear one. When I worked in the corporate world, my workspace was in a highly trafficked area and it wasn’t unusual for someone to tap me on the shoulder with a request. Since I didn’t have a door that I could close, I sometimes wore a sign that said something like: “I’m not here. I’ll back at 3 pm.” Of course, I explained to others in the office what I was doing so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard or be put off by my sign.

Control self-imposed distractions. Remove the temptation to share your attention with unimportant activities by turning off email notifications, silencing your phone, or forwarding your calls to voicemail or another person. You can also use a browser extension like Leechblock to block your favorite websites while you work on your most important projects.

Stop interruptions before they happen

Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur. Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing.

Use strategies to help you get back on track

Whether you need to take a phone call or reply to an urgent email, try to keep your time away as short as possible. And, think about writing down your thoughts before you stop working so you have a frame of reference for when you return. You could leave yourself a note with your voice recorder or you can type in your last train of thought directly in the document you’re composing.

When possible, go to another location

If you find that you’re getting an influx of interruptions, find a different workspace (if possible). Pick an alternate location that allows you focus and get stuff done (library, local cafe, co-working office, conference room).

Stay productive with President Eisenhower’s method

Long before David Allen taught the world how to get things done, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was getting things done with a system all his own.

He was highly organized and prioritized his tasks and responsibilities while serving as president, a five-star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower devised an effective system that’s simple enough to be executed with a pencil and a piece of paper and effective enough to, well, run the free world. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix.

Why use it?

First and foremost, it answers the question, “What should I do now?” There have been times when I’ve sat at my desk with an overwhelming list of projects and to-do items. They all seem important in those first few moments, and it’s often hard to be objective enough to identify what is urgent and what isn’t. The Eisenhower Matrix formalizes that process.

The Matrix also forces you to carefully consider potential projects. Is it life-sustaining work that will pay the bills or something that might be fun (and devour billable hours)? Alternatively, will this new opportunity or idea rejuvenate your productive, creative self, or lead you down a rabbit hole of avoidance? In other words, you get an answer to the question: “Is this worth doing?”

Finally, when you’ve got your tasks written down and plugged into the matrix, it’s very easy to identify urgent tasks at a glance. As the president often said:

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Here’s How it Works.

So what is it? The Eisenhower Matrix categorizes tasks across a 2×2 matrix. The categories are:

  1. Important and urgent. Tasks in this category are both urgent and time sensitive. They must be completed as soon as possible. Examples might include a report due within the next 48 hours or last-minute tax preparations. This is the stuff that keeps food on the table and a roof over your head.
  2. Important and not urgent. These tasks are to be handled immediately after those in quadrant number one. They’re less time sensitive, but you should be prepared to complete them after any crises in quadrant one have been solved. Examples include long-term financial planning and physical exercise.
  3. Not important but urgent. It’s odd to consider something that’s unimportant to be urgent, but this happens more than you might think. Administrative tasks are a good example of items that fall into this category. You might not want to file your reports with your boss each Friday and it’s even okay if you miss a few each year, but today is Friday and you should get the report done by the end of the day.
  4. Unimportant and not urgent. I reserve this area for tasks that aren’t related to work and don’t affect my income. I need to get them done, but there’s no time-crunch in place. Scheduling an oil change for the car is a good example.

Keep Track of it All

Now that you’ve decided what goes where, it’s time to keep track of it all. You’re in luck because it couldn’t be simpler. A 3×5 index card (I love 3×5 index cards) is perfect! Just draw the four lines and add the day’s tasks.

Notebooks are great, too, for keeping track of your Matrix. I’m a fan of Field Notes Brand, but really anything will do.

If you’re tech-savvy, there are a couple applications you can employ. There’s one called, appropriately, Eisenhower. It’s totally free and runs in almost any web browser, so it doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a PC. The makers of Eisenhower have also released a companion iPhone app ($2.99).

Priority Matrix is another software solution that’s available for Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it with success this winter. It’s really nice to glance down at my index card and know what must be done and when.

Capture ideas quickly with index cards

I recently wrote a post about effective inbox management that came down to this: use as many inboxes as you need and can check reliably, and no more. One reader, “Erika in VA,” left a comment requesting more information on how I used index cards to capture information for my physical inboxes:

Loved the post, but could you explain what you normally write on the 3×5 cards? My typical physical in-box item is paper, so I’m having a hard time imagining how I might use 3×5 cards to help process “stuff.” Thanks!

Paper is Technology

Even as a technology-savvy person, I love paper and use it daily. In my experience, nothing is more flexible. Paper is pure potential. You can jot down a shopping list or solve a complex financial crisis with a pencil. In fact, paper is an example of technology, it’s “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry. Or machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.”

I’ve been using index cards for years. There’s always a stack on my desk. I use them for several purposes, but most frequently to capture ideas, tasks, reminders, figures and so on for later reference. Here’s how and why I love using index cards.

Capture

How many times have you said, “I’ve got to remember to …”? When I have those thoughts, I know that if I don’t write them down right then and there, I’ll forget them. I must capture this “stuff.” I use the term capture to mean to create a record of that idea, thought, or bit of information that I know I’ll review later. That last bit is crucially important.

When I’m away from my desk I’ll use a notebook and pen to capture stuff. I like Fieldnotes Brand notebooks and the Fisher Space Pen, but really anything you like will do. When I’m in the car, I use my iPhone and record voice memos with Apple’s Siri.

But when I’m at my desk, it’s all about the index cards.

There’s a simple inbox on my desk that I bought at Staples. It contains a stack of unused index cards, plus any that I’ve written on during the day. When I’m working and I think of something that I want to capture, I grab a blank card and write a few words down. Just enough to trigger my memory later. For example, there’s a card in my inbox as I write this that says, “Make ‘Tally’ next week’s app.” I know that means I must review an app called “Tally” for next week.

When I’m done writing, I toss the card back into the inbox. The whole capture process takes just a few seconds, and that’s important. The more time I spend off task, the harder it will be to get back on task. Since I can jot something down in just a few seconds, I can return to whatever I was doing prior to making that note easily.

Review

At the end of the day, I process the index card notes I’ve made. This is simple to do. Just pick up each card, read it and decide:

  1. What is it?
  2. What must be done (if anything)?

Do

The first question typically has three possible answers:

  1. An action step. Something that must be done, either by me or by someone else.
  2. Reference material. This is information that doesn’t require action but could be useful in the future. Move it to your long-term storage solution.
  3. Date- or time-specific to-do item, or what I’d call a “reminder.” Add to your calendar.

That’s it. I move through each card in turn, following these steps. It’s pretty simple, but there is one important rule: go in order. It’s tempting to pass over a card that’s boring or seemingly too-much-to-think-about-right-now. If you put it back once, unprocessed, you’re likely to pass over it a second time. And a third. So, you are not allowed to put a card back and you may not alter the order.

A Matter of Trust

Earlier I mentioned that I know I’ll review my index cards at the end of the day. In other words, I trust my system. This is critically important. When my brain knows, “Yeah, he’ll look at this later. I trust him,” it stops pestering me. Imagine that you promise yourself, “I”m going to clean the basement.” Every time you walk past that basement door, your brain says, ”We ought to be cleaning the basement, you know.“ But if you make an appointment to clean the basement on Saturday at 10:00 a.m., your brain will give you a pass. “She’s put it on the calendar. We’re good.” I know in my bones that I’ll review my index cards, so no more remembering to change the furnace filter when I’m driving on Rte. 3 and can’t do a thing about it.

That’s my index card system: capture, review, do. Nice and simple. It’s quick, I trust it, and it works. I hope this answers your question, Erika!