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.
… 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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Now that I’m a parent, my schedule has more activites and I seem to continuously be on a quest to find more time. It’s not lost, but it has become more elusive. Rather than run around frantically (which is not a good look for me), I know that I need to rely on simple systems that have worked for me in the past.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to capture a few extra minutes:
- Laundry. Just saying the word laundry makes me want to run and hide. I don’t like that there are so many steps to getting clean clothing. It’s a long but necessary process, so I shorten it by doing smaller loads. That way, I can wash, dry, fold, and put away all clothing in one evening. I don’t have to sort since I use a three compartment hamper to separate the clothing colors ahead of time. This really saves some precious minutes. It also helps to make sure clothing is not inside out before they go in the washer. When they are finished drying, all I have to do is fold and put them away. Did I mention I tend to wear clothing that doesn’t need ironing?
The best thing about doing laundry is that it’s not a task that requires you attend to it the entire time. So, once the clothes are in the machine, I can do something else.
- Dishes. Though I dislike doing dishes, I love seeing an empty sink. I tend to wash dishes right after I’m finished using them. On the occasions that I let them pile up, it often takes too long to get them done. In short, do ‘em as you use ‘em.
- Cooking. While something is simmering or sitting in the oven, I wash the dishes or put away the ones that are already dry. Also, when I’m prepping my ingredients, I keep a bowl on the counter for things that I will eventually throw away. This means I have less spills on the counter to clean up. And, if something does spill, I wipe it up straight away.
- Morning Coffee. My coffee maker turns on automatically at 5:30 am every day and all I have to do is put in a coffee pod when I’m ready for my cup. I also fill up the water reservoir each night before going to bed.
- Keys and Purse. My keys and purse are always hung on a hook next to the door. Other items that I’ll need when leaving the house are set by the door the night before so that I don’t forget them or run around looking for them before leaving.
- Car care. I spend a fair amount of time in my car and am usually eating on the go. Since granola bars and water are often what I have on hand, it’s easy for me to accumulate food wrappers and water bottles. I stop them from taking over my car by simply removing them each time I run an errand (e.g., get gas, go to the bank or market) or once I return home.
These simple steps have been extremely helpful and have kept me from losing my head the past few months. I do, however, need to figure out a way to keep better track of my phone. Since my little one came along, it’s the one thing that I tend to search for the most. I can’t explain this phenomenon. Recently, I’ve been saying a little mantra before I leave any room in the house and when I get in the car: “Do I have my phone?” This strategy seems to be helping and I find that I don’t have to search for it as often.
What do you do to gain more time in your day?
There are many things I want to do and I’ve been known to multitask (as recently as last week!). When time seems elusive, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of doing too many things at once.
Fortunately, I have a simple, three step process that helps me focus on one thing at a time and to be more realistic about how much I can actually accomplish.
Here it is:
- Write a short, specific list
- Create a realistic and reasonable plan
- Select a reward
One of the reasons this process works for me is because I enjoy writing to-do lists, and I usually get more done when I hand write them. I like apps like Toodledo (especially since I can set reminders), but I love crossing tasks off on a paper list. Like Erin, sometimes I put things I’ve already done on my list just so I can put a line through them.
Now that I have spring cleaning on my mind, I’ve created a list for my latest project: organizing the outside of my home. As a new mom, I put more effort in (trying to) keep the inside of my home organized, and there are times that I forget about the outdoor chores. But, now that this is back on my radar, I took a look inside our shed. It has been a bit neglected because we were so focused on the impending arrival of a certain little person. Needless to say, it needs some attention. As I looked around the yard, I also noticed a few other things that were crying out for a some tender loving care.
So, my first step was to make a list of some (not all) of the things I wanted work on. There are several helpful spring cleaning checklists that I could use, however, in this case, I decided to make a short list based on:
- Things I think are important (i.e., need fixing and will make me happy).
- The amont of time it will take for me to complete them.
The short list
Whenever I make a list, I include the top three things needed to complete each task. When I complete a step, I cross it off and move on to the next one until all tasks have been taken care of. I have also used “One Thing” notepads by PrettyBitter.com.
- Re-organize the shed
- Remove obvious trash and recyclables
- Re-organize shelves (keep like items together)
- Sweep and annihilate cobwebs
- Add plants to pots at entry way
- Buy potting soil
- Buy perennials with color (perennials take less time to maintain)
- Plant flowers and water them
The reasonable plan
- I intend to finish all tasks by the end of June. I find that when I have a deadline, the likelihood of finishing my project is high. Without one, I can turn into a waffler.
- I will work in 15-30 minute time blocks three days every week. I would like to work my plan every day, but I doubt I’d be successful at that. Short organizing sessions will give me enough time to get some chores done and still let me do other (unrelated) things.
- I will pick one thing to focus on each day. By focusing on one item, I can keep feelings of overwhelm at bay.
- I will ask for help. When there’s a second person, 15-30 minutes will double, I’d probably get more done, and finish my chores sooner.
- I will think of a nice reward when my project is complete.
The amazing reward
I get little bursts of joy each time I cross something off my list, and I get the personal satisfaction of actually finishing what I set out to do. But, when I choose a fabulous way to pat myself on the back, that helps me get through my list because I have something amazing to look forward to. I think a manicure and a massage are in my near future.
Grocery shopping is a necessary evil. Does anyone look forward to their weekly visit to the grocery store? If you’re like me, you defer these duties to your spouse. My wife has the grocery shopping down to a science. She tries to get in and out of the store as fast as she can. Don’t we all?
Here are some tips that she has to make your grocery shopping visit easier to deal with:
- Make a meal plan: Decide what you’re going to eat this week and what you’ll need to make that happen. (Erin will write more on this specific topic next week.)
- Make a list from your plan: Not only will this help you remember what you need, it also discourages you from picking up things that you don’t need.
- Separate the items on the list into their own sections (dairy, condiments, cereal, produce, etc.). This will reduce the chances of having to double back for something that you forgot in another section.
- Go shopping at off-peak hours. The less of a crowd the faster the shopping goes. Avoid weekends. (My wife goes before work early in the morning.)
- Sale items above all: Look over your weekly sale items before heading to the store. Saving money on groceries is a good thing.
- Get physical. Don’t be afraid to elbow fellow shoppers to get to the checkout ahead of them.
Ok, so that last one is a joke, but I hope these tips help you use your time more wisely. The less time you spend in the grocery store, the more time you spend doing something you actually enjoy.
When I was a high school teacher, I tried to teach my students valuable life lessons in addition to the English curriculum. Time management was a non-academic lesson I focused on year after year. I would ask for students to set deadlines for research, outlines, drafts and final papers and projects. My students were then evaluated on their abilities to meet their own deadlines, in addition to being evaluated on the content of their work. Failure to meet a deadline would result in a conversation with me about why they missed the set mark and how they planned to get back on schedule. I served as a coach to help them improve their time management skills.
By the end of the year, students could set their own scope, deadlines, and methodologies for assignments. Surprisingly, they would meet their requirements and, in almost every case, these requirements were more stringent than I would have imposed if I would have created them. In fact, I can’t recall a single student missing his or her final project deadline.
What I learned from my experience teaching time management is that anyone can learn it. Time management isn’t a talent reserved for only an elite few. Students from all different backgrounds and skill sets could master it, and they were only teenagers.
Clutter and time management are closely linked. If you have a tendency to say “I’ll get to that later” and procrastinate, then you’re more likely to find patches of clutter in your home. Mastering time management can help you to get your clutter problems under control and free you from stress. And, as I’ve learned through years of experience, anyone can learn time management.
If you struggle with time management, consider checking out the following websites from the LifeRemix network that often discuss time management techniques:
- Cranking Widgets Blog
- Dumb Little Man
- Happiness Project
- Pick the Brain
- Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Workweek Blog
- Zen Habits
Additionally, if you haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, you may want to start with it. There is an audio version of the book available through Audible if you don’t want to bring another book into your home to clutter up your bookshelf. The better you are at time management, the more likely your home is to be clutter free and remain that way.