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3 Ways To Cut Your Daily Work Interruptions

3 Ways To Cut Your Daily Work Interruptions

Nobody wakes up hoping to get little done in the day and to be distracted by a bunch of things that don’t really matter. Despite this, that’s what many office workers end up doing.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the “metric black hole” that so many of our activities fall into. This black hole is where the measurements of the costs for our activities fall into. Email seems productive because you’re pushing words around in the company, but most of the time it does little more than making you feel productive.

Here are 3 ways you can cut those distractions and pull productivity out of that black hole.

1. Take A New Approach To Email

Yes, email is the way most companies communicate. Quick messages are dashed off across the company with many people CC’d on them. It feels like something is actually getting done, but most often what you’re really doing is reorganizing under the guise of working hard.

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To get on top of this productivity-stealing beast, you need to take drastic action. First, only check your email twice a day at the most and set a time limit. I use the Pomodoro productivity method and I allow only one 25-minute block per day to go through my email. Putting this time limit on email means that it can’t expand into all my available time.

When I was last an employee, and the lowest person on the totem pole, even the CEO understood me only checking email twice a day. A calm, rational explanation that I needed large swaths of time to focus on my work was fine with him. He even adopted the practice of only checking his own email at 11 AM and 3 PM and loved how much extra focus he had.

Second, start scheduling almost all of your email. I use Right Inbox to only send email at 4 PM, regardless of the time I check it. The only exception is when someone is waiting on something from me and they need a response right away. This helps ensure that you’re not playing email tag as you try to clear your inbox and replies keep coming in.

Third, never check your email first thing in the morning. The thing that email is really good at is telling you what everyone else thinks is important for you that day. It rarely has any bearing on what you need to do to push your projects forward. You should figure out the night before what your most important task is. Come in and do that until you have your scheduled email block.

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Fourth, turn off all notifications on your email. Studies show that having these notifications on can cause you to get distracted from the task at hand. If you’re not focused, you’re not doing your work well. Just get used to waiting for your scheduled email times. Nothing will catch on fire, and if it does, the alarm will go off or someone will stop by your office as they run out the door in a panic.

2. Turn Off Notifications For Slack/Hipchat/Messaging

These can be great tools and many companies are diving into group-messaging tools with both feet, cutting out the need for email. The problem is that the expectation is for employees to have chat open most of the time and respond instantly to any message — no matter how trivial. I’ve talked with one manager who felt the most productive programmers were those that had a notification engine built into their code editors so they could jump to chat instantly from the task they were focussed on.

This is simply the notification problem with email exponentially increased. Simply because there is some benefit to a tool doesn’t mean that it’s a good tool.

Just like email, turn off all notifications on your chat tools. Then, quit the application in favor of scheduled checkins. I check my Slack channels twice a day — once just after my morning workout and once just after lunch. I’m already not focused on anything in particular, so there is no attention stolen.

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3. Avoid Unnecessary Meetings

Finally, let’s talk about meetings. So often, someone can easily call a meeting with 10 people for 2 hours which, in terms of salary, costs thousands of dollars, but they could never approve an expense of half that amount. Why does no one bat an eye at this?

To curb the constant meetings, start by refusing to go to any meeting that doesn’t have a clear agenda 48 hours in advance and a single clear decision that you need to be involved in. Again, with my last full-time employment, as the lowest person in the building, I put this in place and managed to avoid most meetings.

When your boss asks you to join a meeting, show them your task list and ask which item needs to get bumped off the list for the meeting. Much of the time, your boss is going to say that the meeting needs to get bumped. When I’ve used this tactic, a 2-hour meeting turned into someone coming to get me for the 15 minutes that I really needed to be there. I weighed in and then was gone.

That super-important meeting often isn’t that important — it’s just that no one has challenged it yet. In the face of a challenge, people acknowledge that the interruption in the workday is worth less than moving projects forward.

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Like I said at the beginning, there are so many distractions in your day. Cutting those distractions out and taking control of your day will mean that you get more done and don’t have to work all hours to be as productive as possible.

Featured photo credit: jpstjohn via flickr.com

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Last Updated on February 25, 2020

How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

It’s 6:00 am. You have just woken up and are ready to take a shower. After the showering, it’s time to eat breakfast, catch the news by reading the morning paper, and then start your work.

You are feeling wonderful, relaxed, and happy. You have very high expectations for the day and you want to be as productive as possible.

Fast forward to 2 pm the same day. You are working in a rush and you barely had a chance to take a lunch break.

You start to feel a bit stressed and tired because of the busy schedule. Besides, it seems that you have to go back to certain tasks and fix them, because you didn’t have time to focus on them properly.

The day which started so fine has turned into a stressful one. You just jump from one task to another – as quickly as possible – without doing anything properly.

You wish you’d find a reset button, so that you could start your day from all over – with a different strategy.

What you probably experienced was this: you planned your day the night before and you felt you were on top of your tasks.

However, things started to go wrong when you kept adding tasks after each other to your list and finally your task list was many miles long. Your to do list also contained tasks which were pretty much impossible to get done in one day.

The other point which contributed to your hectic and stressful day was not understanding how much time completing a particular task would take and when to execute the task. If you had this information, it would have been easier to figure out the right timing for executing the task.

Finally, there really wasn’t any flexibility in your plans. You forgot to add a buffer between tasks and understand that certain tasks are much larger than what they seem outside.

But you know what – these reasons alone weren’t the main reason for your stress and busyness …

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What People Are Wrong About a To-Do List

Do you really know what you are supposed to do?

How much time did you actually spent on planning your day – was it just 5 minutes while the television set was distracting you?

If so, then this was probably the biggest reason why your day became so stressful.

When you plan your days, you should truly understand the tasks you are about to do – and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary especially with important tasks, because you are able to make progress with the tasks that matter the most.

The lack of time spent on planning will also be shown as too many big tasks stuffed to your daily list. If you haven’t broken down the task into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done during the day. This in turn makes you to beat yourself for not completing your task list.

Finally, don’t treat creating a task list just like some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s task list, the more likely is the list going to be realistic and less stressful for you.

Components of a Good To-Do List

When I talk about a good task list, I consider these characteristics to be part of it:

Balanced

The task list contains both important and less important tasks. Let’s face it: although we all would like to work on just important tasks ( e.g. goal related ones), we have to take care of the less important tasks as well (like running errands, taking care of your household or other everyday stuff).

Enough Flexibility

What happens when you have planned a task, but you are unable to take care of it? Do you have a plan B in place? If not, try to figure out the alternative action you can take in these scenarios.

Time for Transitions

Understand that transition times also eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding some extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.

Not Too Many Tasks for One Day

Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends on your situation. But I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day.

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Understand that certain tasks are very quick to take care of, so it’s easier to include more tasks on certain days. Just make sure that there are also important tasks on the list so that you are able to move on with your bigger projects.

Shield of Protection

Build a shield of protection around your task list, so that as few tasks as possible can land to your list and that the number of items on your list won’t increase during the day.

In the first case, try to eliminate the sources for your tasks. This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list.

In the second case, make your list a closed one. I learned this concept by reading Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list. When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.

How to Create a To-Do List That Boosts Your Productivity

To make a list that you can actually accomplish the next day, do the following:

1. Eliminate the Tasks

Go through your commitments and decide if you really need each one.

For instance, I was an active member of our local computer club in my hometown, but then I realized that I don’t have enough time for that activity anymore. Although I’m still a member of the club, I don’t participate in its activities anymore. This has eliminated the tasks related to that commitment.

2. Take Your Time to Plan the List

Don’t rush creating your task list – spend some time on the planning phase. If required, “isolate yourself” for the planning part by going to a separate room in your home (or even going outside your home). This way, you can actually think the tasks thorough before you enter them onto your list.

Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it.

3. Move Important Tasks to the Beginning

When planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible.

For instance, as a blogger, I make sure I have the content creation tasks at the beginning of my list. As soon as I wake up, I attack those tasks immediately and they get done before I go to work.

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4. Track the Recurring Tasks

You might have recurring tasks on your list, but do you know how much time they take to accomplish?

If you don’t, make sure you do some time tracking to figure it out. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your daily schedule, when the task could be executed.

5. Batch Similar Tasks

Look at your list and find out if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way, you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier.

6. Define the Tasks in More Detail

Don’t just include a task like “build a website” on your list; make sure you have broken the task to smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are, the easier it is to take accomplish them.

7. Do Some Prep Work in Advance

Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance.

For instance, I write the outlines for my guests post on Sundays, so that it’s easier (and faster) for me to start writing the actual posts when I wake up. With a little bit of prep work, I speed things up and make sure tasks get done when the right day comes.

8. Automate the Maintenance

Naturally, you could use a pen and paper approach to your task list, but try to take advantage of technology too. In fact, try to find a tool that takes care of the maintenance of your task list for you. My preferred tool is Nozbe, but there are other task management applications that you can try too.

9. Know Your Task Types and Your Schedule

Finally, when you plan your day, ask yourself these questions:

What else do I have on the schedule?

This question refers to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are traveling, make sure that your list reflects to this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you get only a fraction of them done.

Is the task a gatekeeper?

This question asks if the task is blocking other tasks to be executed.

Every once in a while, we might have a task, which has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then you can take care of the sequential tasks.

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When you focus on creating your task list in a focused manner, you’ll be able to spot the gatekeepers easily.

Do I have icebergs on my list?

This question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought (compare them to icebergs, where only the tip of the iceberg is above the sea level, but the majority of the ice is below the water).

Once again, when you focus enough on your task list during the creation phase, it’s easier to spot these “icebergs” and split the tasks into smaller, much more manageable chunks.

Is the task distraction-proof?

This final question asks if the task is distraction-proof. Not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.

For instance, I can check my Twitter stream or do simple blog maintenance even when I’m around my family. These tasks are distraction-proof and I can take care of them – even if I don’t have my full attention on them.

The Bottom Line

If you still have a hard time of achieving your daily tasks, make sure that you analyze the reasons why this happened. If anything, do not beat yourself up for not finishing your task list.

No one is perfect and we can learn from our mistakes.

It takes a bit practice to create a “smiling” task list. However, once you learn to put all the pieces together, things are going to look much better!

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Featured photo credit: Jacqueline Kelly via unsplash.com

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