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See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency

See How Easily You Can Minimize Distractions and Maximize Efficiency
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If you maximize efficiency, you will provide more value to yourself and others. You will meet goals faster and more consistently. You will live a fuller life, whether that means increasing your wealth, leisure time, or time with family. Fortunately, you can max out your efficiency, or “get in the zone,” by following three simple rules: establish a conducive environment, pursue intentional focus, and eliminate inevitable distractions. These key actions direct your focus to the task at hand and minimize attention to distractions.

I teach and lecture at a major university, write scholarly articles and computer programs, and take PhD. level classes. That is just my “day job.” At night, I like to spend time with my wife and our families, read, write for my blog, and participate in outdoor activities. Just like you, I have big dreams and must work efficiently to meet my goals. But I don’t have the will power to relentlessly work long, mind-numbing days. Perhaps you don’t either. If I want to meet my goals, I must work efficiently.

I haven’t always realized this—it’s actually a new insight for me. In the past, I believed the nonsense about “putting in the hours.” The standard advice goes something like this: “Write down all that you need to do and then do it!” This is most unhelpful because I can’t do that. I am too easily distracted.

I realized that to-do lists, while they have their place, are not the key to efficient production. Instead, I simply needed to annihilate the enemy of productivity: distractions. I knew that if I eliminated distractions, then I would achieve my goals and have more time to pursue other interests.

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Since this insight, I’ve reduced that idea of annihilating distractions to three simple keys. If you do these things, then you’ll maximize efficiency.

Establish an Environment that Is Conducive to Productivity

First, you must establish an environment that is conducive to productivity by removing potential distractions. This means that your desk must have nothing except what you need, including your desk drawers and computer desktop. Any unnecessary item in your work area makes you less efficient. It can physically, mentally, and emotionally hamper your productivity. You have to move the book you don’t need to make room for a needed document. The unfinished spreadsheet on your computer desktop distracts your attention and you need a few seconds to re-establish your momentum. Your cluttered desk drawer makes it harder for you to find what you need and adds more stress to your morning.

Decluttering your workspace is simple. Simply take everything in, on, and around your desk, put it into a huge pile, and put back only the things required for your daily tasks. Throw away everything else or store it somewhere else. It’s that simple.

Application: My desk has a computer, lamp, and whatever I’m working on at that moment. That’s it. I also keep my computer desktop uncluttered. I have no permanent icons on my desktop. When I start working on a particular project, I create shortcut icons to the important files and add these to the desktop. When I am done, I delete them. My desk drawer contains only the supplies that I need on a normal work day (pen, highlighter, labeler, stapler, paper clips, alligator clips, and rubber bands). I keep a legal pad and “collection” basket on a shelf below the desk and out of sight. My waste basket sits beside my desk.

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Remove the clutter from your workspace. This frees your mind, allowing you to be more creative and productive by eliminating many potential distractions before your work even begins.

Achieving an Intentional Focus

Focus rarely appears unexpectedly. Instead, it is intentional. You can achieve focus through a willful effort, but only for a limited time. Fortunately, the “limited time” is enough.

Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This law is a consequence of distractions, which continuously steal value from our lives. What could have been two hours writing a blog post and two hours playing Frisbee with my wife turns into four hours of blogging. You must intentionally counteract this tendency.

Contrary to some who recommend strict deadlines for work (i.e. I’ll stop working on this project at 3 p.m.), I recommend working on projects for as long as you like, but working intensely. This gives you needed flexibility to make intuitive judgments about your time as the work moves forward but eliminates feet-dragging. Working in short intense bursts and taking frequent breaks, known as “pulsing,” allows to work efficiently while maintaining your mental energy. You must defeat Parkinson’s law not through strict deadlines but by working intensely or not at all. Commit yourself to working intensely for a manageable period of time, taking a brief break, and then starting over.

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Application: I use the Pomodora technique, working 25 minutes, taking a five minute break, and then repeating. During my short break, I might get a drink of water, check my e-mail or Twitter feed, or step outside. I only have five minutes, so I don’t worry about these activities getting out of hand. These breaks are refreshing and allow me to start another 25 minute session with a renewed focus. I use the Tomate Timer for Ubuntu to manage my sessions; CherryTomato timer is available for Windows and Mac. But it doesn’t matter what software you use, just find a system that works for you.

While working, make sure that you maximize your focus by working in intense, short sessions with deliberate breaks. This leads to tremendous efficiency, gives you more time to pursue other interests, and adds value to your life and others’.

Develop a System for Dealing with Inevitable Distractions

Despite your efforts to build a distraction-free workspace and work in short, focused sessions, distractions appear that you must deal with. You think of an idea for another project or someone interrupts with a bit of important information. You must collect this information for later, but in a way that does not disrupt your current efficiency. I find the collection system proposed by David Allen helpful for this.

When an important distraction appears, you must get that information off your mind quickly, but ensure you deal with it later. I quickly jot down these distractions and toss them into the collection basket that sits on a shelf under my desk. I go through my collection basket a couple of time each day, reliably, efficiently, and deliberately addressing these potentially disruptive distractions.

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Application: While writing this blog post, a couple of other good ideas came to mind. I simply jotted those ideas down and tossed them into my collection basket under my desk. Since then, I’ve added them as post ideas in my Nevernote software. Because I put the ideas into a system that I trusted, I freed my mind to continue working on the current task without trying to remember it for later or taking care of it now.

Distractions are inevitable. You must build a system that allows you to quickly continue your current work session, but ensures the information is stored and used later. A simple collection basket allows you to do this.

You Can Maximize Efficiency and Offer More Value to Yourself and Others.

You can and should work more efficiently. You deserve more than dragging your feet for eight hours every day. Fortunately, efficient work doesn’t require super-human willpower. It simply requires setting yourself up for success. You must take three steps to maximize your efficiency. No step is difficult, but all require deliberate action. First, you must remove potential distractions from your workspace. You need to deal with these distractions before they slow you down. Second, you must work in intense bursts. If you don’t, your work expands to fill the available space, infringing on time for family, leisure, and entrepreneurial side projects. Finally, you must plan for dealing with the unavoidable distractions that might disrupt your otherwise productive sessions. Quickly jotting down the information and tossing it into a collection basket allows you to get back on track while trusting that you’ll take the necessary actions later. Take these steps, maximize your efficiency, and create relentless value.

What do you think? Have I missed any important keys? How have you implemented these ideas? How else do you maximize efficiency?

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Featured photo credit:  chess via Shutterstock

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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