The work environment (regardless of whether you are at work or home) is filled with “noise" that can distract you from focusing on important tasks.
That’s why it’s important to take a proactive approach and arrange your workspace in a way that helps you clear your mind enough to do your best work.
Here are nine strategies for getting started:
Strategy #1: Kill the monkey.
We’ve talked about the dreaded “monkey mind" throughout this book. This is a dangerous mindset where you let the thoughts in your head negatively impact the task you’re currently working on.
The best way to kill monkey mind is to jot down the thought on a piece of paper (even on your to-do list), then explore the idea when you’re not focused on a specific task.
Part of the reason we recommend the Pomodoro Technique is that it forces you to focus on a task and ignore all distractions. If you strictly adhere to this concept, then you don’t “count" a task if you break concentration and do something else. The idea here is to teach you the discipline necessary to kill the monkey that often pops into your head.
Strategy #2: Close out email.
Email that is open all the time is too tempting. Even if you don’t respond to email as it comes in, the pinging notifications are often distracting enough to weaken your resolve and break your focus. Master your email by designating specific times for it; otherwise it will master you.
For instance, Steve schedules “inbox time" for the end of each workday, long after he’s completed his high-energy-level tasks. Furthermore, he has disabled all email notifications on both his email and cellphone. That way, he’s only able to look at email when he’s ready to take action on each message.
Strategy #3: Find the right noise levels.
Some people need absolute silence, while others need white noise to block out distracting sounds in their environment. It all depends on what works best for you.
If you like to listen to music, experiment with different styles until you find one that helps you be more productive with each type of task. Steve prefers classical and relaxing music while writing, but he needs upbeat music when he’s working on mundane tasks.
Strategy #4: Manage (or avoid) meetings.
Depending on your work situation, you may not have control over the meetings you attend, but if you do, keep the following tips in mind:
Conduct meetings standing up. You can keep a chair or two in the room in case anyone really needs to sit down, but if the majority of the people are standing, the meeting won’t last long.
Set an agenda for the meeting. Send it to attendees ahead of time so they have an opportunity to propose important items before the meeting starts. This keeps the point of the meeting clear and helps prevent you from falling down a rabbit hole of tangential topics.
Put a time limit on each topic. People will learn to get the important things out fast and focus on work-critical conversations.
Only invite people to the meeting if they absolutely need to be there. If you have 10 people at a meeting that takes an hour, you’ve used 10 man-hours, when perhaps only 3 were needed.
Most meetings are an incredible waste of time and human resources. We suggest that you either avoid meetings when you can or look for ways to streamline the entire process.
Strategy #5: Avoid multitasking.
You may feel you get more done when multitasking, but countless studies (like this one) have proven that people’s productivity diminishes when they engage in this activity.
In fact, multitasking reduces creativity, causes a higher ratio of mistakes and makes it harder to remember important details. We recommend that you work on one activity at a time and nothing else.
Strategy #6: Know how to deal with interruptions.
You don’t always have as much control over your day as you’d like. What often happens is your workday becomes a series of interruptions, making it impossible to stay productive because you constantly have to deal with them.
Interruptions range from minor irritations (such as an unexpected phone call) to major problems (e.g., illness or the death of a family member). They also include major life changes such as getting married, giving birth or making a job change.
When these interruptions happen, it’s easy to fall out of your routine. Whether you fail to complete your tasks for one day or drop your entire exercise routine, interruptions definitely make it difficult to stay on track.
We all encounter interruptions, but what separates the successful people from everyone else is knowing how to handle them when they occur.
Here are a few ways to do this:
Accept the fact that interruptions will happen—they are a fact of life. What you can control is your response to these random events.
Create interruption buffers. Identify how you’re often interrupted (phone calls, text messages, email or people in your office) and take a proactive approach that prevents them from happening when you’re engaged in an important task.
As an example, you could wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones at work. Even if you’re not listening to music, this often acts a subtle signal to co-workers that you’re working on something important.
Choose the items that always (or almost always) merit interrupting you. For instance, Rebecca has decided that when her 83-year-old mother calls, she has time to talk with her, even if she’s in the middle of doing something “important."
Give yourself a break. The important thing is to allow a certain amount of time for a break and schedule a specific time (or date) to resume your routine.
Rediscover your motivation. It’s not healthy to rely on motivation alone, because it’s not always possible to stay motivated. But if you’re failing at your routines, it can be helpful to remember why you added certain things to your daily routine in the first place.
Start over. If your routine completely fails and you lose all momentum, simply have the courage to start from scratch. This can be discouraging, but it is better than never getting back to it.
We all have interruptions. The important thing is to understand that they happen and to have a plan for when they occur.
Strategy #7: Learn to say no.
People often say yes when they should say no. There are many reasons why we do this—like not wanting to disappoint someone. But saying yes to everything puts a huge strain on your time and productivity. Do this enough and it’ll kill the success of your daily routine.
Just remember this: Whenever you say “yes" to a request, you say “no" to something else in your life.
Of course, there might be some people you feel you can’t say no to, such as a boss. If that’s the case, practice the “yes, but" method.
For example, you can say, “Yes, I’d be happy to do [requested item], but that will put me behind on [another important item]. Would you prefer that I do [requested item] first, or would it be better for me to focus on [the other important item] instead?"
Keep in mind that saying no isn’t rude, and there are many ways to say no without using the word “no." For instance, you can say something like, “Thanks so much for considering me for this fantastic opportunity, but I don’t have the bandwidth to do it justice right now."
That approach affirms the person and opportunity without forcing you to give in to a request that isn’t right for you.
Strategy #8: Eliminate inefficiencies.
There are many tasks you simply don’t need to do, and it may be possible to minimize others. For instance, a housewife may feel the need to vacuum every day, even if doing so once or twice a week is sufficient.
In other cases, a task needs to be done, but not necessarily by you. Using vacuuming as an example, the mom can perhaps delegate that task to one of her older children.
If you’re a business owner, or in a management position, focus on the tasks that can only be done by you and delegate the rest to others.
Other tasks can be automated. For instance, you can set up email filters to automatically delete certain types of emails. A great resource for reducing time spent on computer-based tasks is the “If This, Then That" (IFTT) website. Use this tool to create recipes that streamline many services like Facebook, Evernote, FitBit, Twitter and Dropbox. To get started, just enter a site/device that you regularly use and IFTT will provide a number of ideas for automating these processes.
Strategy #9: Use productivity tools.
In addition to IFTT, there are a number of tools you can use to reduce the amount of time you spend in front of a computer.
Rescue Time is a time-management program that monitors what you do on a computer and provides a daily report of your productivity.
Unroll.Me is a simple tool that hunts down all your subscriptions so you can look at them in a single email, unsubscribe from unwanted lists or ignore the email and keep it “as is."
Sanebox is a third-party program that works with all email clients. Its purpose is to only allow important messages to show up in your inbox. The rest are sent to a separate folder. Then, at the end of the day (or at a time you specify), it will send you a message that contains everything in the “separate" folder.
Gmail (and other email services) has a tool for creating “canned responses" for common questions. You can use this to decrease the amount of communication you do through email.
We currently live in an amazing age with infinite options for streamlining work activities, but you might have to do a little digging to identify the tools that work best for your work style and job responsibilities.
It’s been said that we spend one-third of our time working. Because of this, it’s critical to systematize your day so you get the most important things done first, without succumbing to the idea that you need to complete every task on a daily basis.
Being productive isn’t about getting more time so you can work more. Instead, you should strive to be productive to spend as much time as possible doing what you love and spending time with the people who truly matter.
To quote Senator Paul Tsongas, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’"
No More Excuses!
Regardless of your situation and the demands on your time, with a little bit of creativity and careful planning, you can carve out time for the things that matter most. Use these strategies and start seeing improvement in your productivity.