Let’s face it: Sometimes the most challenging part of working in an office setting is all of the distractions that come with the territory. Throughout your day, you will likely face a variety of interruptions that you will be unable to control, including co-workers, bosses, and an endless stream of e-mail that never seems to stop. How do you cope with all of these workplace distractions so that you can actually get some work done? Here are five simple tips that will help you get more done in less time. Who knows, if you master these tactics, maybe your boss will let you go home early!
1. Plan Your Days Ahead of Time
Not knowing what you should be working on at any given time can be an enormous time-waster. Tasks can switch priority at a moment’s notice if their priority has not been established beforehand. How do you decide what to work on first? What do you do with the extra 20 minutes you have before lunch? It’s 4:30 PM, is it too late to start that new assignment?
Scheduling your day ahead of time is the easiest way for you to solidify your focus. Begin by ranking your tasks in order of priority and assigning each of them an estimated amount of work time. Your estimates may be way off at first, but you’ll improve with time as you pay attention to how long tasks actually take in relation to your planning estimates. Estimating how long different tasks take is an essential skill that the ultra-efficient have mastered by making careful note of past results and having an astute awareness of their capabilities.
When scheduling your day, be sure to include occasional breaks for lunch, going to the restroom, and other necessities. Also, be sure to block off some time for “interruption” tasks. While the ultimate goal is to reduce interruptions, you may be in a workplace where occasional interruptions and spur-of-the-moment tasks are simply unavoidable. If you’ve planned your time accordingly to include space for these “foreseeable interruptions,” you’ll be prepared to handle them when they arise without falling behind in your other tasks for the day.
Having a set schedule of tasks to complete also helps you identify distractions you may never have considered. Identifying the most frequent interruptions you encounter in a typical work day is the first step towards eliminating them.
Scheduling your day ahead of time is an essential element of the Pomodoro technique, a time management methodology developed by Francisco Cirillo. The basic premise of the Pomodoro technique involves dividing your workflow into pre-defined chunks of time interspersed with frequent short breaks. Workflow is determined ahead of time by setting aside a strict schedule that includes specific time allotments for each task. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the Pomodoro technique, do yourself an enormous time-saving favor and read all about it.
2. Avoid Multi-Tasking
Multi-tasking is on the way out. As we become more and more distracted by all of the sources of information we are constantly bombarded with, we find it increasingly difficult to focus solely on the completion of individual tasks. Begin reestablishing this focus by applying all of your working energy towards a particular task for a given time period. This means shutting out all other tasks and distractions, even those you have chosen. Take off your headphones, shut off your cell phone, and have your secretary hold your calls. Close all of the windows on your computer until you are left with only that which is necessary to complete a single, well-defined task. When you’ve finished that task, move on to the next one and repeat the process.
Focusing on a single task allows us to devote our entire brain to a given problem. In addition, when distractions do occur, it is much easier to pick up where you left off if you are working on a single task than it is when you are doing five things at once.
When we encounter a series of tasks and we choose to multi-task, what we’re really doing is extending the length of time necessary to complete each individual task. While it may seem like we are getting more done in less time, the reality is that completing each individual task one at a time in a linear fashion is faster. The results of work produced through multi-tasking are often of a lower quality than the results produced during a singular period of intense focus. Don’t get caught up in the world of the multi-tasker. Become a single-tasker.
3. Manage E-mail Efficiently
When e-mail was first introduced into the office environment, it heralded the beginning of an era of ultra-efficiency. Offices began saying goodbye to “snail mail” and hello to cheap, nearly instantaneous written electronic communication. Naturally, inefficient humans have refined the e-mail system into a burdensome time sink that many office workers feel is a binding leash. The higher up the office food chain you go, the fatter your morning inbox becomes. Eventually, you will reach a point where new e-mail messages are arriving faster than you can respond. What can you do?
First, stop replying to e-mail in real time. Don’t chime into existing conversations with additional “Looks good” and “OK with me” messages. Instead, schedule regular times throughout your day to read and respond to important messages only. By scheduling only two to three designated “e-mail check times” per day, you can dramatically cut down the number of hours you spend dealing with e-mails each week.
Second, begin to identify common e-mail responses that you have to deliver on a regular basis. If you work in customer service, this is particularly important, as individuals tend to encounter many of the same problems with a product or service. In these cases, you can develop “canned” responses to provide to frequently asked questions.
Third, set up your e-mail client to automatically sort your e-mails based on sender addresses. Most e-mail clients have special folders for spam and junk mail, but many also allow you to set up special folders for individual senders or groups of senders. Setting up a system to effectively sort your e-mails as they arrive can dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes you to identify the important ones and respond appropriately.
The subject of e-mail management for business owners has been widely debated. Different approaches work for different people, and if you are still having difficulty figuring out how to manage your e-mail without spending 40 hours a week in your e-mail client, you may want to do some additional reading.
4. Ask for Privacy When Completing Important Tasks
Have an important report that needs to get finished by the end of the day? Ask for privacy. This is something that many employees have not even considered. While you may not be able to escape interruptions from your superiors, politely asking your co-workers for some privacy between a pre-defined set of hours can be the easiest way to ensure you can get the job done on time.
For several years, I worked in a high-intensity office where interruptions were the norm. I watched my boss deal with a never-ending influx of demands put on her by her workers, clients, and peers. Then, one day, a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign appeared on her office door. All of a sudden, she was able to complete work that had been buried on her desk for weeks. All it took was some time away from constant distraction and redirection of her efforts. How did she finally free herself of these distractions (if only temporarily)? Simple. She ordered that they stop for a pre-determined amount of time.
Many office workers who are lucky enough to have a personal office space are wary of closing their door, feeling as though an “open door” policy is the right approach. They reserve door-closing only for essential tasks, such as telephone calls. Don’t be afraid to ask for privacy when you have a lot of work to do. If your co-workers take issue with this, keep in mind that their problem is likely not with the fact that you are taking steps to get more work done, but rather with the fact that you actually had the gumption to ask for something when you need it. This is something that no one should feel ashamed of, and something that your co-workers are going to have to get over.
5. Make Your Breaks Count
While this may seem counter-intuitive, one of the best tricks for improving productivity and removing distractions is to take breaks from your work from time to time. The brain becomes fatigued when engaged in a single task for an extended period of time. Break up your workflow with pre-scheduled breaks of varying length to improve your overall concentration.
It’s easy to get distracted from work when the internet is at your fingertips. Instead of randomly checking news headlines, weather forecasts, and sports scores during the middle of your work day, set aside pre-determined break times when you can check these pieces of information. Avoid the impulse to stop what you are doing and redirect your efforts to a new task the second you become bored or frustrated with the work you are doing. Impulse control takes practice, and it can often require diligent and honest monitoring of your regular activities to identify how frequently you become distracted by non-essential tasks. Simply recording the number of times you become distracted during a given day for a week can help you learn to identify distractions before they happen and take the necessary steps to avoid them.