Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.
The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges.
If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.
I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:
- Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
- Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
- Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
- Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
- If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream
We know it's important to limit our time online when it involves pointless web surfing. But a lot of what we read and discover online is really interesting, helpful stuff (like this blog!). You could easily spend all day finding treasures on the Internet.
This goes for interviews and videos you download too. Those are more insidious because once they're downloaded, out of sight, out of mind. You think you learned something valuable today because you have the thing, but you haven't actually listened/watched yet.
The problem with doing that is that you don't spend any time incorporating that reading into your life by practicing the new skill, trying out the new idea or using that important thought in your thinking. That's the grunt work of change.
I am guilty of this as much as anyone and it takes willpower for me not to read something that could be interesting. I need to remind myself (out loud, if necessary) that I don't have time to take in this new information because I'm busy with the projects on my whiteboard. I've got time to read it, but not to do anything useful with it.
That's not to say that all reading must be purely practical. There's value to reading for pleasure or intellectual curiosity. It's a good idea to be conscious of your purpose though, so you know how you're spending your time.
If you're reading to develop a new habit or learn a new marketing strategy, you'll need to act on that reading, or else it's a pointless as the aforementioned surfing. Be aware of why you're reading and decide on one thing you'll do to take action.
My aim with this blog is to express one simple idea with each post and suggest a way to put it into action. So here it is. The next time you find yourself knee deep in some fascinating article on the web, ask yourself "what action will I take to make this part of my life?"
Action figure from Fuyoh!'s photostream.
For clients with time management troubles, I have recommended occasionally that they keep track of what they do all day. It may be startling to find out exactly how much time you spend cruising around the internet or caught up in cross currents of email, but the idea isn’t to make you feel bad. The idea is to find out what you’re actually doing with your time so that you can change it effectively.
Keeping track can be as simple as having a pad ready to jot down notes at timed intervals. David Seah has an elegant, easy to use version that shows time graphically since you fill in a bubble for each time increment. You can see it immediately; the more bubbles, the more time spent. His tool, the Emergent Task Timer, is available as a free PDF download on his site (which has tons of great productivity information, too).
Benefits of time tracking:
- Find out what you’re doing when you’re wasting time
- Find out how long you spend working on specific tasks; makes it easier to plan for them in the future
- Get an idea of when your high and low productivity times are during the day
- Discern patterns to tasks that you can use to your advantage. Email flurries at certain times of day can mean that others are most easily contacted then, for example
- Find patterns of work time followed by down time. You may find that some aspects of your work need more downtown to recover from
- Make sure you’re taking productive, refreshing downtime; don’t count more email checking as an actual break
A key to getting the most out of tracking your time is to do it now, or starting tomorrow morning. Don’t wait for a less stressful week, or one with more interesting things going on. Print out enough sheets for the rest of the week and just get started. There won’t be a better time.
“Time Disappears” from jtravism’s photostream