Does this sound familiar?
Okay, here we go, got to get working on this project.
Shoot, my coffee is empty. Okay, real quick better refill that . . .
Okay, got my coffee. Now I’m ready . . .
Any new emails? No . . . Okay, good. What about the other email?
*Three different email addresses later*
I’ll just quickly check in on Facebook. See what’s going on in the world . . .
Alright, alright, alright, I gotta go. It’s time to get going here.
. . . I have to go to the bathroom . . .
Okay seriously. I’m starting right now.
*Opens the file and begins work.* Five minutes later . . .
I could use a snack.
That is me. That is my brain when I’m trying to get to work. And if you are reading this, you probably have your own inner monologue that goes something like that.
I’m with you on this productivity thing. It’s a struggle. I want to—no, I need to—eliminate the distractions, use my time better, and get better work done faster.
I’m constantly on the lookout for tools and tips to help me be more productive. Here are some of the most effective strategies and tools I’ve discovered and implemented.
Use your calendar to your advantage.
I use Google Calendar, but you could use Apple’s iCalendar or Microsoft’s Outlook calendar too. The point isn’t which calendar you use, but how you use it to your advantage.
First, block out the most productive time of your day. You probably already know when this is for you. If not, it’s pretty easy to figure out if you just pay attention to your average workday. For example, I know I’m most productive from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. And I know I’m least productive in the afternoon. So I block out my mornings for focused work, I never accept meetings during that time if I don’t have to, and I use that time to crank.
Second, schedule everything. Don’t just put meetings and appointments on your calendar. Map out your entire day. Yes, your meetings, but also the work you will focus on, when you will eat lunch, when you will work out, and anything else you will do during the workday. Don’t leave anything unscheduled. Plan down to the minute, and set your calendar to text you a reminder five minutes before each new event. That way, you always have an idea of where you should be now and where you should be heading in the future.
Third, give yourself an extra ten minutes. Don’t schedule meetings and tasks right on top of each other like this:
9–10 a.m. | Work on expense reports
10–11 a.m. | Meet with project team
11–12 p.m. | Direct reports 1-on-1
12–1 p.m. | Lunch
Instead, give yourself ten-minute buffers. This is an optional setting in Google Calendar, but you can also take advantage of this trick by manually setting each of your meetings for fifty minutes instead of the full hour. That extra ten minutes is essential to collect yourself, remember action steps from your previous meeting, and prepare for the next meeting you’re moving to.
Use an internet blocking tool.
Checking email and checking social media. Some research suggests that these activities are borderline addictions for some people. I don’t think I’m at that level, but I know that email in particular can be a huge distraction for me. I check it too often, and I allow the five-minute interruption to decrease my productivity.
They will absolutely help eliminate distractions.
That’s why, when I really need to dig in and go deep on a project, I’ll use an internet blocking tool to limit my web access. There are a lot of tools like this out there, but I use Freedom (https://freedom.to/). This handy little tool has custom settings to block social media, email, and other specific sites, for any time period I set. I can even have it run on a schedule. I pay just a couple bucks a month for this tool, but I feel at least 25 percent more productive since I adopted it. Would you spend $2 per month to accomplish 25 percent more? That’s an easy trade-off for me.
There are other tools out there (LeechBlock, StayFocusd, SelfControl) and some of them are free. I don’t really care which one you use, but the tool is there, some are free, and they will absolutely help eliminate distractions.
Seriously, why wouldn’t you use one?
Prioritize your inbox.
Email. For many people, it’s the bane of the workday.
You either constantly check it, sort, respond, and work through things as they come . . . Or you try to have it batch delivered at a certain time of day and end up buried under a mountain.
And let’s be honest, most people can’t just ignore their email for hours on end. People need answers and email is more efficient than constant in-person calls and stop-in meetings.
Instead of batching email and trying to check only one or two times per day, try prioritizing your inbox.
Every email server has a version of this. In Gmail, it’s starring or marking an email as important. You can tell Google to mark every email from certain people as important or starred. These same features exist in Outlook (by creating rules or using their auto clean up function) and Apple’s Mail (color coding high priority emails for example).
You can even set your email inbox to show you unread messages first, or priority unread, or starred first. Play around with the features and see which setting works best for you.
The point is that having the default time-stamped email feed means you have to do a lot more work. When your email can sort unimportant messages, move high-priority items to the top so you can see them first, and even keep things on top you need to urgently respond to, you’re going to find yourself using email much more efficiently.
My email inbox is sorted into four categories:
- Important and Unread
- Important and Read
- Everything Else
Email. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s a pain. But the bottom line is that it’s unavoidable. Bend your inbox to your will to make it easier to use and work through.
Use ridiculous deadlines.
Normally I’d spend about four hours working on something like that, and that doesn’t include research and conceptualizing the approach and purpose of the article.
But there was no time for that. I just had to dive in. And thirty minutes later I had done it. Without any of my normal routines or prep work, I had cranked out a thousand-word article I was actually pretty proud of.
The ridiculous deadline forces you to eliminate all distraction.
The ridiculous deadline exercise forces you out of your comfort zone and demands that you eliminate all distraction and get to work. And you don’t need to have your boss or your teammates enforce these deadlines on you.
I set ridiculous deadlines for myself, just to see how much I can get done and how fast I can do it. Usually no one knows about the deadline but me, but that doesn’t matter. The activity isn’t actually about getting more done so much as it is about focus. The ridiculous deadline forces you to eliminate all distraction.
So set yourself some ridiculous deadlines. Set the timer on your phone for fifty minutes, and begin working. There is something about knowing that the clock is ticking down that will force you into a working frenzy. And then you won’t even think about the coffee, the bathroom, the snack, the email, the social site, or any other distractions.
A long time ago I decided that it would be a lot easier to become more productive by using the tools and strategies at my fingertips rather than trying to change who I was as a person.
I still, to this day, have that inner monologue from the beginning of this article, but now I have tools and strategies to overcome it.
And you do, too.