Last week, we talked about two important productivity concepts — the ideas of habit-building and energy management. So now that you’re off to a strong start in terms of overhauling your ability to work productively, let’s take a proactive stance on managing the interruptions and distractions that threaten to throw you off track.
Each of the following seven steps will help keep you focused and on task.
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Step #1 — Clean up your desk
As it turns out, there’s some scientific validity to the idea that “a cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind.” According to research published in the January 2011 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that:
“Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for limited processing capacity of the visual system.”
Basically? A cluttered environment limits your ability to focus and process information. If you want to use the time you have as effectively as possible, you’ve got to set aside time each week to tidy up your desk and create the neat environment needed for focused work.
Step #2 — Unsubscribe from email lists
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You buy a sweater online, sign up for a restaurant’s rewards program and request information about a new mortgage. Before you know it, your inbox has an overwhelming amount of automated marketing messages that distract you from the important emails you’ve received.
While there are tools out there that’ll help you cut through inbox clutter (like SaneBox or the Email Game), the best defense is a good offense. Instead of fighting your way through all these messages, use the “Unsubscribe” button at the bottom of most automated mailings to minimize the number of emails you receive in the first place. Don’t worry, you can always go back and re-enroll if you find you’re missing a particular subscription’s messages.
Step #3 — Turn off distracting notifications
Research gathered by the American Psychological Association suggests that switching between tasks can cost people as much as 40% of their productive time.
If you think about it, this makes sense. You’re working, you’re productive and you’re in the zone — then you drop everything to attend to another task. Of course, it takes time to get back into your groove and into the productive mindset, you had initially. To avoid losing time, try turning off any notifications that have the potential to distract you, including inbox alerts, text message sounds, phone ringers and more.
Obviously, you can’t turn off your phone forever. But if you can keep out even 30 minutes a day of uninterrupted, distraction-free work time, you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
Step #4 — Try the “Inbox Pause” application
Say you’ve turned off your email inbox alerts, but you still find yourself opening your browser window or turning on your smartphone to check for new messages. You need the Inbox Pause app.
If you use Gmail, this free tool allows you to “pause” incoming messages. While the feature is turned on, inbound messages will be stored in a secret folder — just waiting for you to “unpause” the tool and let them back into your inbox. It’s a simple trick, but it’s a great one to try if you find yourself constantly distracted by your email account.
Step #5 — Install a website-blocking browser plugin
Yet another major distraction that many people face is the temptation to pop over to Facebook, Buzzfeed or any other productivity-killing website. If left unchecked, the time spent bouncing between these different sites can take a major chunk out of your available working hours.
If you find yourself falling victim to distracted web browsing, take a look at browser-based plugins like RescueTime. These tools offer features that allow you to block any sites you find to be too distracting for either a set period of time or during different parts of the day. Set them up today if you can’t get through a 20-minute work session without clicking away to a time-wasting website.
Step #6 — Work on your “Top 3” priorities first
Want to really supercharge your productivity? At the end of each day, set three non-negotiable tasks to complete the next day. (Obviously, keep the constraints of your normal schedule in mind. If you have three services scheduled for the next day, don’t set your “Top 3” to include hours of work on your funeral home’s website.)
Then, when you get in the next morning, tackle at least one of these three tasks before you do anything else. Before you get bogged down in email follow-up, voicemails, and meetings (coffee drinking is, of course, allowed and encouraged.) That way, even if the rest of your day goes completely haywire, you know you finished at least one important task.
Step #7 — Set office expectations
Turn off email notifications, and put your phone on silent. But unfortunately, there’s not always much you can do about coworkers hovering over your desk right as you’re getting down to business.
What you can do is to set expectations with your fellow staff members about when you’re open for collaboration and when you need to focus with as few distractions as possible. If you have an office, let your coworkers know that when the door is closed, you aren’t to be disturbed (barring the direst of emergencies). If you have a desk out in the open, headphones can achieve the same thing. Just don’t abuse the privilege. Limit your closed-off work blocks to 30 minutes or less to avoid alienating your office mates and missing important information.
If implementing all seven of these steps at once sounds overwhelming, don’t worry about it. Start by adding one or two to your daily routine. Then, get more creative as you master each step of managing interruptions and distractions.