You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.
― Winston S. Churchill
Many folks go into the office, chat with some colleagues, check email, surf the net, start working on whatever project is due that day, hear the sound of a new email which prompts us to check email again… and before they know it the day is over and we still don’t have that project complete. Rinse and repeat. A thirty-minute task takes two days.
Every interruption requires time to refocus, and during that interval we lose momentum – physical or mental. We may be very disciplined with what tasks we want to accomplish and in what order, but we can still fail at actually getting them done.
Removing distractions can fly in the face of open door policies and shutting your door. That could require some communication and managing of expectations. However in most cases distractions are self-inflicted: email, saying hello to everyone that walks by, multitasking, or trying to find the end of the Internet – intentionally or not.
I get easily distracted by “things” – pictures, books, knick knacks, scraps of paper, and the like. Therefore I work very hard to have a clean, organized work area. Several times a week I will straighten up, transferring notes to my journal (oh but why didn’t they go in there in the first place?), emptying the trash, scanning and shredding paperwork, and cleaning up my computer desktop. I’m working on trying to standardize this activity, but it’s hard.
Everyone has an optimum length of time that within which they can maintain focus. Generally twenty to ninety minutes, after which attention span rapidly decreases. For me that amount of time is just about one hour, after which a spec of dust is intriguing enough that my attention must shift to investigate it.
Figure out what that interval is for you and leverage it. I have a timer application on my computer (and iPhone for when I’m away from the office). I set it for fifty minutes, giving me a ten minute break every hour. All distractions like email, web pages, even the phone are removed, silenced, or turned off. This type of focused work/break sequence is commonly called a pomodoro.
I’ll then work on one task, just one, for those fifty minutes, stopping for a ten minute break at the end. I’ll try not to check email – in fact, I’m working at trying to check email just two or three times a day – as email has a habit of sucking you in for far more than the ten minute break. When the break is over, I start another fifty minutes.
Years ago the concept of multitasking was all the rage, and the “ability” to multitask was seen as a positive skill. Thankfully that’s changing, as multitasking is really a way to amplify distraction. A key Lean concept is one piece flow – working on one part at a time. The same applies to personal productivity. Focus on just one task at a time.
I repeat this cycle as many times as I can, especially during my most productive time of the day. We’ll discuss that in a bit.