This is an excerpt from The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen
You will never reach your destination
if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.
– Winston S. Churchill
When many people go into the office, they start their day by chatting with some colleagues, checking their email, and surfing the net for a while. Then they start working on whatever project is due that day. Soon, however, they hear the sound of a new email arriving, which they promptly open, leading them to other tasks. Before they know it, the day is over and they still don’t have that project finished. This happens repeatedly, making a thirty- minute task take two days to complete.
Every interruption requires time to refocus, and during that interval we lose momentum, either 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.
In most cases, distractions are self-inflicted: choosing to answer an email that could wait, saying hello to everyone that walks by, multitasking, or trying to find the end of the Internet. If you want to be more productive, it helps to get rid of the distractions that demand your attention. This could require you to communicate and manage expectations at your workplace. For example, you might need to explain to colleagues why you are keeping your door shut or not answering emails for a certain time period each morning.
I get easily distracted by physical things—pictures, books, knickknacks, scraps of paper, and the like. Therefore, I work very hard to have a clean, organized work area. Several times a week, I straighten it up, transferring notes to my journal (you might wonder why didn’t they go in there in the first place—me too), 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.
Another way to be more productive is to understand how you work best. Everyone has an optimum length of time that they can focus on something. For most people, this is between twenty and ninety minutes, after which their attention spans rapidly decrease. For me, that amount of time is about one hour, after which a speck of dust is intriguing enough to divert my attention.
Figure out what the best time interval is for you and leverage it. I use a timer application on my computer (and one on my iPhone when I’m away from the office). I set it for fifty minutes, giving me a ten-minute break every hour. All potential distractions, such as email, web browsers, and even my phone are turned off. (This type of focused work/break sequence is commonly called a pomodoro. Francesco Cirillo coined the term in his book, The Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro, which means “tomato” in Italian, refers to the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo uses to divide his work time in to focused, manageable intervals.)
Once I start my timer, I’ll then work on one task for those fifty minutes, stopping for a ten minute break at the end. During my break time, I try not to check my email, as email seems to draw me in for far longer than ten minutes. (In fact, I’m working at trying to check email just two or three times a day.) When the break is over, I start another fifty minutes. I repeat this cycle as many times as I can, especially during my most productive time of the day.