Ever find that a few hours have gone by--or even a whole day--and you haven't accomplished anything that you set out to do? A series of non-crucial tasks, distractions, and interruptions seem to have hijacked your working hours, trampling on your carefully planned goals for the day.
It's annoying and frustrating and it's getting in the way of your success. But it doesn't have to be this way. Though you'll never be able to completely eliminate the distractions, brush fires, and trivial tasks that cut into everyone's productivity, I've learned after a lot of struggle that you can keep them to a minimum.
Here's a look at some of the worst time-sucks and how to cut them down to size:
Beyond question, email is the biggest productivity killer most of us face every day. It's as easy to get sucked in and waste a huge amount of time on email as it is on Facebook. It's not easy to stop, but it is possible, especially when you consider that reading and responding to email just isn't a game-changing activity 99 percent of the time.
The best way to tame the email beast is to check your email once or a few times a day, depending on the necessities of your work--but to do it at down times, such as the beginning or end of a break. By "check" I mean run your eye down the subject lines and senders up to the last point when you checked your email. Only open emails that are important to your business (for instance because they come from clients), or where a lack of response will slow down your work or that of someone who works for you. Of those that you open during these quick checks, only respond to those where a response is truly urgently needed (almost none) or where you can answer a question in a few seconds. Then set aside an hour or so once or at most twice a week to read email that may not be urgent but may be useful to your work.
There are a number of tech tools that can help with your email efficiency. Some email software, such as Gmail, allows you to "snooze" a message and pick a time for it to come back to the top of your inbox. Labels and folders allow you to cluster messages related to a client or project so you can deal with them all at once, and filters can assign messages to those folders or labels automatically so you'll find them there when you need them.
Paying bills, filling out paperwork, invoicing, and any number of other such tasks can take up a huge part of your day without being differentiators that can help you or your business succeed. How do you keep these things from swallowing up too much of your time?
Begin by delegating and/or automating as many of these as you can. (For example, financial software that's linked to your bank can automatically enter and categorize revenue and expenses so you don't have to.) Second, cluster these tasks, so that instead of taking yourself out of the game every day or even a few times a day to do them, wait till you've collected an hour's worth and then do them all at once. Finally, leave these tasks until a time of day when you're not at your freshest--do NOT start your day by clearing these things out of the way. First thing in the morning, and any other time when you tend to be fresh and alert, use your energy on more essential tasks.
Unless you're working alone on a deserted island with no phone or Skype, you will find that you are interrupted several times a day. If you're an entrepreneur or a leader within your organization, those interruptions are very frequent and they can blow your own productivity out of the water while you help others with theirs.
You will never be able to completely eliminate interruptions, nor would you want the people who work with you to feel like they can't talk to you. But you can keep interruptions from completely derailing you by giving your employees some times when they know they can talk to you and other times when they know to leave you alone unless a true emergency arises. That might mean, for instance, two uninterrupted hours in the morning, followed by an hour or two when your door is open and you're available for conversations and to answer questions. Or perhaps you take a ten-minute break every hour during which you step out of your office and walk around talking with people.
Distractions are interruptions we give ourselves. You were working hard on a business plan, but you suddenly find yourself checking stock prices. I find, this kind of thing sometimes happens when I've hit a point in my work where I'm not quite sure what to do next. Or sometimes it just happens. It's human nature to have our minds drift from time to time, and we should neither beat ourselves up over it nor try to fight it.
The trouble arises when we left our drifty minds latch on to an absorbing occupation such as playing a game, checking a social network, watching the news, or playing a game. Before we know it, an hour or more has gone by.
Instead, try staring out the window, or if you don't have one, at an image of nature for a little while. This will allow your conscious mind to wander while your unconscious mind takes over work on your problem--which will likely lead to a better and/or more creative solution. And, because staring out the window is usually fairly boring, you'll naturally go back to work in a short time.