For the last 2 years, I have focused solely on helping companies select and develop their leadership talent. Leaders can sometimes get so caught up in developing their leadership skills (e.g., managing others, inspiring others, presentation skills, etc.) that they forget about developing self-management skills. There is a popular adage “you cannot help others until you help yourself.” The same is true for leaders.
A manager or leader may struggle to be effective unless they can easily manage the day-to-day tasks that cause us to be less productive. These tasks include distractions caused by e-mails, colleagues, the internet, cell phones, and social media (just to name a few). We all have distractions in our personal and professional lives. Understanding what your primary distractions are and having a strategy for handling those distractions makes the difference between being productive and unproductive.
Before we get to the leadership tips for productivity, it is important to understand how often we get distracted, on average, and the typical causes of those distractions. The average worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes. Before you start pointing the finger at your co-workers screaming, “I knew you were the reason why I cannot get anything done!” please note that 50% of all distractions are self-distractions. That’s right! YOU are part of the reason for your lack of productivity.
What is a self-distraction? Have you ever interrupted yourself to check your Amazon or Facebook account? That is a self-distraction. Even using Google to search something that is work-related can get your attention pointed into a different direction. Google is really good at knowing the things we like to buy and occasionally we can be distracted by that. Or what about that Facebook post that we HAVE to read from a high school classmate we haven’t talked to in 20 years? This stuff can be fun but it is killing productivity during the work week.
What is that you say? Checking Facebook quickly isn’t going to hurt anyone? Well, let’s look at the data. On average it takes over 20 minutes to return to the original task after that interruption. This is huge! Switching our attention from one task to a distraction can really hurt our own productivity.
So what can we do about this? Here are 5 critical tips to becoming more effective and wasting less time at work.
Tip #1 – Turn Off Notifications
This is probably going to be a difficult one for many of us. All of the push notifications that come through our smart phones, e-mail, and social media are distracting us and killing productivity. Turning off all non-essential notifications will eliminate an enormous amount of distractions. Even the notifications that are work related can be distracting. Have you ever been meeting with a colleague in their office and they got distracted by an Outlook pop-up e-mail alert? Turn off the notifications to free up some time. Try turning off your text message notifications during working hours and only check it during a scheduled break.
Tip #2 – Dedicate Time to Check E-mail
Take tip #1 a step further by closing e-mail entirely and dedicating certain times throughout the day for you to manage your e-mail. This one is my personal challenge. I tend to use my inbox as a to-do list. As a result, I usually have e-mail open all day long. However, employees send and receive over 150 e-mails per day, on average. What are the chances that every e-mail is important? It is almost entirely the opposite. Most of the e-mails I get are not that important – or at least not urgent. Closing e-mail entirely can have huge benefits especially when you are working on a complex task.
[Just a quick side note on this one – if you tend to get distracted by e-mail when you are on conference calls it can be helpful to close e-mail entirely. This will allow you to actually participant in the conversation and increase engagement.]
Tip #3 – Monitor Your Online Usage
This is most certainly the biggest distraction at work. Getting sucked into shopping online, social media, etc. is okay if it is a brief, scheduled break. However, more often than not, we get distracted and we never get this time back in our day. There are a lot of free tools out there that allow you to monitor your online usage. Not only that, but they allow you to set goals so that you stay under a target time. If this is something you struggle with I would encourage you to monitor your time online for just one week and see how much time you might be wasting.
Tip #4 – Weekly Plan & Goal Setting
Hand in hand with limiting distractions is setting goals and having a plan. One simple way to become more productive is to set aside 15 minutes Monday morning to review last week and plan for this week. Note that this can be done on Friday afternoon as well if you like to “hit the ground running” on Monday morning. So whenever you decide to do this you should spend 15 minutes reviewing the following topics…
1. What were my major achievements from last week?
2. What were my challenges from last week?
3. Review my upcoming week and meetings.
4. Review my task list for this week, and what is left over from last week.
5. Decide what 3-5 things need to be accomplished this week and start on them NOW!
I tend to get invited to a LOT of meetings. I make sure to block off at least 15 minutes in my calendar as a reminder to do this on a weekly basis. This simple review and planning can get you on the right track each week.
Tip #5 – Work on High Importance Tasks in the Morning & Have Meetings in the Afternoon
Most of us are much more productive in the mornings. It’s when we are most alert and there is a higher likelihood that we will have caffeine in our systems. This means that mornings are the best times to plan, think, strategize, and just generally get work done. In the afternoons, when we are getting more fatigued, is a better time for meetings with colleagues about projects. I realize that this is easier said than done, especially in the service industry. However, if we can dedicate even one hour to ourselves in the morning it will pay dividends with regard to accomplishing goals and getting ahead.
Please note that I am not saying that we need to become robots with a goal of 100% productivity on a daily basis. Distractions can be hugely positive and actually enhance productivity. For example, taking a break to talk to a colleague about their weekend plans can have a positive impact on productivity. There has been a lot written about taking productive breaks. One study noticed that the most productive employees work for 52 minutes and then break for 17 minutes. I think the key here is that they work for 52 straight minutes and they are able to minimize their distractions when the rest of us schmucks are getting interrupted every 11 minutes.
So why do most of us ignore these tips? My hypothesis is that because it is easy, and even fun, to get distracted. Would I rather focus and finish a difficult task or see what the new deal is on Amazon? I would be the first person to tell you that I love my job – but sometimes that Amazon deal is more intriguing than my next task on my to-do list. If you are able to implement even one of these tips you will see gains in your productivity.
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