Blocking Out Extraneous Items Provides Focus

The end of the year is nigh!  We continue to break down nine of the techniques I have found useful to improve efficiency and effectiveness over the past year. Techniques include blocking electronic distractions, replanning, thinly slicing work, and a few simple time management techniques.  Put your phone into airplane mode and turn up your effectiveness and efficiency all the way up to 11.  

  1. Blocking Electronic Distractions – Those of certain age will remember the movie You Got Mail (I have found a way of avoiding said movie).  The “you got mail” announcement, once prominent in the late 1990’s, has given way to pings of various sorts for email, text messages, Facebook posts, Twitter, etc. I have only scratched the surface of potential interrupters. One simple mechanism to help achieve focus is simply to turn them off and/or block them. I turn Outlook, my cell and my iPad, Skype, Yammer and Slack off during certain times so I can focus.  I am currently exploring blocking applications.

Tools I use (or I am exploring)

  • Off Switch and Airplane Mode
  • SelfControl Application (Max OS X)
  • ColdTurkey Application (free and premium)
  • Pomodoro is a technique that is useful for attacking the productivity killers: procrastination and multitasking. The technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s that combines strategies of fixed blocks of time, cadence and focus which limit work-in-progress to get work done.
  1. Re-planning – As the last work step re-plan the next day.  Consider combining re-planning with a personal retrospective.  The goal of the re-planning is to get a good handle on what you will need to do the next day while the day’s events are fresh. Just because I sleep does not mean the rest of the world stops, I have recognized that there is always a need for minor adjustments before starting the day, however, nightly planning has proved indispensable to avoid losing my place over night.

Tools I Use:

  • Moleskin – I record my personal retrospectives in a moleskin.
  • Trello – I use Kanban for larger pieces of work that move through different stages toward completion.
  • Evernote – When ideas or work comes to me outside of the regularly scheduled work period or while I am working on something else, I typically email notes to Evernote so I don’t forget them.
  • Outlook – I schedule work on my Outlook calendar and then use the calendar to manage my day (to the extent possible).
  1. Thinly Slice Work (Do One Step at a Time) – Thinly slicing tasks make it easier to break through procrastination by identifying the next step, providing feedback that progress is being made and an endorphin kick of checking a task off when complete. Thinly slicing personal tasks works for exactly the same reasons thinly slicing users stories works in Agile techniques.

Tools I Use:

  • Agile user stories – the same techniques for slicing and grooming user stories can be used for a personal effort.
  • Trello – I capture the breakdown of Trello items in checklists or as new Trello cards.
  • Evernote – Similar to Trello, I capture steps for to-do items on to-do lists (my rule is that as soon as a step is completed I capture the next step even if it will be done later).
  1.      Random Time Management Tips
  • Do the most important tasks first.  Kevin Kruse (SPaMCAST 398) uses the acronym MIT (most important task). Get your most important tasks done first when you are fresh and can deal with any complications.
  • Leave some buffer between tasks and meetings (this is critical if you need to travel even in the same office).  Pomodoro includes 5 minutes breaks between most sessions so that you can decompress, get coffee and do other things and then return to full focus.
  • Begin your day by exercising. Exercise promotes clearer thinking and increases energy, both of which increases effectiveness and efficiency.

There are numerous time management tips that are useful.  During the past year, I have leveraged all three of these techniques and found them useful.  Because they are useful and fit my lifestyle they have become habits. Your mileage will vary; however, they are worth a try.

Becoming more effective and efficient is a goal that everyone should embrace. Personal improvement is up to each of us and what we get from our effort is often linked to just how committed we are to change. Want to improve in 2017? Pick any one of the nine and see how you can do a better job than you do today!

Entries in the Annual Tune-Up Theme for 2016 (Part of our overall Getting Things Done Series):