If you leave the office most nights feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and behind on everything you've got to get done at work—even though you just spent 10 hours there—you're letting your workday get away from you. It's too easy to let the hours you spend at the office get stolen by meetings, email, interruptions, and impromptu co-worker chats that leave you saddled with busywork and too distracted to get the important stuff done. But with a little thought, you can leave work feeling accomplished and complete instead. When it's time to take back your workday, there are a few dead easy strategies that can help you focus on your tasks, firewall your attention, and reduce your workload so you can get out the door feeling light, free, and done. Photo by rochelle, et. al.
10. Make a lunch or dinner date (to create a deadline).
Ever wonder why your co-workers who are parents get out of the door on time every day like clockwork? It's because they've got to pick up the kids at daycare by a certain time. If you feel like you've got all day to get things done, you're more likely to get sucked into stuff that's not that important. But a deadline will light a fire under your butt and keep your eye on the clock. If you know you've got a spouse at home expecting to see you by 6:30, or a buddy waiting for you at the gym, you're more likely to stay focused, get your stuff done, and get out of your chair on time.
If you can take lunch on your own schedule, this same strategy works midday, too: make a date with your co-worker or friend to have lunch at a set time, and use it as a deadline for getting your morning tasks done.
9. Write down the first thing you have to do tomorrow morning and put it on your keyboard before you leave the office.
The sad reality is that if you let it, your workday will get away from you without one single task getting checked off your to-do list: unless you make it your personal mission. The best time of the day to GTD is first thing in the morning, so make it easy on yourself. Every evening, before you leave the office, write down the single most important task you've got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk, with any support material you need to work on it, so you can get rolling first thing. The best way to start your day is accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email. (See more about how to set yourself up with a small, doable task here.)
8. Don't check email for the first hour of the day.
Author of Never Check Email in the Morning Julie Morgenstern suggests waiting for one hour before you open up your email inbox in the morning. Instead of thoughtlessly reading email first thing, work on that task you laid out for yourself in #9. Accomplishing something out of the gate sets the tone for the rest of your day, Morgenstern says, and once you've launched your email client, you're "open for business" and paying attention to incoming requests.
Note: If you do business with folks in different time zones, this guideline can be very difficult to follow, especially if you know you've got new messages over night. But let's be realistic: a one hour email delay won't kill anyone. You can do it.
7. Decide NOT to do one task on your to-do list and cross it off.
It's not always the boss who's putting pressure on us to get things done and assigning us tasks: sometimes we take on little projects and to-do's because they seem like a good idea for one reason or another. If you've got a to-do list a mile long with items that have been sitting there for weeks? Chances are there are a few you can cross off right this moment because they're not worth doing after all. A "good idea at the time" isn't always a good idea. If you've assigned yourself busywork that isn't that important, simply opt not to do it—that's the fastest and lowest-effort way to get it off your plate.
6. Edit that email you're writing down to less than five sentences.
No one likes to get long-winded email, and email's not the appropriate place to have extended conversations. The shorter your email is, the more likely you are to get a response. Designer Mike Davidson instituted a personal email policy that no message he sends is more than five sentences, which saves himself and the recipient time. Give it a try. If your message has to be longer, pick up the phone and call instead.
5. Cut someone off.
When chatty Cathy's yapping your head off, or that passive meeting leader is letting things go off the rails in the conference room for too long, speak up. Don't be rude, of course. A polite but business-like, "Can we get back to the agenda?" or "I hate to cut this short, but I've got an appointment" or "This seems off-topic for this meeting—can we move on?" can save you hours of wasted time at the office.
4. Book a meeting with yourself.
If your head is spinning with all the stuff you've got to get done and the interruptions keep coming, you need some alone time. If the hours of your day keep getting stolen by meeting requests and drive-by interruptions, box out an hour or so every few days specifically to regroup and get organised. Literally enter the meeting with yourself on your calendar, and if you need to get away from your desk, book a conference room as well. Take your project list, to-do list, and calendar with you to the room and spend that time deciding what, when, and how you're going to tackle all the stuff in your work life, as if you're a boss meeting with your assistant. (GTD'ers know this technique as the weekly review.)
3. Master the art of the qualified yes.
Don't be a yes-man or woman by default. When you have a choice (and most times you do), instead of automatically saying yes unconditionally to incoming requests, qualify it. Ask for more information like the deadline or requirements. See if it's something that can be put off till a later date or done by someone more available or better-suited. Merlin Mann's recent talk at Macworld, Time Sinks and Attention Burglars, has a fabulous section on negotiating incoming requests and qualifying your yes'es so you don't give away your time so easily.
2. Block out distractions and set a timer.
When your brain is frozen in a solid block of paralysed procrastination around a task and you're letting yourself get carried away by distractions like email and instant messenger, it's time to take out the big guns. Turn off your email and IM client, grab a kitchen timer, set it for 10 minutes, and work until the beep. Then, take a break. Wash, rinse, and repeat. I swear by this technique, which got me through writing 400 pages of the Lifehacker book when all I wanted to do was crawl under the bed and hide. If you give yourself an easy deadline (it's only 10 minutes!) and make it a race with the clock, you'll unfreeze your brain and break through your blocks.
1. Do a free jot brain dump.
When you're so stuck in a rut that your brain can't even grok the concept of a to-do list and you have no idea where you are or where you should be, it's time to do a serious regroup (while going easy on yourself). Take a piece of paper and a pen, go to a quiet place, and free jot for 10 minutes. Make lists. Mind map. Free associate ideas. Rant. Write down whatever comes to mind to get your juices flowing. When we get hung up on busywork and crushed by overwhelm, our brains can't take it any more. A last-resort, free-jot brain dump can re-focus the big picture: what's important to you, what your biggest problem is right now, and what your next step is.
Regular brain dumps and mind maps are a great way to boost creativity and get started on projects, but they're also an effective last resort strategy for those really bad days that have reduced you to a twitching mess of dysfunc tional information anxiety.
How do you reclaim your workday and get yourself home at night feeling accomplished and clear? Let us know in the comments.