Let's face it: when you've run into serious productivity roadblocks like procrastination, distraction, and overwhelmed paralysis, keyboard shortcuts and index cards aren't going to save you—only better patterns of behaviour will.
Photo by woodleywonderworks.
Regardless of whether you use a Mac or PC, Microsoft Outlook or Gmail, an iPhone or a BlackBerry, all modern cubicle jockeys face the same recurring productivity problems inherent to having constant internet access and a gazillion things to do. While we've posted thousands of one-off shortcuts over the years that can speed up your work, what getting your crap done really requires is new patterns of thinking and behavior—broader strategies that apply no matter what tools you're using.
Let's take a look at some common problems the wired worker faces and a few approaches for dealing with them.
Distraction/Lack of Focus
You know what you're supposed to be working on, yet you're still checking the basketball scores, posting to your high school friend's Facebook wall, ripping your CDs into iTunes, and writing an entirely unnecessary email instead. Dozens of things are vying for your attention at any given second, so being utterly unable to focus is as common a malady as near-sightedness or allergies.
When you find yourself scattered—your monkey mind jumping from one branch to the next—but you've really got to get that thing done, step back, take a breath, and shift gears into single-tasking mode. To single-task, you've got to clear your dashboard, firewall your attention, roll up your sleeves and get to it. In a code red situation, gather all the stuff you need to get your task done, and get away from your regular workspace where temptations abound. (For example, head to a conference room or coffee shop with your laptop or notepad and pen.)
If lack of focus is a recurring, everyday problem, assign yourself three "Most Important Tasks" to get done per day. The night before you wrap up work, write down three items you must get done the next day. When you get to your desk the next morning, before you even open your email, start in on one of the three assignments. If three is too many, start with one and work your way up.
Google Reader's got 1000+ new items for you, your email inbox overfloweth, your phone's new voicemail light is blinking, and you've got exactly 47 unlooked-at tabs open in your browser. How did you get here? More importantly, how do you get out?
Information overload is more of a perception than a reality: the more new items we let flood our gates, the more likely we are to feel like we're drowning. One of the most basic approaches to beating overload is installing better gatekeepers: strengthen your filters so that less stuff comes your way (like these email filters). Throw an unsubscribe party, whether it's for print magazines, RSS feeds, or email lists. Lean on the Mark all as read button liberally, and trust that the important stuff will bubble up and find you. Make a parking place for everything that's NOT your inbox: for example, put email you have to do something about in a FOLLOWUP folder or on your task list and place web pages you want to read (eventually but not now) on a "Read it later" list. Don't fret so much about seeing everything at all times; the world won't stop turning if you miss that link, blog post, or yes, even email message.
Once you dig yourself out of the overload, set up mechanisms to keep it at bay. Use binary prioritization for the information that flows into your life—a "must see" bucket that has a really high bar for entry, and a "can wait" bucket. Apply this pattern to any incoming stream, whether it's your Facebook friend feed or Twitter updates, RSS subscriptions, email, or voicemail. Tools are available to do so for all of those and more.
When you've got to write that same email message or weekly report, run that same backup job or folder cleanup, or write that same check to pay that same monthly bill, work gets really boring fast. When you get that sense of deja vu about the task at hand, it's time to step back, identify the repetitive work, and start templatising and automating. Set up macros, email scripts, auto bill pay, or automated computer tasks (like backup) to get that repetitive stuff done with minimal intervention so you can put your precious brain cells to better use.
Likewise, take the work out of tedious tasks with shortcuts and macros—even small stuff, like correcting yourself every time you accidentally type "teh" running a Google search. Take 10 minutes to set up a program like Texter, or concentrate on learning Firefox's Ctrl+K keyboard shortcut to get those things done faster.
So you've decided to go Inbox Zero, but you're starting out with 3,000 messages and you don't have 17 hours free to get through them all this very minute. Whether it's a backlog of email, voicemail, snail mail, or expense reports queued up from the past 7 months, a couple of strategies can help. First, chunk the time you spend on backlog—give yourself exactly one hour a day, every day, going forward to knock out some of it—and whatever you don't get done, you pick up the following day. The second approach (which works especially well for smaller per-item time investments, like processing email), is the reduce by half and repeat approach (also known as Inbox 0.5). In this strategy, on the first day of tackling your backlog, you reduce the total of open items by half (ie, 3,000 messages becomes 1,500). Then the next, reduce it by half again (1,500 becomes 750). Rinse and repeat until the pile is small enough to finish it off. (If you use this strategy, start with the oldest backlog first, because it's the stuff that's likely expired past its usefulness, so you'll get through it faster.)
The bane of most employees' existence at the office today is constant, but spread-out interruptions throughout the workday. Instant messages, new email, drive-by bosses or co-workers ("Got a minute?"), ringing phones, meeting reminders. You've got no chance of getting into the coveted "flow state" and getting that involved project done if your series of Pointy-Haired Bosses is going to hassle you about the TPS report covers every 20 minutes.
For the interruptions we can control (email notifications, instant messenger, cell phone calls) there's the Captain Obvious solution: turn them off. That's just one aspect of firewalling your attention at the office. For incoming items like voicemail and email that trickle in spread out throughout the work day, it's time to get batch tasking. Let those messages quietly gather in your various inboxes, but set specific times of day (maybe 10AM, 2PM, and 5PM) that you dive in and process all at once, instead of responding to every interruption as it comes in. You weekend and nighttime emailers, see how to stop checking your email during off-hours.
You've been putting off that dreadful task for weeks now, and every day that passes and you don't get it done, you hate yourself more. While much has been written and studied about procrastination, there are still no foolproof ways to flip that mental switch and just start—but a couple of approaches might help. First and foremost, when you're stuck in procrastination paralysis, ask yourself: what's blocking me from doing this?. There's something about the task at hand that's making your brain go, "Whoah, Nelly!", and usually it's some sort of fear—of failure, of uncertainty, of change, of commitment. Whatever it is, get to the bottom of your frozen state of mind and unpack what the real issue is, instead of sitting around and hating yourself for being unproductive.
Sometimes it can be as simple as not knowing where to start. When a looming task feels so big and amorphous you don't know what to tackle first, you've got to spend some time thinking things through and breaking them down. Author SARK calls these little steps in your big project journey "micromovements". Be ruthless and break things down into tiny pieces, then line them up one by one and start on the first one.
Another common reason for procrastination is the opposite: not knowing when it will end. If a task or project doesn't have any measurable ending, goal, or timeline, it can be scary jumping in and not knowing what happens then. Enforce constraints where there are none to scale things down and make them more manageable. For example, use a kitchen timer to commit to exactly 60 minutes of work on a given project, or enlist a family member to enforce a motivating deadline (ie, "no American Idol until you get your taxes done"). Or make up your own deadline (and use Parkinson's law to your advantage): decide you're going to do Big Project X for only two weeks, and then give yourself permission to evaluate whether you want to go on at that point. Create a reachable milestone and get there first, without committing to the whole shebang at the get-go. The key is reframing what seems like an unmanageable, never-ending task to something contained and easily tackled.
Overwhelm and/or Paralysis
If your normal state of mind is that of frantic overload, we've got to take out the big guns. It's kind of sad, but in a "you can have and do it all!" culture, someone needs to say it: DO LESS. The best thing you can do with an item on your to-do list isn't check it off as completed, it's delete it entirely. If you're procrastinating, feeling backlogged, or suffering from overwhelm constantly, it's time to reevaluate how you're spending your time, what you want to do with your life, and ruthlessly prune the unnecessary stuff. So often we get committed to tasks that in the long run really don't matter that much. Don't waste your time and energy on anything that's not truly important.
Using any one of these strategies requires the ultimate ninja skill: having the presence of mind and ability to ask yourself "what is going on with me right now?" when you're stuck in a rut. That kind of self-awareness is the only way towards diagnosing the problem and getting on with the solution.
This list is not at all comprehensive. Which problems or solutions did I miss that you use to get your brain on track when your productivity's in the toilet? Tell us about it in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, put off this article till the very last minute, and updated Twitter, replied to email, and checked her feed reader at least three times while writing it. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.