You don't always have the luxury of ignoring emails, putting on headphones and working uninterrupted as long as you want. Distractions are real, they're part of our work day, and they're not going away. So how do you stay productive when you're expected to be on top of your inbox or keep IM open while you work?
The Problem: Distractions Are Part Of Your Job
At my last job, I didn't have the luxury of checking my email only when I wanted to. People would ask me as soon as I walked in if I got their email from the night before. And if I didn't respond to an email or IM within a few minutes — especially if it was urgent — I could expect someone standing at my desk. I'm willing to bet that it's a similar situation where many of you work.
Distracting instant messages, emails and meetings are all facts of life for most of us. While we often discuss how you can eliminate distractions, those distractions are our work. But all is not lost; let's discuss how you can get those interruptions under control so you can focus and get some work done. Photo by TJ.
So how do you take control when you're expected to be on top of your inbox and available to others all day? Here's the short version: You need to start working on your own terms, but learn to walk the line between what you can get away with and what your coworkers won't allow. Don't tell your boss that you "only check your email at 10am, 2pm and 4pm" — just set your mail client to check for new messages every 90 minutes instead of every five and see how it works. Get called out for missing an email? Bring it back to 60 minutes. See where we're going? Let's dive in.
Tame Your Distracting Inbox, Messages and Calls by Putting Them on Autopilot
Your email, IM and phone are all probably the biggest sources of distraction at your job, and yet they're the things you're always expected to respond to when they start ringing and beeping. That doesn't mean you have to be a slave to them.
Put Your Email on Autopilot: Before you can comfortably stop checking your email every few minutes, you'll want to make sure you don't miss anything important.
- Use Tools that Automatically Keep Your Inbox Clean. For example: Unroll.me automatically collects newsletters and subscriptions, rolls them up into a single daily newsletter, and then lets you choose which of them hit your inbox. Boomerang is one of our favourite tools for scheduling and delaying messages until you need to see them. It works in Outlook too, so if your office doesn't use Gmail or Google accounts, you can still reap its inbox-cleaning benefits.
- Use of Filters and Rules to Do Heavy Lifting for You. Whether it's Gmail, Outlook or something else, routing mail from your inbox directly to the place it eventually needs to be saves time and gives you one less reason to jump when a new message arrives. You can also set emails from your boss to automatically be flagged as urgent, use Gmail's priority inbox to float important thing to the top, or even use filters to track messages you want to follow up.
- Get a System. Special tools aren't a panacea. The most powerful inbox cleaning tool is you. Stop using your inbox like a filing cabinet and get those to-dos into something that you'll actually use, even if it's pen and paper, and file your messages away so your inbox takes less time and energy. We're fans of the trusted trio of folders: It works like a charm to keep your inbox empty, even if you're mostly just moving things around.
Cut Back On How Frequently You Check Your Mail: As I mentioned, catching an important message versus missing it at my last job would often be the difference between being ahead of the game or hopelessly behind. If you can't check your email every few hours, try setting it to check every hour instead. If that doesn't work for you, set it to every half hour. Find a balance that works for you — turning off auto-notify doesn't mean you have to give up your "fastest reply in the office" title — trust me, I was that guy for years.
The point isn't to stop getting your email, but to stop jumping like a trained dog every time a new message lands and to choose the smallest amount of time you know you can go between checks. That way, you know how long you can work in peace in between new messages. Distractions cease to be distractions when they're planned on your terms. You can still have the convenience of near real-time email without hearing a "ding!" every 30 seconds.
Train Your Coworkers To Respect Away Messages: Your away message on IM used to be the most informative way to tell people where you were or what you were doing. Even if you don't use IM socially, bring those principles into the office. Instead of just labelling yourself "Away", pick "Custom" and get specific: "Head down working — will respond to messages in 30 minutes. Call if it's urgent." Use your IM status as a proactive communication tool. It may not stop your coworkers from messaging you, but they will eventually understand that your status message is for their benefit.
Make Your Phone Less Distracting: You have surprisingly little control over your desk phone. One trick I've used before was to move the phone so the flashing call indicator and the caller ID were in my field of vision, and then turn the ringer off. This meant that I was never startled by a blaring phone, and I could glance at the red light without taking my fingers off the keyboard. Even if I didn't answer it, I'd make a note to call that person back in an open text file and return to the task at hand.
The same thing applies to your smartphone: keep it docked where you can see it and prune those notifications. I like to keep the sound off while I work, but if you need audible cues, try our soothing alerts for more gentle notification sounds.
Add Order to Your Calendar By Scheduling Everything
You don't have to get down to the level of programming your entire day, but when we say "schedule everything", we mean schedule your working time, lunch, breaks, and anything else that you need to make time for. The only actual "free" time on your calendar should be time when you're actually available for phone calls and meetings — time that's not allocated to something specific. Even then, as soon as it is, you should schedule it.
When I was a project manager, I was responsible for scheduling daily meetings. I learned pretty quickly that I could only tell people I was "unavailable" when those times were blocked off on my calendar. So I started scheduling my work — or times when I wanted everyone to know I was busy. Then I started specifically scheduling my breaks so people would know when I wasn't around and when I'd be back. Sometimes, those appointments would be made private, but they got the message across. Be flexible though — sometimes you'll have to let someone interrupt if it's the only time everyone else can get together for a meeting. When you're ready to take it to the next step, consider pre-scheduling entire days as "in" or "out".
Finally, let your calendar work for you instead of against you. Boomerang Calendar is a great tool that will auto-fill your appointments. No more toggling between your calendar and your inbox to check your schedule.
Take Care Of Yourself, Control Your Environment And Teach Your Coworkers Manners
For many of us, we have very little control over our office environment. But what you do have control over is your mood, your health and your behaviour at the office. Here's how to tackle the physical:
- Take Care Of Yourself: Remember, you only have one you, but you're a resource to your employer. If you fell over tomorrow, they'd find someone to pick up your work. Take your health seriously. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. When you're in good mental and physical condition, you'll handle distractions better, you'll be more flexible and willing to switch tasks, and you'll be more productive. Don't underestimate the mental benefits of a good night's sleep and the mood benefits of exercise.
- Upgrade Your Desk or Cubicle: Even if you don't have an office with a door you can close, you can still tweak your desk to make distractions easier to handle. Face the entrance to your workspace, if you can, or at least work sidelong to it so you can see people coming. Invest in a monitor mirror, or set up your phone or tablet with the camera on so you can see who's coming behind you. Add some plants to improve your mood.
- Let Yourself Focus: I'm a huge proponent of using headphones to work to music and avoid distractions at the office. While there's definitely a case against it, I think it's easily mitigated by being attentive to others when necessary. Give yourself the time and tools to focus on the things you have to do — if that means putting your headphones on and ignoring the phone, go for it! Photo by jm3.
- Train Your Coworkers: Remember, we're all adults here. If someone is a horrible distraction, just be polite and tell them, or use it as an excuse to take your own break. If your coworkers bother you when you're busy, let them know. Don't shut them down — you don't want to hold your productivity method over someone else's head (that's the fastest way to dead-end your career). Instead, be flexible and let your coworkers know that you're giving them tools to better work with you — they just need to look at them.
- Make Time to Review: Finally, being always available and always on when you're at the office (or when you're not) can make it really hard to step back and see the big picture. Make sure to carve out at least some time to get back in touch with what you're doing and why, as opposed to just taking work as it comes. I find the Weekly Review is a great way to do this. It's essential to keep your head above water and sift the distractions from the important work.
The Bottom Line: Make Moderate, Incremental Changes
Don't be afraid to remix any or all of these methods to make your own franken-system that lets the important stuff through while giving you room to focus on your job. Test it, try it out, and if you push too hard one way, lighten up. Be flexible and you'll find yourself less annoyed at every meeting request or message you get.