What work task do you start the day with? Is it email? Many of us think ‘I’ll just get this out of the way and then I’ll be clear for the big jobs.’ And then what happens? Have you noticed that email seems to take on a life of its own?
I had another excellent reminder of this the other day. Even though I teach people to start on the important tasks first, I too sometimes get seduced by the lure of ‘first I’ll clear the email.’ The week in question was the first for ages that I’d been in the office for three consecutive days. Let me describe the first two days.
As you’d imagine I was keen to catch up on a backlog of tasks. ‘Surely the email won’t take long,’ I convinced myself. (The little voice on my shoulder whispered ‘Don’t go there’ but I pushed it impatiently aside.)
Sure enough, by the time the first batch of mail was out of the way, answers needing reply had started bouncing back; phones were ringing; people wanted my attention. I was on a roll, and I just wanted to get that damned Inbox down to a respectable level. Every time I went back to check something, new mail had popped in. It was a bit like trying to beat Solitaire! You persuade yourself that ‘this time I’ll win’. Yeah, right!
At the end of each of these two days I noticed a dull sense of dissatisfaction. It felt as though I’d been dragged with barely a whimper into a never-ending whirlpool of digital interactions. It didn’t feel that I’d wasted time. Everything was appropriate. BUT – the two most important tasks for the week still languished.
The third morning, lying in bed reflecting on the day ahead, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went a bit like ‘Robyn, you know better than this!’ (Maybe I have to stumble from time to time to keep empathy with my similarly-struggling clients.)
First coffee for the day in hand, I approached the seemingly innocuous lump of metal on my desk with steely resolve. I applied my own good advice – and didn’t turn on the email programme first thing. As I well knew, starting with the most important task was the answer. Outlook didn’t get an ‘In-look’ – I knew from past experience that ‘email first’ for me at least, was an insidious bad habit that I had to snap out of. Clearly, after two days of having its own way, this particular unproductive practice was doing its sneaky best to creep back in.
The first item on the list was a short but important preliminary outline requested by a client. We’d both agreed that it wasn’t urgent and he was quite happy to wait, but the ‘wait’ was becoming embarrassing to me, even if he was still cool. With optimistic intention I’d even carted meeting notes to Germany and back a few weeks earlier! Enough was enough!
All my client wanted was an emailed outline but I knew it would take me about half an hour of thinking and concentration. So, even though the logical place to create this was in Outlook, instead I compiled it in Word and only at the conclusion, resolutely NOT looking at any new incoming mail, transferred the content into email format for transmission.
You might be much better disciplined than me, and of course your work may require you to check the mailbox before you can sort your priorities for the day. One thing I’ve learnt in this business of being a trainer and speaker is that there is no ‘one right way’ in anything. So take out of this example what’s useful and leave the rest. But if you can identify with my little tussle, hopefully either the process I went through or one of the next three strategies might be of help.
Three other focusing strategies:
- If today’s time-critical tasks have paper-work attached to them, physically prioritise them – but don’t leave them sitting right under your nose. Place them nearby, but ideally slightly out of eye-range. Our potential interruption zone is what our peripheral vision can see as we work on something else. For instance, if most of your work is computer-based, notice what you can see while you type. Try to keep that space clear of anything that will distract you. Waiting tasks send out a subliminal message saying ‘Pick me, pick me!’
- Use your paper diary (or Task List in your digital calendar) to list the tasks for the day. Even if you’ve got 20 items on the list, number just the Top 5 with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (wherever they are on the list) and stay focused on those tasks for all except the most critical interruptions. If you’re using an electronic system, simply place the relevant number at the beginning of the line of type, click on the bar above and it will instantly sort into numerical order. The items with no numbers will fall neatly into line below the numbered tasks.
- Just in case your good intentions slip away overnight, before you leave work for the day, place the most important task (or a reminder note) in splendid prominence at your workstation. (This is especially effective if your space is uncluttered. If hundreds of other ‘distractions’ also share that primary piece of real estate called your desk, the effectiveness of this idea will be seriously diluted.)
And now, enjoy the sense of accomplishment as you keep focused on the Main Things.