In a previous job, I walked into my manager’s office and saw him intensely cleaning his desk and consigning papers to the bin.
“What you up to?” I said. Yeah, kind of obvious, I know, but this wasn’t one of the quieter work periods. Surely this wasn’t a priority and he had something better to do?
“I’ve got so much work to do that I just needed to clean my desk”, he said.
If this sounds familiar then that’s a sure sign that you are feeling overwhelmed. It happens to many of us, particularly when we have a looming deadline, a number of projects to work on or a number of demands on our time. It also happens when there are lots of things in our heads and we don’t know where to begin.
So instead, we choose to do something easy to distract ourselves, which can then lead to us putting off doing that really important task. Ever decided to go and make a hot drink before getting started on that really important task? That’s another delay tactic by your brain and I’m guessing that whilst working from home many people have had a burning urge to put the washing in, tidy the kitchen, dust the living room. It’s an endless list at home.
So how do we bring back our focus with so many other distractions to fill our time?
Write it all down
Before you can start to focus on one thing, you need to get everything out of your head. Don’t see this as a to do list. Just see it as a way to free up brain power. Right now, you are trying to remember everything that you need to do but, as David Allen of “Getting Things Done” fame says, your brain is for having ideas, not holding them.
Therefore, put everything on the list, from needing to finish a report, through washing the dishes, to the podcast you’ve been meaning to listen to for a while. These are all things whirling round your head that are stopping you from getting done what needs to be done.
It’s pretty certain that if you are finding distractions like cleaning your desk there are a number of things that you should be looking to get done soon, but which should come first?
The Eisenhower Matrix, developed by President Dwight Eisenhower is a popular method of determining which tasks you should do first, by categorising into urgent and important. Scan your list and asterisk anything that is urgent. This usually means that they are time sensitive, such as paying bills, or have some other deadline attached. Then go through the list again and put a circle next to anything that is important, meaning it has to be done just maybe not straight away (and maybe not by you!).
Now you have a list of tasks that would fit onto the matrix showing you the following~:
- Urgent and Important tasks (with both an asterisk and a circle)
- Urgent but not Important tasks (with an asterisk)
- Important but not urgent tasks (with a circle)
- Not important and not urgent tasks (with no symbols associated)
You can get a matrix to download here. Seeing them on the matrix is a great way to see where all your mental energy is being directed and you may see that there really aren’t that many important things on the list.
Assign a time
Now you know what is urgent and important, you can assign a time on the calendar to start working on them. First, though, it is important to understand how long these tasks will take. Focus on those that fit the urgent and important categories. When you’ve done those, you can assign a time to the others but really, if they aren’t important, does it matter? Aren’t these just little distractions that should be fit in around the other stuff?
Now, get them on the calendar – but be careful! You don’t want your calendar being filled up with urgent but not important tasks. Ideally, most of your time should be spent on not urgent but important tasks.
The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.
You want to have been addressing the important things before they become urgent. Of course, urgent isn’t always as a result of lack of planning. Urgent tasks can just pop up when least expected but you need to make sure that they too are scheduled appropriately.
Where you have several tasks that are important but not urgent but only take a few minutes, then look to batch these together in one time slot.
Develop a System
The key of course, is keeping on top of every task that comes in before it leads to overwhelm. So here are a few tips to develop a good system.
- Have a daily planning session – write down three tasks that you definitely need to get done tomorrow. These may already have been scheduled in or might have come up during the day. Either way, make sure these priorities are foremost in your mind the next day.
- Don’t check mail first thing in the morning – if you have an office job, it can be easy to fall into this trap of “reviewing” your emails before starting. As long as there are no meetings scheduled, start the day with the first task. You can check emails later.
- Take breaks between longer focus sessions – after 60 to 90 minutes of working on one thing. Give yourself a break. Go and put that washing load in, or make that 5 minute call. Find a small task off your not important but urgent list and get it done.
- Have a good weekly planning session – ideally, your work can all be planned at the start of the week. In reality, things come up. Don’t completely fill you diary – give yourself a little wiggle room for things that come up.
- Go for a walk – if you are really struggling to focus take a break in the fresh air or walk to the 10th floor. Our brains really are incredible things! There are probably hundreds of inventions that we use in our everyday lives that were inspired by time away from the problem just be careful not to get too carried away by that game of ping-pong!
- Commit to just 30 minutes tackling a big job – if you really aren’t looking forward to doing something it often helps to put a limit on that task with a reward at the end. For example, promise yourself a large full fat latte with an extra shot of toffee flavour if you do 30 minutes on that report you’ve been putting off.
If you are looking for some good systems to organise yourself you can’t go far wrong by taking a look at Darren Hardy. Want to get your weekly planning session going and learn new tips to prioritise your workload? Try his Sunday Planning system. Want to up your daily planning? Get the Morning Blueprint.
Do you find yourself putting off what needs to be done? How are you going to tackle the big stuff? Do you have a method of prioritising? Share in the comments below.