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Working Less and Doing More in the Modern Office

From the dawn of humanity, humans have been driven by a simple desire: to get stuff done, go home early, and frolic. That means working fast and doing a lot. We've developed amazing technology to help us; but in our haste, we've overlooked a simple truth: sometimes the very path we've chosen becomes what gets in our way. Consider the corporation: for all its flaws, it is unprecedented in human history. By harnessing the strengths of working together, we do stuff on a scale unimaginable a mere 200 years ago. It adopts technology so we work faster. It coordinates projects so we apply our skills wherever they make a difference. But those same things can be a roadblock for us as individuals. We need the benefits of working with others, without becoming swamped.

The More We Do, the More We Procrastinate

We often lend our expertise to many different projects at once. If you're a marketing manager, you might be launching a new line of razor blades, setting up market research for expanding into other countries, and helping to train a new intern. In our fantasies, we work on all our projects equally. We make continual progress while cruising along easily and comfortably. Then we wake up.

One of our projects is almost always most important. The product launch is in five days? That's important! So we promptly meet with our intern "Leslie" for two hour to discuss how to write a good, solid memo. We use our other projects as distractions, even as we stress about making no progress on priority #1. The good news is that we have a really well-trained intern. The bad news is that, our product launch is now 4.5 days away, and we haven't made the progress we want.

The problem is simple: we get caught thinking, rather than doing.

We have competing priorities. When working on one, we know in the back of our mind that the others are waiting. We don’t have clear priorities because there aren’t any. Projects are often hard to compare. Sure, our product launch is urgent, but researching our expansion plans—with a lead time that means we may already be missing a market window—is definitely important. And the intern? Once we have confidence Leslie can handle what we delegate, we've just doubled the work that can get done. The sooner we finish training, the better. 

Without true, clear priorities, we’re always second-guessing the things we aren’t getting done, and we stall. The solution isn’t more prioritizing; it’s action. Rather than spending too much time trying to sort everything out, make progress on everything by speed-dating your tasks.

Speed Date Your Tasks to Overcome Procrastination

Make a list of the three to five major projects that keep beating each other out for your attention. Now grab a timer (either an old-fashioned egg timer or a computer program) and set it for five minutes. Turn it on and immediately start working on the first project. When the five minutes are up, stop where you are and move on to the second task. Reset the timer and repeat until you've made it all the way through the list.

Now take a ten-minute break. Set your timer for ten minutes this time, and do it again. Take another break, then reset the timer for 15 minutes. And so on.

When you know you'll be working such a short burst of time, any resistance you have goes away. Moreover, since your brain knows you'll be hitting all your important projects, rather than obsessing about what you're not doing, you can focus completely on each task in sequence.

Note that speed dating your tasks is most certainly not multitasking! Never try to do two things at once, don't respond to interruptions, and give 100% focus to each task as you work.

Beat Distractions to Cultivate Focus by Scheduling Your Interruptions

The very strength of organizations is their dastardly weakness: we work with other people. Our co-workers and bosses are there to help us achieve greatness, and we’re there to help them achieve greatness. Unfortunately, they want you to help them achieve greatness right now. So they stop by your office with urgent, pressing matters that need your attention immediately.

Be prepared! Grab a piece of paper and write in nice, neat letters at the top, INTERRUPTIONS. This is your interruption list. When someone rockets through your door with a distraction, you will jot down the details on your interruption list. “Need to get product plans to Mohindra.” If it’s an emergency, of course you deal with it then and there; but, if not, you schedule the interruption.

Choose a block of time, preferably late afternoon, perhaps 4 p.m. Schedule a half hour for “interruption catch-up.” Tell your co-worker, “I’m busy right now. How about if I get back to you a little after 4 p.m.?” When your catch-up time arrives, run through the list and handle the interruptions.

If your job hands you a lot of interruptions, but you still need time to focus, you may schedule multiple interruption times in a single day. Then you defer any given interruption to the time block that seems most reasonable.

Telling your co-worker that you’ll have to defer his or her need until later can be done with respect. Use a calm, gentle tone. Frame your message in terms of your needs and their benefits. “In order to give you 100% of my time and attention, I need to give 100% of my time and attention to what I’m working on now. I’ll see you at 4 p.m.” Then shoo them away gently.

Conquer Your Technology: Get a Divorce

Our last great productivity tool is also the biggest destroyer of productivity: technology. Our computers, cell phones, PDAs, iPods, Androids, and Blackberrys all conspire to destroy our productivity. They have to. The companies that make them profit when we spend as much time as possible on the devices. They’re as distracting as possible, with each new distraction marketed as an amazing time-saving feature. You thought that a Web browser on your cell phone would make you so much more productive. How’s that working out for you?

Don’t make your computer the center of your work life. Use it the way you’d use a tool. You take out a tool when you need it and put it away when you’re done. If your office is designed so when you sit down, you’re at your computer, move it! Move it physically away from the center of your desk. In fact, move it across the room, so using it requires conscious thought.

When you have tasks that require computer time, stop to think a bit before you go to the computer. Make a list of what you need to do during your computer time. For example, the list might contain:

• Respond to client e-mail.
• Upload the draft of the Web page.
• Read the article on European Bon Bon consumption.

Now you know your computer time schedule. Get up, walk to the computer, and do one task. When you finish, stand up and step away from the computer. Get a drink. Remind yourself the task is done. Put the tool down. Then come back, do the next task, and so on. Rather than being a distraction factory, your computer can return to being simply a very useful tool.

Modern organizations let us accomplish together what we could never accomplish separately. To contribute the most, however, we need to work in ways that help us actually move forward, instead of being trampled by the very things that give organizations power. You can stop procrastinating and make progress on many things at once by speed-dating your tasks. You can deal with distractions and maintain focus by scheduling your interruptions when your co-workers drop by. Moreover, you can tame your technology by treating it as the tool that it is. You’ll soon find yourself working less, doing more, and leaving early enough to go home and have a wonderful life.

About the Author(s)

Stever Robbins is the author of Get-it-Done Guys: 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More and creator of the Quick And Dirty Tips network’s Get-It-Done Guy podcast. An executive coach, professional speaker, and member of nine startups, he also lectures on entrepreneurship-related and productivity topics. Robbins holds a bachelor’s degree from M.I.T. and an MBA from Harvard. For more information: www.steverrobbins.com