Your brain is being attacked all day by different distractions, some that you hear, some that you see, some that you smell, and some that just pop into your head (ideas, or things you remember to do).
Anything that gives you information is an input. We have many different “inputs” vying for our attention, the major one being our email inboxes. Other inputs are things like task lists, online boards, social media, phone calls/messages, your desk, and programs/tabs that are open on your computer.
In order to work more productively, we need to reduce our inputs as much as possible,
Task List Zero
By only writing down what you can get done in the current day, you can have the goal each day of reaching task-list zero. This is an achievable goal, and turns your task list into something that motivates rather than demoralises you.
Every day you should aim to cross all items off your task list, or at least make progress on all of them.
Other items that are not currently in focus can be kept on a backburner list that is out of sight. Having too many items on your list causes stress, and makes it harder to decide what to work on.
Once you’re doing this, you’re effectively planning your day – rather than having no plan and no visibility on whether the day was productive or not.
I’ve written extensively on the benefits of inbox zero, including an ebook (which you can get by clicking the button below) and running a webinar (which you can access the recording of here).
Clearing your inbox to zero doesn’t mean dealing with everything as it comes in, it means closing your emails outside of set “email processing times”.
This means you won’t be distracted by fires to put out and emails coming in as you work.
When you do process emails, you’ll deal with all of them there and then instead of letting them build up. If an email requires a task that will take more than 2 minutes to do, you’ll schedule time in your calendar to do that task.
When you see an empty inbox you can let go of all that stress and uncertainty about work to do. You don’t have to scan over all your built-up and read emails to see what you still need to do, and you can focus on your important work.
Zero Tabs and Windows
During the day, I naturally tend to build up lots of open browser tabs. These are references, company websites, blog posts, google searches, our own website, etc. In addition to this are several open programs, like our CRM system, excel, powerpoint, outlook and other programs we use to run our business.
Having lots of things open adds to the inputs that compete for your attention, making it harder to find what you want, harder to focus on one thing, and more likely that you'll get distracted.
I don't suggest implementing scheduled 'window closing time', but be mindful of it during the day and close things that you don't need any more. If you do have lots that you're saving for future reference, create a task for yourself and link back to the resource.
One of the biggest deterrents to getting work done is your mobile phone.
In order to prevent distractions, try to disable as many app notifications, sounds, app badges and lock screen banners as possible.
I can understand wanting to keep text messages and whatsapp displaying, but turn off all of the social media notifications that display before you even open the app.
When I need to get work done, I sometimes put my phone face-down or on aeroplane mode so it won't distract me.
In addition to this, clear all of the clutter off your desk. Do you really need all of those papers, printed out PDFs, coffee cups, stationery, books, etc?
A clear desk makes it easier to focus and be productive without all of the visual stimulants intruding on your mind.
Paper based notes can be a distraction too, especially if you hastily scrawl things in the margins, don't cross things off etc.
If you notice your paper based task list and notes getting a bit messy, rip that page out and transfer anything still outstanding to a new list in a tidy fashion.
Reduce Digital Clutter
Digital clutter refers to your (computer) desktop, your downloads folder, your documents folder and any other folders that you work out of.
When your desktop has icons covering it, with no logic, hierarchy or order it contributes to stress and makes it harder to find what you need. The same goes for any other place you store things virtually.
You may have a "sales" drive containing many folders and files, but if this isn't organised it won't help you to be productive. Ensure that every file has a place that it fits, and that you don't have folders going more than three layers deep.
Don't also have so many different folders that things can fit in more than one place, or that it becomes difficult to find the correct folder to file something.
When you're done, you should be able to work with no more than five icons on your desktop.
For example, recycle bin, "work" folder, "personal" folder, and a couple of other icons for your favourite browser or a program you use a lot (but remember everything you need is also searchable in the menu).