I am easily distracted at work. How can I be more productive?

Our advice columnist gives five strategies to increase your productivity, even when your to-do list seems to go out the window

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Every morning I wake up, I promise myself that I’ll be better at managing my time. I get into work and make a list of what I need to accomplish—but inevitably, an hour or three later, I find myself already distracted by social media, side conversations with coworkers, emails, unexpected tasks that my boss sends my way, or whatever comes into the picture to occupy my energy and attention. By the end of each day, I find myself hopelessly behind, and it’s getting me down. I feel like I just don’t know how to manage my time right. Or maybe I’m just lazy and unproductive? What can I do to increase my efficiency and productivity and get done what I really need to each day? My manager hasn’t complained (yet), but I’m afraid of getting a bad performance review.

I don’t think you’re lazy and unproductive. More likely, you’re overextended and oversaturated with information, demands, and distractions, which means you don’t have the focus you need to get things done in a linear fashion. Like everyone in the year 2019, you’re dealing with a wealth of data and communications and opinions being thrown at you all at once, and you’re supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good stuff from the bad, but it’s all coming at you in a flurry, so you’re in triage mode, just dealing with whatever’s the biggest emergency, whatever mandatory meeting pops up, or whoever asks you the most urgent question. Constantly addressing the thing right in front of you means that you never have time to get to the end of your to-do list—if you even have time to look at it—let alone get ahead. Rest assured, this is not the qualm of a lazy person. (And I doubt that lazy people write into advice columns all that often.) It’s the problem of an ambitious 21st-century person who’s, well, dealing with the 21st century. 

That you write a to-do list each morning is a really good start, and I think you should commend yourself for that. You know at some inherent level that writing down your priorities is key to actually getting them done. I believe it’s going awry for you because neither your to-do list nor you, writer of your to-do list, takes into account the fact that your day is bound to move you in directions you don’t expect, which it seems like it pretty much always does. It’s OK to have flexibility in a to-do list—it’s just a fact of life that things change. The bigger problem, though, is that you don’t feel in control of your own day—so that’s the major thing you want to address: How can you not simply become more productive but gain ownership over your day so that you make it feel better and more productive for you

5 strategies to increase your productivity at work

1. Create an “I did” list

First, take a day or week and document what’s going on, hour by hour, to figure out where the bulk of your time is going. You’ve got your to-do list; write your “I did” list right next to it, and figure out what’s happening. Instead of “finish report on marketing strategies,” maybe you got sucked into a hole of tweeting and retweeting after something happened on your social media account. Maybe you couldn’t write the important email that was top priority because you got called into a team meeting to talk about a new client. Whatever it is, write it down. This will give you valuable insights about how you’re spending your time. There are plenty of time trackers you can implement to help figure out where all your energy is going, but be wary of falling into the app trap of spending a lot of time there instead of on your actual work. I’d start with the old-fashioned method first, just to really get a firm grip on your day. 

2. Find ways to say no 

Once you know where your time is going, look at what you might change. There are some things you can easily eradicate—don’t suddenly start shopping for new face cream when you’re on a deadline—but other things, like being asked by your boss to hop into a meeting with her, you’re going to have to do (and they really are priorities, just not those you could identify in advance). Return to your “I did” list and figure out which of those things you could have said no to, and which were imperative that you actually did. And if you could have said no, how would you have gone about it? What you’re creating here is a kind of future guideline for how to handle distracting situations, so when they come up again, you can act as you’d prefer, protect your own time, and focus on the most important tasks at hand.

3. Create boundaries 

If people are always coming by and asking you questions that distract you from the task at hand, consider noise-canceling headphones and implementing a system that lets passersby know clearly whether you’re open for business or “closed” and focused, head down, in an important project. I’ve heard of an office where employees had flags at their monitors they could raise when they didn’t want to be interrupted. Consult a manager to talk about the more office-wide distractions you face and how it might be best to incorporate a system into everyone’s workday—the key, of course, is that it not be as distracting as your distractions! 

Then there are the distractions we carry around with us, in our pockets. Yes, I’m talking about phones, and to some extent our computers, too. There’s so much information coming at us at all times, but you can take measures to limit it and regain your focus. Take Instagram and/or Twitter and/or Facebook off your phone during the workweek. Put your phone on airplane mode for part of the day. Put your phone on silent and then put it away—check it only to reward yourself after accomplishing something. You might silence Slack notifications, or update your status on Slack to indicate you’re in the middle of something and don’t want to be interrupted. And you can use apps like Freedom on your phone and computer to block the websites you find yourself turning to when you shouldn’t be. 

4. Avoid multitasking 

There’s proof that shifting back and forth with your priorities, or trying to do them all at the same time, i.e., the dreaded “multitasking,” actually decreases productivity. But “batching,” i.e., blocking off a period of time to do a bucket of work can be time economical. You’re in the right state of mind to get a bunch of these associated things done, so go for it. 

Focus on hitting your priorities one at a time—until completion. True, you can’t always do this, and even though most of the advice out there is to focus on the biggest (most important, or “worst,”) task first, it can be fulfilling and energizing to cross off your list a slew of little, simple tasks (like responding to emails) first thing in the morning, to put yourself on the right track and make you feel productive. Look at your time available, too, and slot in the work that fits: If you have only 15 minutes before the next meeting, what’s the most obvious thing you could finish in that time period? This is really about what works for you. Only you know if you’re a morning person, a night person, or a person for whom procrastinating is part of the process.

5. Take smart breaks and reward yourself 

The fact is, workdays are busy! Things happen! You can’t always get done what you thought you would. But you’ll be more able to address what’s coming at you if you take self-care breaks occasionally, rewarding yourself for the things you are making headway with. Make sure to take lunch. Drink water. Get up and stretch. If you finish a big project, go for a short walk outside, get yourself a coffee or tea or a treat. This stuff will energize you more than, say, turning to Facebook and getting sucked into a swirl of endless, and relatively meaningless, scrolling. Some people have great results using a timer. Set your timer for, say, 30 minutes, and once you’ve worked solidly for that amount of time, take a five-minute break, and then start your timer again. At the end of a day of this, check your to-do list against your “I did” list. When you find those things pairing pretty closely (hey, no one is perfect), you’re onto something. Oh, and definitely make sure to cross off everything you got done. It feels great.

For more ways to increase your productivity, try these eight seemingly counterintuitive tactics

Jen Doll is a journalist and author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.

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