We all have a million things to do. The worst thing we can do with our time, however, is in-between those million things. To maximize productivity, avoid context switching.
It’s not the first time we’ve talked about absolutely terrible ways to spend our workday. But usually when we are complaining about inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the American workforce, it’s about something specific. We’re ranting about the insanity of meetings or the endless stream of email.
A post by Danny Wong, however, notes that the real problem is about process:
Unstructured working arrangements paralyze teams; distractions such as email encourage poor time management. Fortunately, schedules and routines breed efficiency and process creates predictable workflows.
To maximize productivity, the most successful people build structure around their work. Often, they plan what to do and how to do it far in advance. This allows them to block off time once a week to manage their calendars and invest the majority of their working hours fulfilling high-impact tasks instead of wondering what they should do next and which steps they ought to take to complete a project.
The secret weapon is process. Here’s how to put it into action:
Step 1: Acknowledge the Dangers of Context Switching
One of the main reasons we are unproductive is because we are constantly jumping between tasks. It takes our brains times to decide to start something new, stop what we’re doing, and then start the new activity. That change in direction requires tremendous mental effort. We have to slam on the brakes, change gears, turn completely around, and often check the map all at once.
Of course it’s not always possible to stick to one project for more than a few minutes, but the less frequently we switch tasks, the more we get in the zone.
Step 2: Stop Reacting
Too often our days are characterized by interruptions that take our focus away from whatever we are trying to accomplish. We’re working, and the phone rings. We are reading and an email pops up. Instead of staying on task, we react to the new information.
Instead, try to continue doing what you’re doing. Glance at the caller ID if you must, but call back later. Turn off the notifications on your mobile phone and computer. And if a coworker comes up to say hello, apologize that you can’t chat at the moment as you want to stay focused.
Step 3: Make a Plan, and Follow It
Next, decide what you are going to do. This sounds fundamental, but usually when we are in “reaction mode” we tend to keep returning to it rather than staying on target. How often do you find your mind wandering or your mouse clicking its way over to Facebook?
A plan can be as simple as a checklist or a big sticky note on your desk telling you what to do. And once you make a plan, clear everything else out of the way so you can focus!
Step 4: Accept Failure, Review, and Refine
It’s going to be hard to do this at first. Most of us don’t have any control over our own time. But if you can focus for even fifteen minutes at a time you’ll find yourself getting things done in incredible bursts of productivity.
- Work as long as you can on each project
- Build in ramp-up and ramp-down time
- Keep your notes separated by project
- Capture ideas when you have them, but keep them organized separately
Now, Get Back to Work
Your break is over. You read an article about improving your productivity. Decide what you’re going to do for the next fifteen minutes and don’t let anything else get in your way.
Good luck! Stay focused! You can do it!