5 Simple Tools That Unleash Meaningful Work

Jump-for-Joy-e1297863969313I recently watched a TED talk by Jason Fried of37 Signals entitled Why Work Doesn’t Get Done at Work. The message was right on: The office has become a place of endless distraction; so much so that people seek anywhere but there to get their real work done. What happens is the real work ends up getting handled at home, on the weekends, super-early in the morning or days off.

Office distractions are almost an institution in the workplace. They can come in the form of impromptu meetings, Sharon from accounting stopping by your cube to clarify your latest expense report, or a buddy dropping in to kill some time. It’s endless.

The reality is that we cannot get meaningful work done in 15 or 20 minute increments, and office distractions regularly put us in that position. We must allow space for our minds to create the stuff that matters; we can’t command that to happen at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it can take the first hour just for the juices to start flowing, and then the last thing anyone wants to do (especially your boss) is interrupt that flow. Because once it’s gone, no one knows when it will return.

But it happens constantly. These tiny interruptions keep us from doing what matters. Well, I have a few suggestions that can work wonders in reclaiming our best work. In a word it comes down to focus (something deeply covered in 11 Steps to Insane Focus).

Any one of these will likely add hours to your week. Try one — or try them all.

1. Arrive early, leave early.

The majority of true work happens alone. And since many offices still view face time as a barometer of hard work, we must create “alone time” while we’re there. Get in 1-2 hours early and vow to not open email or any other message device. Save that for when the normal workday (and distractions) start.

To keep our hours in check we need to start leaving early as well. If your work day isn’t as flexible and you’re expected to be there until “closing time” regardless of when you get there, then prepare specific reasons for why you have to leave. Having a genuine reason is crucial. Why?

  1. Because no one likes lying.
  2. Because if you really do have to pick your kid up from school or meet the handyman at home, you are much less likely to get sucked in by afternoon office banter.

On your way out just drop by your boss’s office or shoot her an email explaining why you’re leaving and that you got in at 7am instead of 9. Make sure that you review the main things you got done earlier. Do this enough and you will condition yourself for a newer, more productive schedule.

2. Make it clear that you mean business.

Develop routines that show yourself and others that you are in the zone and cannot be bothered. I call these triggers. It’s a way of training people when it’s okay to interrupt and when it’s not.

The easiest and most productive I’ve found are headphones. If the background chatter is distracting then crank up the volume — but even if it’s not, I will put mine on with no music. This is my focus trigger. People are far less likely to interrupt you from across the room with tiny questions that can easily wait when they see you wearing them, and if they do approach you, either you won’t hear them or you can act like you don’t hear them. Focus is that important. Let them know that.

3. Schedule meetings with yourself.

For some reason an Outlook calendar is sacred in the workplace. If your calendar is free, then people feel they can walk all over it. But if it’s booked, they don’t even think about trying to schedule something. The moment I started scheduling meetings with myself to work on meaningful projects was the moment I actually started getting real work done.

Title these meetings so that it looks “official” (i.e. Complete Budget or Finalize Pitch with Jeff). Pick your 1-3 most crucial things to get done that day and schedule those as “self meetings”, ideally in the first part of the day. If you can, have your meetings in a conference room. Enjoy your own company — and get to work.

4. Decide when you’ll be interrupted.

Not the other way around. It’s fine if you want to check Facebook or email here and there but do that when you decide to. Don’t do it when someone else tells you that they want your attention. This means shutting off chat and email notifications; these are the silent killers of productivity. Just because someone has something to say to you does not mean that’s the best time for you to hear it — often that’s the exact opposite case.

Do the work you care about, then decide when you’ll open your browser and kill some time. Take control of your distractions instead of letting them take control of you.

5. Don’t check email first thing in the morning.

I know every one of you have heard this one. So why do so few of us actually do it?  Email is a genuine addiction; it gives us immediate short-term satisfaction and the huge sacrifice of long term fulfillment with any type of work we have on hand. Very little gets done over email.

Waiting on checking your email will change your life. It feels terrible to know we’ve spent a couple hours refreshing and going in and out of email without really getting anything done. I assure you that if you do check it first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to help yourself and you’ll stumble face-first into the worm hole. Don’t convince yourself otherwise. In fact, don’t even open it until you have a few hours of focused action under your belt (this is at least 11am for most people). If you have to, keep your computer turned off for those first hours if you’re having trouble resisting the urge.

Do your work that matters first.

It’s simple. Extremely simple. But in today’s environment, it’s far from easy. The good news is that it’s on you to make it happen — and if there’s one person that you have control over, it’s you.