I’m a big fan of the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, although I don’t know that I have the moral of the story fully figured out yet. If you read the Amazon.com review it seems like the story is trying to teach energetic kids not to wear out their parents, which is funny and true although not what I’ve ever really taken away.
I know that you have had this experience before: you’re in the middle of going to the bathroom to brush your teeth and you notice a cup that needs to be put in the dishwasher. You take the cup to the kitchen and notice that the laundry hasn’t been moved to the dryer. You open the dryer and notice the lint filter hasn’t been emptied so you take it out. On the floor next to the trashcan you notice some crumbs. You go to grab the broom only to realize what a mess your hallway closet is. On and on it goes until an hour or so later you realize that your teeth still have a layer of grime and you need to go brush them.
The point is, we get in our own way a lot. While this may seem harmless in the realm of household chores, the effects can be catastrophic when it comes to our work.
Do you often find yourself needlessly switching tasks? Does it bother you as much as it bothers me? I catch myself doing it all the time and, even though I know it is getting in the way of my own productivity, I still can’t help but open up just one...more...tab.
Imagine what If You Give a Mouse a Cookie would read like for workers in the digital age:
“If you give an employee a task, she’s going to ask when you want it done by. When you tell her by next Monday, she’ll check her email before she starts. When she refreshes her inbox, she’ll see an email from a vendor she’s been talking to about an event next month. When she reads through the email, she’ll see her inbox counter tick up one.”
I know that all of you modern technology workers know what I’m talking about here. It’s not just email, but often social feeds, newsreels, well-meaning co-workers, or something that we just remembered that keep us from engaging with the task at hand. And we, or at least I, let that happen way too frequently.
This all happens because I fail to enter that elusive state of flow that prances around often as impossible to harness as a unicorn shadow puppet. And maybe that’s because harnessing flow for the current task is, actually, impossible.
Are we supposed to be able to really engage with all tasks? I don’t think so. I think there are some tasks that will really speak to us and there are others that, quite frankly, make opening a new tab seem much more exciting. That’s the way it is.
Regardless of whether or not you can really engage with the task, however, you still have to get your work done which means putting safeguards in place to ensure you don’t procrastinate (at least not too much).
We’ve given tips on procrastinating before, but here are 6 safeguards that you can put in place:
Minimize all distracting windows: don’t let your email inbox tab sit open right next to the tab where you are actually doing work.
Recognize signs of anxiety: when you start feeling anxious that you aren’t getting your work done, recognize that feeling as yet another thing keeping you from getting your work done. It’s not benefiting you so don’t give it the power to hinder you.
For dreaded tasks, decide on intermittent stop points: when it is something you have to do that’s either tedious or just plain time consuming, give yourself points to “look forward to” where you’ll take a break.
Put a “Do Not Disturb” sign up on your desk: no, really, just take the sign from the next hotel room you stay in or print one out from a quick google search. Put it up when you want your co-workers to know that you can’t talk right now.
Make a game out of it: like Mary Poppins, I’m a firm believer that almost anything can be turned into a game. Whether you are filing papers or writing a blog post, you can always pretend like you’re an undercover agent who is trying to finish decoding something before a major catastrophe happens.
Keep some healthy sugar nearby: science shows that sugar can help your brain regain focus (unfortunately I think they’re referring to the sugar found in fruits, not the kind found in your Snickers bar). If you’ve been working on something tedious for a long time and feel distractions creeping in, get some fruit and return to what you were doing. I bet you’ll find you have more willpower to complete the task.
Those are my 6 safeguards when I need distraction free work. What kinds of safeguards do you put in place whenever you are faced with a dreaded activity? Tell us about it in the comments below!