A quick check of Facebook and next thing you know, a half-hour’s passed. Start chatting with a co-worker and suddenly 20 minutes is gone and the report you were supposed to finish by lunch is late.
Workplace distractions are everywhere, especially in an age of social media and open-plan offices. In the face of so much temptation, accomplishing what you’re paid to do can be tough.
Tough, but not impossible. To find out more, I asked successful professionals from various walks of life for their secrets to staying productive and getting things done at work. Here’s what they said:
— Make a list. To-do lists may be basic, but there’s a reason so many people use them: They work.
Christopher Kim, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Chapman University, prioritizes his to-do list using efficiency expert Stephen Covey’s time-management system. Kim assigns tasks to one of four quadrants based on how urgent and important they are, from “Urgent and Important” to “Not Urgent and Not Important.” He keeps his quadrant to-do list on a piece of paper in front of his laptop stand at all times.
Vanessa Scarbo, human resources and operations director at Irvine, Calif.-based Burnham Benefits Insurance Services, likes to get a head start on hers. “Before I leave the office for the day, I have started the to-do list for the next, rolling over items that didn’t get completed or require follow-up,” she says.
—Use your phone. Kim takes a picture of his to-do list with his iPhone and stores it in a separate photo album on the phone “so I can access it if I lose the sheet of paper.” Mary Ann Poladian, an independent college admissions consultant in San Clemente, relies on her iPhone’s calendar to track client appointments and deadlines. “It helps,” she says.
—Block out time for uninterrupted work. Nina Ries, principal of a Santa Monica business law practice, schedules work in one- to two-hour chunks. “My assistant helps keep me focused and on track by serving as gatekeeper,” Ries says. “During those focused times, I only respond to urgent calls or emails.”
—Work on critical tasks first. Chris Dyer, chief executive at background check company PeopleG2, uses the ABC method to group daily tasks in descending order of importance. To-dos in the A category are either the most urgent or directly related to revenue-generating activities.
“Ideally, by the end of the day, I have completed more A and B tasks than C,” Dyer says.
Lana Rushing, founder of Rushing PR in Los Angeles, tackles tough assignments early in the day, “with a coffee in hand if I can.”
—Limit how often you check email. Rushing avoids email until she finishes those early morning must-dos. “I also avoid social media and Google News,” she says, “That is, unless the assignment requires research. In that case, I have to remember not to be distracted by headlines unrelated to the subject I’m researching. That can be tempting.”
At Burnham Benefits, Scarbo keeps Microsoft Outlook open to her task list, not to her email inbox, so she’s not constantly checking for messages.
—Take short breaks. Dyer takes 15 minutes twice a day to strum a guitar. “I find myself to be more efficient and effective, as well as a much more creative problem solver after my music break,” he says.
Ries, the Los Angeles lawyer, sets aside time at lunch and in late afternoon to shop online, check Facebook or email her assistant an errand list. “As anyone who works long hours can attest, attending to personal matters at work is unavoidable, and the mental break is necessary,” she says.
—Unplug on weekends. On weekdays, Henk Pieters is up by 6:30 a.m. and at the Newport Beach office of his certified financial planning firm by 7:30 a.m., all the better to get a jump on things. But at least one day a week, he disconnects completely to do something outdoors, whether it’s surfing, hiking, running or rollerblading. Being outside “recharges you and keeps your motivation and energy up,” he says.
Yumiko Whitaker, owner of Hummingbird HR in Santa Ana, also swears by walks or hikes to recharge. “I draw lots of inspiration and problem solving from these one-hour outings,” she says.
—Take care of yourself. A rested mind functions better than one that’s tired. Pieters shoots for eight hours of sleep a night, eats a healthy meal every three to four hours, and does a cardio and weight training workout five times a week to reduce stress and increase energy.
Kim, the Chapman professor, keeps a refillable stainless steel water bottle at his desk and refills it throughout the day. “It gets me out of my office periodically to the filtered water bottle refill station one floor up, keeps me well hydrated, and has me moving around enough to ward off sleepiness during those down times.”