Many tasks I work on involve getting info and answers from colleagues. I’ll initiate the contact and let them know what I need, then move on to my next task. And of course, as soon as I’m immersed in that next task, I’ll hear back from them. Here’s my dilemma: I can’t decide if I should keep working on the second task or switch back to the first, now that I have what I need to complete it. It’s amusing how confounded I can get trying to decide! Any guidance or a rule of thumb that can help me cut through my indecision?
Happy to help. I’m going to give some general thoughts about focus and interruptions, and also address your question about judging priorities. Here are a few truths I’ve come to know and a few tips to put them into practice.
You’ll get more done in less time and do better quality work when you can focus 100 percent on a task. This is true whether you’re writing marketing copy or cooking spaghetti. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, determined through his research that “control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
It’s not in your best interest to switch from one task to another too rapidly. Of course, you’ll work on different tasks throughout the day, but you don’t want to switch between tasks so often that you never settle into real focus. If you do that, you’ll get 10% done with 100% of your stuff, which is another way of saying you’ll finish nothing.
So, expect the unexpected. Plan on surprises. Here’s the challenge: you don’t know when a surprise will come or where it will come from. So you need some habits that enable you to manage those surprises and still get stuff done.
Have a location for “bookmarking” things. If someone drops a note by your office, for example, make sure you have a way to capture or file it without having to completely shift your attention. It may seem very 1980s but having a physical in-tray in your office is a great approach. Let your teammates know that if they need to drop something by, leave it in the tray. Then YOU need to make sure you process the stuff in that tray every twenty-four to forty-eight hours. If not, they’ll stop leaving stuff there and go back to bothering you until you divert your attention. Having an inbox allows you to receive incoming information without disruption. And remember, your email inbox captures things automatically for you. So, it’s ok to close your email app while you focus on that client call. You can’t focus on both, so don’t bother “kind of” reading email during the call.
Keep things clean. You can’t prioritize a disorganized pile of stuff. You might be wondering what this has to do with your question. Here’s the thing: when your coworker’s response comes back, your job is to determine whether you should now complete the related work, go back to what you were doing, or do something else entirely. You can’t make that determination if you don’t have clean edges between all of your tasks, projects, and new inputs. If you have a bunch of half-read emails, piles of sticky notes all over your desk, and now a response from your colleague, how can you determine what the RIGHT thing to do is? This is why people are often “busy but unproductive.” They don’t have clean lists and calendars and office space, so they opt for doing all the new stuff that shows up because the task seems clear. Urgent seems important. But when you keep your email inbox clean and your papers and sticky notes processed, you can determine what’s actually important.
Work in modes. Dedicate time to each of the following three modes of work:
Define work—process inboxes and new inputs.
Do defined work—work from calendars or lists.
Surprises—handle work that shows up unplanned.
Without boundaries around each mode, you’ll spend all of your time attending to surprises—the latest and loudest tasks—instead of key priorities. To ensure important tasks are completed, respect others’ time as they communicate what mode they are working in. And ask them to respect your time in these modes as well. You’ll get less done if you try to do all three of these modes at once.
I hope these tips help you stay focused AND flexible at the same time.
All the best,