If you pride yourself on being able to keep a lot of plates spinning at the same time, I’m about to blow your mind: you probably aren’t a good multitasker. That’s nothing against you. The fact is, most people can only do one thing at a time. The folks who seem to be managing it are really just switching tasks quickly. But, even those super-productive people would be better off focusing. In fact, research shows that task switching could cost up to 40 percent of a worker’s productive time.
(Photo Credit: Curtis Mac Newton/Unsplash)
But there’s a better way to get stuff done. Working in sprints helps you maximize your time, minimize distractions, and get regular breaks – all of which will make you more productive in the short- and long-term. One study even provides the supposedly perfect recipe for productive sprints: 52 minutes of work, 17 minutes of rest. (By which the study designers mean, ditching your computer entirely, not checking Facebook or email.)
Of course, it’s easier to arrange your workday into sprints if you’re self-employed, but it’s not impossible if you have a boss hanging over your shoulder. Here’s how to take back some distraction-free time:
1. Work with your calendar.
Most of us use some kind of calendar application to book meetings and schedule appointments. Look at yours; do you see a couple blocks that are otherwise unoccupied? If so, set aside some time for heads-down work. (If not, and if you’re a worker who’s expected to produce on your own – i.e. not solely a manager of other workers – and your schedule is frequently this booked up, consider talking to your boss about how to free up some time. Maybe you don’t need to be at every single one of these meetings.)
2. Commit to work time.
Make an appointment with yourself to work. Actually put it in your calendar. Doing this on an ongoing basis will require our next step.
3. Get your manager on your side.
Make sure your boss knows what you’re doing, so that he or she knows you’re working and not just roping off sections of your calendar to avoid meetings. This is especially important if your manager is used to receiving immediate email replies, because during a sprint, you won’t be checking your email every five minutes.
Three-quarters of participants in one study reported responding to emails in an hour or less, so this might be quite a change, and you’ll need your boss in your corner. Offer some method of getting in touch in case of emergency – for example, maybe you’ll leave Slack or Gchat or the messaging app of choice open, but customize your profile or put up an away message indicating you’re working.
4. Write your to-do list in blocks.
Adapt your to-do list to reflect your new way of working by writing out tasks in blocks of time. This not only helps reinforce the sprint, but over time, might help you develop better estimates of how long each task will take. (As in, “Wait, when I did that report last month, it took two hours. Maybe I shouldn’t count on finishing it up in one 50-minute sprint before lunch – or I’m going to wind up missing lunch.”)
5. Shut everything else down.
To the extent that you’re able, turn off your alerts, shut down your email, close extraneous browser windows, and just generally unplug from anything unrelated to the task at hand. You’ll probably be surprised how difficult this is at first, as the urge to check email or Twitter or the messaging application of choice hits you every five minutes or so. But as time goes on, you’ll develop the ability to focus on a task without looking for distractions, and get more done in less time and with less stress than when your attention was constantly split.
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