Entire blogs are dedicated to the idea that you shouldn’t let technology get in the way of actually doing work. The philosophy is to use software as a tool, as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Let’s say you’re not interested in reading hundreds of productivity blogs, which is decidedly not very productive. Let’s also say that you’re ready to admit that you’re an easily distracted human and have tons of small interruptions throughout the day which prevent you from getting anything meaningful done and leave you with a general feeling of unsatisfaction at the end of the workday until you find yourself consuming copious amounts of boxed wine and chocolate ice cream in front of your DVR recording of Mad Chef and crying at the lack of purpose in your professional life. Let’s also say that you stumbled upon this blog post and are interested in learning the details promised by its title, but may be a little bit overwhelmed by the curious attention to detail of this introduction. Well, you’re in the right place - you’ve made it through the introduction, and may now proceed on to the actual tips.

The Actual Tips

  1. Remove all icons from the desktop, except for the Recycle Bin. Remove that, too, if you think you can remember where the “delete” key is on your keyboard whenever you want to delete a file. If you’re on OSX, the Trash icon is already on the dock, so you’re all set. Icons on the desktop are shiny little distractions that your brain has to process every time your desktop comes into view. Make it a blank slate and put up a pretty landscape or something in the background. There’s a reason mechanics use a toolbox instead of leaving their tools strewn about the workshop floor.
  2. Remove all icons from the Quick Launch bar / doc / taskbar, except for the 5-6 you actually use. If on a Mac, set the dock to auto-hide and put it on the side of the screen. Anything else can be launched very quickly by searching for it - just hit the Windows key (or Command-Space on OSX) and start typing.
  3. Map a mouse button to your task switcher. If you have a 5-button mouse, this is super handy. On OSX, map it to Expose. Lots of times, a task will require several programs to be open, and it’s important that they’re all at your fingertips so you don’t have to think about how to switch to them.
  4. Remove all desktop widgets and notifications. Anything that pops up randomly as a quick “For Your Information” causes you to break your concentration from your current task, which is incredibly harmful to your productivity and work ethic. This includes all mail notifications (we’ll get to that in a bit). The goal is to let you control your environment, not to let technology tell you what to do.
  5. Turn off vibrate-only mode on your phone, so that it is either completely silent or ringing. There is no halfway point: if you are in a situation where you can’t answer calls or respond to text messages, why even read them? And for pete’s sake, turn off that little *ding* your phone makes when you get an email. Your friends and family will thank you for it. A true friend is one who never shows their cell phone in your presence.
  6. Hide your browser’s bookmarks bar. Make the “New Tab” page load a blank page. Nothing distracts me more than wanting to go to a web site and being presented with a bunch of toys to click on instead (see: the default “New Tab” page on Chrome and Safari).
  7. Close everything - everything - besides the one thing you’re working on. Music? If you need it (you don’t), choose an album, hit “play”, minimize iTunes and leave it alone. Everything you see on your screen should relate to the one task at hand.

Regarding Email

Close it down. Close it down and hide the icon. Why? Because you can’t let everyone else run your day. Check it every two hours or so, on your own schedule. That stuff people send you all the time can wait. I work in a highly collaborative environment in which managers and programmers need my input 15-20 times per day. Handling all of them in a batch every few hours allows me to concentrate on my work at hand, and they quickly learn not to expect immediate responses. You’ll be surprised at how often you won’t actually be needed (the thing someone emailed you about resolved itself), is no longer relevant, or was never relevant (that thing never applied to you in the first place). Look through all the email you sent yesterday, and see if there were any that actually needed responses as fast as you sent them. By the way, I didn’t come up with this radical idea myself, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Find out more about it via the “Inbox Zero” link below.

Three Rules to Work By

  1. There’s no such thing as multitasking (see link below). All those little distractions add up. You don’t text and drive, do you? Then why do you answer emails while concentrating on a task? Handle them in batches and delegate everything you can.
  2. Don’t spend your day responding to everyone else. Actually *do* something with your time. Build a legacy of work, not a mountain of email responses.
  3. Take breaks. No need to do a marathon, you’ll get exhausted. Your brain probably needs to breathe a little bit, depending on how technical your profession is. That’s what Twitter’s for. ;)

Addendum: A few more tips on email

  • Respond in 3 sentences or less. If it’s longer, stare at it for a while, then chop it up or delete it altogether. You’ll get good after a while. I’m terrible at this and need to try harder. Writing a concise email is a sign of respect to the recipient.
  • After the initial introduction, don’t put a salutation or manually sign your emails. No one cares. It helps to have an automatic signature, but keep it tiny, tiny, tiny (name, company, role, phone number) and make sure it isn’t included in your responses. Every time someone’s signature has more than two lines, I get distracted and forget everything your email was about.
  • To avoid typing out multiple long emails, schedule a quick meeting, just you and one other person, to handle whatever you’re emailing about. Pick a time in the next couple of hours to meet, while it’s still fresh in your minds. Of course, meetings are usually awful, too, but that’s another post.

Links referenced by this post:

(I put ‘em at the bottom so you wouldn’t be distracted while reading)

Posted Sun 20 June 2010