If you’ve ever played Tetris, you know how quickly things can spiral out of control. Tiles begin to pile up, and soon you’re working feverishly—even though you know that you’re past the point where you can even keep up with everything that’s coming at you, let alone reverse the trend to actually win.
Sometimes workloads and personal responsibilities can feel much the same, but with much more serious effects. Deadlines are missed, projects completed poorly, teammates disappointed, obligations unfulfilled. The toll extends to ourselves, as well, with stress, burnout, and negative effects on our overall health.
The ability to effectively manage personal and professional workloads has always been valuable, but in our current age of fast-moving processes and 24/7 connection, it has become a critically important skill.
The most commonly discussed aspects of workload management are setting priorities and learning to delegate. A third element gets much less attention—attention management.
Most of us find countless things tugging at our sleeve throughout the day. Here’s an e-mail, with a link to an interesting article, which in turn links to another website. The e-mail dings and you see there are still 37 unread items in your inbox. Now the phone rings, and that conversation leads you to walk down the hall for a discussion with a colleague. She’s not in, but someone else flags you down on the way back to ask if you’re free for a meeting.
The details may be different, depending on your situation, but the effect is the same. Half the day is gone and you haven’t even looked at the first item on your prioritized to-do list.
Attention management can help you prevent that loss of productivity. Here’s how to get started:
- Identify your most productive time. When are your energy, creativity, and focus at their peak?
- Block out time for your most important projects. If your best time is in the morning, schedule a block of time each morning for focused work that addresses your top priorities. Shift tasks like meetings and responding to routine e-mail to other times.
- Eliminate unnecessary demands and distractions during these times. Block the time as unavailable on your calendar. Turn off your phone and e-mail notifications, and use voice mail and autoreply if needed. Close your office door. Shut off your web browser unless you need it for research. If it’s helpful and you have the flexibility, take a laptop and go offsite.
- Train others to honor your schedule. Tell your coworkers and assistants what you want to accomplish. Have them screen phone calls and other requests so that only critical demands interrupt our project time. Indicate that you will be available to answer all calls before the day is over or at defined intervals during the business day. Informing other people about your schedule also prompts them to organize their work rather than assume that they can tap you whenever they wish. Bottom line: you can focus and be responsive to the needs of others.
- Sustain the practice for at least three weeks. Many people report a huge boost in productivity and personal satisfaction with their first few project times. When you practice a new habit like this for three weeks or more, you’ll shift from adrenaline-driven behavior to focused performance.
- Enjoy the results. Reflect on what you accomplish and thank the people who help you secure the time for productive use of your talent.
We live in a world where distractions are growing almost daily. Developing a habit of attention management will keep you ahead of the game.
For more information about this and other tools to boost use of your talent, see www.TakeChargeofYourTalent.com and the book “Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life” by Don Maruska and Jay Perry with Foreword by Jim Kouzes (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).
Photo credit: Jared Cherup