5 Steps to Being More Productive: Read This Quickly (Then Get Back to Work)

“Social media did not create the problem of distraction, but it is clearly an amplifier. Indeed, a study [PDF] by Clifford Nass et al. at Stanford showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli than light media multitaskers. Heavy multitasking may encourage even heavier multitasking because it leads to a “reduced ability to filter out interference.”
Could the part of our brain that is processing deeper cogitative thought actually be atrophying in the process?

– From “The Unimportance of Practically Everything”
by Greg McKeown

Do you feel like you arrive at the end of most days and feel like you got absolutely nothing important done?

That makes two of us.

Sure, we might feel like we’ve heaved a handful of gravel a few feet up the hill, but the big rocks that comprise our Sisyphean task for the day remain unmoved.

So how do you stop shoveling shards and start making progress on the gargantuan stone?

Here are five steps recommended by McKeown in the article I cite above:

  1. Before you leave the office today, write down your top six priorities for tomorrow on a Post-it note.
  2. Cross off the bottom five.
  3. Write down your top priority on a Post-it note and put it on your computer.
  4. Schedule a 90-minute window to work on your top priority — preferably the first thing of the day.
  5. Every time you are about to check email, Facebook, Twitter etc., write down what you are about to do.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like one of those six tasks is less important than another, so I find it particularly tough to cross off anything.

Instead, what I have been doing is:

(a) writing down my tasks at the beginning of each day

(b) giving myself an artificial, aggressive deadline to complete the top task

(b) returning to that top priority whenever I get knocked off course by a chat or tweet

(c) pursuing it relentlessly to completion

(d) start next task only when the top priority is done

This approach seems to be working. Last week, I was able to achieve higher levels of productivity, accomplishing all of my core priorities by using this method. It’s not a perfect system and consistency will be the key to sustained success, so I’m wondering:

What are your tips or tricks for avoiding distractions and achieving heightened productivity?

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David Dejewski

Way too true, Andy. Multitasking used to be something we tried to achieve. Now, I’m convinced it is evil. Focus is my new holy grail. Now I gotta get back to work!

Corey McCarren

I try to keep Twitter closed because all it takes is one look and there’s a million articles I want to check out! I do my best to only have open programs and websites that I’m currently using for my work otherwise I’ll get distracted easily. Email is the biggest offender because I can’t close that with the nature of my work.

Christopher Page

My two tips: (1) at the end of the day, when you sit there regretting what you didn’t do, use your calendar program (or hard copy) of choice and set a “to do” appointment for when you arrive the next morning. (2) Find a work friend (not in your supervisory chain) who’s willing to bug you about your big project deadlines (I find having someone who’ll ask “did you get that memo written?” helps me stay on track and has the bonus effect of giving me a sounding board to bounce ideas off of and/or just vent about challenges/issues).

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Christopher – I agree with both of those suggestions. If it’s important enough, you’ll just book the time. I’ve done that with a few reading / reviewing projects with deadlines. I try to honor it as if I have someone in front of me. On #2, I give my colleagues (as they can attest) permission to bug me about something if I haven’t turned it around in 24-48 hours. With so many competing priorities, it helps to have someone force your focus.

Michele James Wagner

I am a full time teleworker which absolutely requires discipline and structure. I do have different ‘places’ in the house I work from depending on what I need to do. Creative writing is best done in my lazy-boy recliner, while cranking out other tasks is best from the office. Then there’s the kitchen where I can respond to a quick e-mail – is seems to make the water boil faster. Great article. Thanks.

Brooke Roegge

I turned off Outlook’s new email notifications (the little “new email” pop-up window). I found them to be way too distracting – when they popped up, I would start reading the opening email text or see who sent it and get pulled away from what I was working on. Now I can see that a new email has come in because a little email icon will pop-up on my taskbar when a message arrives, but I don’t lose my train of thought since there is no text associated with it. I can finish what I’m working on and read the email when I’m ready for it. I turned those notifications off a couple years ago and so far it’s worked very well! It makes it easier to concentrate on any given task, especially larger projects.

Sherry Taylor

Most of my distractions are the two-legged types. When I have something I absolutely need to concentrate on at my computer I put on my headphones and listen to music while I work. Gives the busy signal to people walking up to my cube and cuts down on noise distractions. Otherwise, the to-do list is a big help, I have one in front of me now with my top five – before I got distracted by your post!

Karen "Kari" Uhlman

I love your tips! There is also a tool that helps me daily. It is Business Contact Manager, which is an add-in to Outlook. It produces reports such as Project Tasks – Due Next. I keep that right on my day planner in front of my monitor. Thx!


This is sound but I think the challenge to moving something forward rests in the nuances of #5 in the first list and “B” and the second list.

The brain requires time to re-focus. It is not a switch that can instantly move between discrete tasks without some switch-over time. I’ve read research (I have to find it…) that says to truly engage in a focused task that requires attention and intellectual energy requires a four hour time block.

So each time you leave your top priority (alas as I am doing now!) you extend the accumulated time it would take to accomplish the task in a single effort.

My personal hypothesis that the notion of multi-tasking is a fallacy, what actually happens is “demi-tasking”.

My two cents.


JoAnn Paxson

I’ve recently become a convert to the Pomodoro technique, in which you block off your work day in 25-minute segments and focus on a single task for that segment. http://www.pomodorotechnique.com
To keep from annoying my colleagues with a ticking timer, I use an Android app called “Pomodroido” to keep track of my progress.

Elizabeth Fischer Laurie

When I really need to get something done I either:

(1) Listen to movie scores. The story aspect helps me to see the end of the time I have blocked off for a project and without words there are fewer distractions.

(2) Turn my computer screen so anyone walking by can see what I am doing. If I know someone can see, I focus on work instead of checking social media, chatting, etc.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Elizabeth – Love movie scores! Agree with you that there’s something energizing about them

@JoAnn – I plan to try that technique next week…

@David – I like that term: “demi-tasking” – not really doing the task, but something far short of it

@Michele – Like the notion of working in different places for different tasks…I do the same to some degree as a full-time teleworker. For instance, I try to avoid doing work in other parts of the house unless it’s absolutely necessary in order to avoid connecting them psychologically – such that my office is a place of productivity and the rest of the house is a respite.

Peyton Stafford

I work full time from home and usually have projects going for up to 20 clients at a time. Most of the projects require a fair amount of concentration. Just keeping them in order can become a time sink in itself. I find the best approach for me is to block out large blocks of time for two projects, each day, and then small blocks to skim over everything else plus an hour at the end to reach inbox 0 and handle any surprises. Most of my work is via web browser, so I work in full screen with email notifications turned off. Sometimes I turn off the phones, too. I still find myself wasting time on FB, and oops, I’m off task here. Better get back to work…

Amanda Blount

Well… from a person who I really believes has old age ADHD (ME!), and working in a world where I can’t just complete a project before I start another one… but I must juggle many projects at different levels of completion, I had to figure out how to stay on track a few years ago. First… I LOVE Post it notes! I should own an investment in them. I use them all the time. My kids give them to me for Christmas and I use them at home to keep us all on track.. but that I another story.

Other than the post-it notes, I also use an idea which is very similiar to Christopher Page. I actually schedule time for projects… and unless it is my boss, I do not answer the phone during that time. I have my whole calendar scheduled — even when to check voice mails, and e-mails. I try very hard to stick with the calendar. BUT, the one important thing I have on my calendar, which keeps me on track, is my personal time (people take smoke breaks, I need a brain break) — I schedule about 10 minutes 2-3 times a day to just take a brain dump. It is my gift to myself for staying on track! It is on my calendar, and when it is time (If I can) I stop what I am doing and take a social media break for me.

I have always hated the whole “multi tasking” fad. And now we are finding out it was a waste of time. So, I focus on one thing at a time. If someone is talking to me, I focus on them. If I am on the phone, I am not checking e-mail or thinking about dinner. I am focused.

But, again, what has worked for me, is the present I give myself. Time for me. Normally I don’t use facebook at work, but GOV-Loop looks good on the monitor, so this is normally my go-to social-media site at work. 🙂 And I don’t fell guilty, because it has been put in my calendar as – “Amanda’s Personal Break – Time for her to breath & regroup”. 🙂

Amanda Blount

BTW — I also set a time limit with co-workers. (In a nice way) – Example – Hey Joe, I have a question, and I need two minutes of your time. If the conversation gets off track (with the person or I) – I laugh and say… Well, I have used up that 2 minutes really quick, so I better let us get back to work. It is a nice and funny way to keep everyone on track. Anything I think will take longer than 5 minutes to answer, I normally send an e-mail.

Amanda Blount

Ahhh.. One of my other personal favorites that I have learned over the years. Everyone wants to show photos of kids and trips. Of course we do. If you work together long enough, you become family and those are the ones you want to share the memories with. I love it. But, I don’t have time for it. SO… my go to answer is this. Example – Joe/ Jane… Oh my gosh. Cute little kids. Of course I want to see all the photos of your grandchildren. (And I can say I really do!). But, at this moment I am so busy I can’t see them all. Please show me your favorites. (we all have favorites). >>>> I really honestly love to see the photos, so I follow this conversation up with, Your family is so cute. I love the phots. Please send some more to my personal e-mail, or send me your family photo link, or facebook (whatever is appropriate) and I really do look at them later and respond like a family member would. This cuts down on hours of photos to be seen.

The one thing I love about small office environments is this… Like it or not, we are “family”. We just have to learn to “manage” our family time, compared to office time.