The “Not To-Do List” to Manage Tasks and Distractions

by Affinity Consulting Group on September 4, 2018

By Paul Unger, Partner, Affinity Consulting Group

Social Media, Facebook, Instagram, client fires, 24-hour news, hurricanes, murders, crime, Russia, North Korea, 150 emails a day, constant interruptions, … It’s too much for us handle and it is resulting in workday paralysis, even before you sit down to start your day!

In my CLE seminars, webinars, and my upcoming book, I outline many strategies to manage tasks and distractions. However, I thought it might help to state them a slightly different way … as a “NOT to do list”. Here are 12 “NOTS” to keep yourself laser-focused.

1. Do NOT begin your day by immediately diving into email. Instead, begin your day with a 5-minute private planning session. I use SELF Journal for this and time block my day on paper, along with stating some 30,000 foot goals and recite 3 things I am thankful for. Put a plan together for your day before diving into email. You can always adjust as the day unfolds, but start with a plan.

2. Do NOT start your day without a team huddle. Instead of diving right into your email, or your first appointment or project, after your 5-minute planning session (above), have a quick huddle with your immediate team. I call this the lightning round. Each person has 60 seconds to recite what they have going on today and for the rest of the week. This encourages communication, awareness of projects, and almost always results in shifting some tasks and schedules around to better distribute work and help each other.

3. Do NOT participate in meetings unless there is an agenda, and never organize one without one. I like to take it a step further and try to identify a goal or theme for the meeting to give it “purpose” or spark engagement. Whatever the case, showing up to a meeting without an agenda and clear purpose is a recipe for wasting time and killing morale.

4. In meetings, do NOT say “I will get that done this weekend or tonight”! Why would you derail your personal life that way? Stop being a martyr and schedule to do these things during the business day. We all need a life outside of work and making promises like this will kill your personal life.

5. In meetings, do NOT let people ramble. We all know these people. They either don’t prepare for a meeting, don’t read the agenda and stay on task, or they just love to hear themselves talk. Everyone’s time is valuable and deserves respect. When this happens, politely say “perhaps we can talk about this offline or record it as an issue to include on a future agenda so we can tackle the issues on our agenda today.” Don’t be too rigid about this though! Sometimes, spontaneous topics are important. Try to fit those spontaneous topics into an agenda item where the floor is open for items NOT on the agenda.

6. Do NOT keep your Outlook Inbox up on your computer monitor all day! Your inbox is one of the most disruptive environments to place yourself in if you are trying to do project work or “deep” level work. It’s like choosing to write a complex brief or letter in a war zone! Literally every 2-3 minutes, a bomb or a fire is landing in your inbox. How can one possibly focus in an environment like that? Instead, skim your calendar in the morning and decide how often and for how long you can batch process your emails that day. Every day will be different. Aim for something reasonable like 5 times a day (the average American worker checks email an idiotic 74 times a day!).

7. Do NOT carry your phone 24/7. Let’s face it, that smartphone is a ball and chain. If you don’t believe me, take a phone “fast” by leaving your phone in the car’s glovebox all day while you are at work. Let your loved ones know to reach you at the office phone if an emergency occurs. You will feel LIBERATED. It is incredible how often we check our phones during the day, and it is having a terrible impact on productivity.

8. Do NOT answer the phone from an unknown caller. Look, we never want to miss an important call or lose a potential new client that may be calling in. I get it, but you must balance this rule appropriately. If your job is sales/business development, you probably will take more calls from unknown callers. If your job is more project work, you should take fewer calls. When we take calls from unknown callers, we risk derailing our day by getting sucked into a conversation we aren’t ready for, or a similar situation. It is always a little dangerous.

9. Do NOT check social media 24/7. Check social media 1 or 2 times at the most during the workday (unless you are doing business development or marketing). Think about taking a 30-day social media “fast” … and I mean all of it … Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tinder, Grindr, … ALL OF IT. It is addicting and a huge productivity zapper.

10. Do NOT micro-manage and answer everyone’s questions and solve all their problems! Empower the people you pay to solve problems on their own and think for themselves. When co-workers and partners ask what they should do, or how to solve a problem, the first thing out of your mouth should be “How do you propose that we solve this problem?” … or … “I want you to think about this and do a little research and present to me 2 or 3 possible solutions and then let’s talk about it.” We must get our team members to a place where they know how to problem-solve and build their confidence enough to make more decisions on their own, or at a minimum, presenting the right recommendation to you.

11. Do NOT multitask! It is not enough to say that multi-tasking is bad. We must practice single-tasking. We must clear off our desks AND our multiple monitors of information not directly relevant to the project we are executing. One way to do this is using the Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is an easy technique that utilizes the 25-minute tomato timer. We single-task (preferably deep-level work / project work) for 25 minutes and then take a break and do whatever we want for 5 minutes. We work in intervals. The human brain functions well maintaining attention to a single task for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, we lose focus. By giving ourselves a 5 minute break, we can return to deep-thought work for another 25 minutes easily. This technique will make a huge impact on productivity and will also help combat procrastination. Think about it … we can endure even the most tedious dreaded task for 25 minutes, right? Once we get a little momentum going and we get immersed in the project, it becomes a lot easier. If you feel like adjusting the time a bit, go for it. I usually do 40 minutes with a 10 minute break.

12. Do NOT do shallow work first thing in the AM. Tackle deep-thought work early in the day when you are rested. Dive into deep-thought work, writing, projects early morning. There is little question about it … our brains function better following quiet time or sleep. We also know that we can be highly productive while the rest of the world is sleeping because there are far fewer (if any) interruptions. This can be one of the most productive times of the day.

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